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Biological Sensitivity to Context/Adaptive Calibration Model


I work actively with students on projects relating to stress, development, and health from an evolutionary-developmental perspective.  I co-developed the theory of Biological Sensitivity to Context (Boyce & Ellis, 2005; Ellis et al., 2005, 2006, 2011a) and its recent extension the Adaptive Calibration Model (Del Giudice, Ellis, & Shirtcliff, 2011; Ellis & Del Giudice, 2014; Ellis, Del Giudice, & Shirtcliff, in press).  This work presents a novel evolutionary-developmental theory of childhood stress and biosocial development that has been influential in guiding research on stress-health relationships and resilience.  Biological Sensitivity to Context theory proposes that children differ in their susceptibility to environmental influence in a “for better and for worse” manner, depending on their psychobiologic reactivity to stress. In this work, more reactive children (as indexed by heightened autonomic or HPA responses to laboratory challenges) display heightened sensitivity to both positive and negative environmental conditions.  Metaphorically, we have referred to these sensitive individuals as orchid children, signifying their special susceptibility to both highly stressful and highly nurturing environments. In contrast, individuals scoring low on stress reactivity have been designated as dandelion children, reflecting their relative ability to function adequately across a wide range of species-typical conditions. Our research on biological sensitivity to context suggests that the very characteristics that are often thought of as children’s frailties (e.g., high stress reactivity) can also be their strengths, given the right context (Boyce & Ellis, 2005; Ellis, Boyce et al., 2011a; Ellis, Shirtcliff et al., 2011b; Sijtsema et al., 2013).  My current work in this area focuses on delineating “What is an orchid child?” in terms of neurobiological profiles, susceptibility to different kinds of childhood stressors (e.g., harsh vs. unpredictable family environments), and the specificity of these effects in relation to different developmental outcomes (e.g., externalizing versus internalizing behavioral problems).  More recently, we have begun investigating temperament and sensory processing sensitivity as indicators of biological sensitivity to context (Slagt, Dubas, van Aken, Ellis, & Deković, 2016a, 2016b). 

 The Adaptive Calibration Model focuses on development of biological sensitivity to context and its consequences.  The main elements of the theory are an evolutionary analysis of the functions of the stress response system;  a theory of adaptive matching between stress responsivity patterns and environmental conditions; and a taxonomy of prototypical responsivity patterns, including their neurobiological markers, behavioral correlates, and developmental trajectories. These different patterns function to regulate a broad range of fitness-relevant domains including defensive behaviors, competitive risk-taking, learning, attachment, affiliation and reproductive functioning. The significance of the Adaptive Calibration Model has been recognized by Hostinar and Gunnar (2013), who write: “The field has two major theories for talking about stress and health: the Allostatic Load Model, which grew out of biological and neuroscience approaches to understanding health and disease, and the Adaptive Calibration Model, which developed out of an explicitly evolutionary-developmental framework.” Preliminary data have provided empirical support for some of the key predictions of the Adaptive Calibration Model (Del Giudice, Hinnant, Ellis, & El-Sheikh, 2012; Ellis, Oldehinkel, & Nederhof, in press). A coordinated effort involving researchers from multiple disciplines is now needed to extend and refine the model’s assumptions and test its novel predictions on existing and newly collected datasets.  I am seeking to lead this coordinated effort at the University of Utah.

Selected Publications

Boyce, W. T., & Ellis, B.J. (2005). Biological sensitivity to context: I. An evolutionary-developmental theory of the origins and functions of stress reactivity. Development & Psychopathology, 17, 271-301.

 Del Giudice, M., Ellis, B. J., & Shirtcliff, E. A. (2011). The Adaptive Calibration Model of stress responsivity. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 35, 1562-1592.

Del Giudice, M., Hinnant, J.B., Ellis, B.J., & El-Sheikh, M. (2012). Adaptive patterns of stress responsivity: A preliminary investigation. Developmental Psychology, 48, 775-790.

 Ellis, B.J., Boyce, W.T., Belsky, J., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J., & van IJzendoorn, M.H. (2011a).  Differential susceptibility to the environment: An evolutionary- neurodevelopmental theory. Development and Psychopathology, 23, 7-28.

 Ellis, B.J., & Del Giudice, M. (2014). Beyond allostatic load: Rethinking the role of stress in regulating human development. Development and Psychopathology, 26, 1–20.

 Ellis, B.J., Essex, M.J., & Boyce, W.T. (2005). Biological sensitivity to context: II. Empirical explorations of an evolutionary-developmental theory. Development & Psychopathology, 17, 303-328.

 Ellis, B.J., Jackson, J.J., & Boyce, W.T. (2006). The stress response systems: Universality and adaptive individual differences.  Developmental Review, 26, 175-212.

 Ellis, B.J., Oldehinkel, A.J., & Nederhof, E. (in press).  The Adaptive Calibration Model of stress responsivity: An empirical test in the TRAILS study. Development and Psychopathology.

 Ellis, B.J., Shirtcliff, E.A., Boyce, W.T., Deardorff, J., &  Essex, M.J. (2011b). Quality of early family relationships and the timing and tempo of puberty: Effects depend on biological sensitivity to context.  Development and Psychopathology, 23, 85-99.

 Hostinar, C.E.  & Gunnar, M.R. (2013). The Developmental Effects of Early Life Stress: An Overview of Current Theoretical Frameworks.  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 400-406.

 Sijtsema, J.J., Nederhof, E., Veenstra, R., Ormel, J., Oldehinkel, A.J., &  Ellis, B.J. (2013). Family cohesion, prosocial behavior, and aggressive/delinquent behavior in adolescence: Moderating effects of biological sensitivity to context. Development and Psychopathology, 25, 699–712.

 Slagt, M., Dubas, J.S., van Aken, M.A.G., Ellis, B.J., &  Deković, M. (2016a).  Children’s differential susceptibility to parenting: An experimental test of ‘for better and for worse.’  Manuscript submitted for publication.

 Slagt, M., Dubas, J.S., van Aken, M.A.G., Ellis, B.J., &  Deković, M. (2016b).  Sensory processing sensitivity as a marker of differential susceptibility to parenting. Manuscript submitted for publication.


  • Bruce J. Ellis, Principal Investigator

  • Current Collaborators: Marco Del Giudice, Meike Slagt, Nila Shakiba, Danielle DelPriore, W. Thomas Boyce, Nicole Bush, Elizabeth Shirtcliff, Esther Nederhof, Albertine Oldehinkel.

Funding Organizations

National Institute of Mental Health

United States Department of Agriculture

Last Updated: 10/8/20