Utrecht University, the Netherlands

Aggressive behavior problems place a burden on children, their relatives, and society. Early intervention with parents, teachers, and children’s social cognitions has been proven effective, but effects are modest and differ markedly between children and families. To increase effectiveness of intervention it may be crucial to better understand the specific social cognitive processes that maintain aggressive behavior in individual children. A better understanding of how children themselves view the social interactions that elicit their aggressive behaviors can be used to improve their social context, to motivate children, and to practice skills in these specific situations. However, for many children with behavior problems crucial social cognitions are only triggered in highly engaging emotional situations, such as being (seemingly) treated unjustly, losing games, or being laughed at. To examine social cognitive responses to such highly engaging emotional situations obviously requires innovative research methods, enabling us to ‘catch’ fast psychological processes in emotionally involving (often aversive) situations, and permitting participants to behave aggressively. The past decade, we have started to develop such methods. We developed procedures to test emotional cognitions and aggression in actual staged peer conflicts, rigged online competitions, and currently virtual reality. Using these methods, we find that social cognitive processes differ markedly between children, in a systematic way. Specific social cognitions are involved in specific kinds of aggression. For example, reactive aggression is related with deviations in the encoding, appraisal, and representation aspects of social cognition that are involved in hypersensitivity to threat. In contrast, proactive aggression is uniquely related with narcissistic and self-efficacy aspects of social cognition involved in aggressive response selection. These findings suggest that the current practice of targeting all children with relatively broad cognitive-behavioral interventions may miss the mark for children with specific social cognitive profiles, who may benefit more from an intensive focus on their specific individual cognitions. For example, it does not seem surprising that anger management techniques incorporated in CBT are of little benefit to children who behave aggressively out of pleasure or positive outcome expectancies, who do not aggress in anger at all. Treatment effects may become substantially stronger if interventions directly target the person-specific social cognitive processes implicated in the maintenance of behavior problems of individual children.

Orobio de Castro studied developmental psychology at the University of Amsterdam (Cum Laude) and at the Free University in Amsterdam in collaboration with the Bascule Child Psychiatric Care. His dissertation on social information processing by highly aggressive boys was awarded the best European dissertation over the years 1999-2001 by the European Society for Developmental Psychology and followed up with a Dutch Science Foundation (NWO) VENI grant to continue his research in that area. In 2006 he was appointed as full professor of experimental developmental psychopathology. He now heads the Utrecht University Department of Developmental Psychology, is Chair of the Dutch Certification committee for Evidence based intervention for youth (NJI DEI), and principal investigator of national consortia for effective intervention for behavior problems (ZonMW) and against bullying in schools (NRO). His group’s research focuses on the development of behavior problems, with an emphasis on experimental research into social-cognitive factors and longitudinal/experimental intervention studies. To this end he developed experimental procedures to manipulate conflictuous social interactions and social cognitive processes. Simultaneously, he set up randomized trials of the effectiveness of interventions to reduce disruptive behavior problems, with the secondary aim to study mediation processes. He is currently principal investigator of multiple randomized intervention trials, including coginitive behavioral interventions in schools and mental health care, and parenting interventions with low SES and formerly incarcerated mothers. He was recently awarded a Dutch Science Foundation (NWO) VICI grant to design and study Virtual Reality assessment and intervention of social information processing in youth with disruptive behavior problems.


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