Psychological Medicine

Original Articles

Moderating effects of childhood maltreatment on associations between social information processing and adult aggression

P. Chena1 c1, E. F. Coccaroa1, R. Leea1 and K. C. Jacobsona1

a1 Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience, University of Chicago, CNPRU, Chicago, IL, USA


Background Associations between early life maltreatment, social information processing (SIP) and aggression in childhood and adolescence have been widely documented. Few studies have examined the importance of childhood maltreatment independent of SIP in the etiology of adult aggression. Furthermore, moderating effects of childhood maltreatment on the SIP–aggression links have not been explored.

Method Hierarchical, multi-level models were fitted to data from n=2752 twins aged 20–55 years from the PennTwins Cohort. Adult aggression was assessed with the Life History of Aggression questionnaire. Childhood maltreatment was measured using the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire. Two aspects of SIP were examined: hostile attribution biases (HAB); negative emotional responses (NER).

Results Childhood maltreatment was positively correlated with adult aggression, independently of HAB and NER. In addition, childhood maltreatment moderated the relationships between both aspects of SIP and adult aggression. Specifically, the relationship between NER and aggression was stronger among individuals with higher levels of childhood maltreatment and NER was not associated with aggression for adults who experienced low levels of childhood maltreatment. Moderating effects of childhood maltreatment on the NER–aggression link were supported for total childhood maltreatment, emotional neglect and emotional abuse. In contrast, HAB was more strongly associated with adult aggression at lower levels of emotional abuse and physical neglect.

Conclusions The current study provides insight into the mechanisms by which early life experiences influence adult aggression. Our findings suggest that childhood maltreatment may not only lead to increased levels of aggression in adulthood but may also modify the associations between SIP and adult aggression.

(Received March 18 2011)

(Revised September 09 2011)

(Accepted September 14 2011)

(Online publication October 19 2011)


c1 Address for correspondence: Dr P. Chen, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience, L-607, University of Chicago, CNPRU, 5841 S Maryland Ave, MC3077, Chicago, IL 60637, USA. (Email: