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Developmental Programming of Sexual and Reproductive Strategies


I actively work with students on projects investigating developmental programming of sexual and reproductive strategies.  Much of my theoretical and empirical work examines links between childhood experience and sexual development. This work stands on the shoulders of a landmark theory, first presented in 1991 by Jay Belsky and colleagues, linking childhood experience, interpersonal orientation, and reproductive strategy. This theory posited that levels of stress and support in extra-familial environments influence family dynamics (marital relationships, parent-child relationships), thereby shaping children’s early emotional and behavioral development and, through it, subsequent sexual development and behavior in adolescence and beyond. I have taken the lead role in a series of prospective, longitudinal investigations that have tested core propositions derived from this theory, particularly regarding relations between family environments and pubertal timing (e.g., Ellis et al., 1999, 2003, 2012; Ellis & Garber, 2000; Ellis & Essex, 2007; Tither & Ellis, 2008; Ellis, Shirtcliff et al., 2011; James, Ellis et al., 2012).

Based on my theoretical and empirical work (reviewed in Ellis, 2004, 2013), my colleagues and I have advanced a series of revisions and extensions of Belsky’s original theory, including development of a complementary theory of paternal investment that emphasizes the unique effects of fathers and other adult males in regulation of daughters’ sexual development (Ellis et al., 1999, 2003, 2012; Ellis & Garber, 2000; Ellis, 2004; Ellis & Essex, 2007; Tither & Ellis, 2008; Deardorff, Ellis et al., 2011); development of an alternative theory of the function of pubertal timing as a mechanism for calibrating the length of childhood to match the quality of family environments (Ellis, 2004; Ellis & Essex, 2007); reconceptualization of childhood stress as constituting two fundamental dimensions of variation—harshness and unpredictability—that ultimately guide reproductive development (Ellis, Figueredo, et al., 2009; Brumbach, Figueredo, & Ellis, 2009; Belsky, Schlomer, & Ellis, 2012; Cabeza De Baca, Barnett, & Ellis, 2015); incorporation of the importance of changes in childhood conditions during sensitive age periods as a critical factor in early pubertal development (Tither & Ellis, 2008); and development of a mediational model linking socioeconomic status, psychosocial stress in families, fat deposition in middle childhood, and onset of puberty (Deardorff et al., 2011; Ellis & Essex, 2007).

Currently, the main focus of my work moving forward in this area is to further develop my research program on the effects of fathers on sexual development in daughters.  I am particularly interested in (a) further testing the causal relationship between low paternal investment and accelerated pubertal development, risky sexual behavior, and early reproduction in daughters and (b) investigating what proximal psychological changes occur in response to paternal absence or disengagement that promote these sociosexual outcomes. To address these issues, my current NSF grant (Collaborative Research: Impact of Fathers on RiskySexual Behavior and Decision-Making in Daughters) involves a powerful natural experiment and a series of randomized experiments to examine the impact of paternal absence and disengagement on young women’s sexual psychology and risky sexual behavior—to determine whether and how fathers influence daughters’ sociosexual outcomes.   This works implements a genetically- and environmentally-controlled sibling-comparison methodology (Tither & Ellis, 2008; Ellis, Schlomer et al., 2012; DelPriore, Schlomer, & Ellis, 2016), which examines the effects of differential exposure of sisters within families to father absence and investment while growing up. This work also involves randomized experimental studies of the effects of primed father absence or disengagement (DelPriore & Hill, 2013; DelPriore, Proffitt Leyva, Ellis, & Hill, 2016).

Selected Publications

Belsky, J., Schlomer, G.L., & Ellis, B.J. (2012).  Beyond cumulative risk: Distinguishing harshness and unpredictability as determinants of parenting and early life history strategy.  Developmental Psychology, 48, 662-673.

Belsky, J., Steinberg, L., & Draper, P.  (1991). Childhood experience, interpersonal development, and reproductive strategy: An evolutionary theory of socialization. Child Development, 62, 647-670.

Brumbach, B.H., Figueredo, A.J., & Ellis, B.J. (2009). Effects of harsh and unpredictable environments in adolescence on the development of life history strategies: A longitudinal test of an evolutionary model. Human Nature, 20, 25–51.

Cabeza De Baca, T., Barnett, M.A., & Ellis, B.J. (2016). The development of child unpredictability schema: Regulation through maternal life history trade-offs.  Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences,10, 43-55.

Deardorff, J.,  Kushi, L. Ekwaru, J.P., Ellis, B.J. et al. (2011). Father absence, body mass index, and pubertal timing in girls:  Differential effects by family income and ethnicity.  Journal of Adolescent Health. 48, 441-47.

DelPriore, D. J., & Hill, S. E. (2013). The effects of paternal disengagement on women’s sexual decision making: An experimental approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105, 234-246.

DelPriore, D.J., Proffitt Leyva, R., Ellis, B.J., Hill, S.E. (2016). The effects of paternal disengagement on women’s perceptions of male mating intent. Manuscript submitted for publication. 

DelPriore, D.J., Schlomer, G.L., & Ellis, B.J. (2016). Impact of fathers on parental monitoring of daughters and their affiliation with sexually promiscuous peers: A genetically and environmentally controlled sibling study. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Ellis, B.J. (2004).  Timing of pubertal maturation in girls: An integrated life history approach.  Psychological Bulletin, 130, 920-958.

Ellis, B.J. (2013). The hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis: A switch-controlled, condition-sensitive system in the regulation of life history strategies. Hormones and Behavior, 64, 215–225

Ellis, B.J., Bates, J.E., Dodge, K.A., Fergusson, D.M., Horwood, J.L., Pettit, G.S., & Woodward, L. (2003).  Does father absence place daughters at special risk for early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy?  Child Development, 74, 801-821.

Ellis, B.J., & Essex, M.J. (2007).  Family environments, adrenarche, and sexual maturation: A longitudinal test of a life history model.  Child Development, 78, 1799-1817.

Ellis, B.J., Figueredo, A.J., Brumbach, B.H., & Schlomer, G.L. (2009).  Fundamental dimensions of environmental risk: The impact of harsh versus unpredictable environments on the evolution and development of life history strategies. Human Nature, 20, 204-268.

Ellis, B.J., & Garber, J. (2000).  Psychosocial antecedents of variation in girls' pubertal timing: Maternal depression, stepfather presence, and marital and family stress.  Child Development, 71, 485-501.

Ellis, B.J., McFadyen-Ketchum, S., Dodge, K.A., Pettit, G.A., & Bates, J.E. (1999). Quality of early family relationships and individual differences in the timing of pubertal maturation in girls: A longitudinal test of an evolutionary model.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 387-401.

Ellis, B.J., Schlomer, G.L., Tilley, E.H., & Butler, E.A. (2012). Impact of fathers on risky sexual behavior in daughters: A genetically and environmentally controlled sibling study.  Development and Psychopathology, 24, 317–332.

Ellis, B.J., Shirtcliff, E.A., Boyce, W.T., Deardorff, J., &  Essex, M.J. (2011). 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.

James, J., Ellis, B.J., Schlomer, G.L., & Garber, J. (2012). Sex-specific pathways to early puberty, sexual debut and sexual risk-taking: Tests of an integrated evolutionary-developmental model. Developmental Psychology, 48, 687-702.

Tither, J.M., & Ellis, B.J. (2008). Impact of fathers on daughters’ age at menarche: A genetically- and environmentally-controlled sibling study.  Developmental Psychology, 44, 1409-1420.



Funding Organizations

National Science Foundation

United States Department of Agriculture

Last Updated: 6/4/21