In this Spotlight feature we focus of Amy Slep, PhD and Richard Heyman, PhD, Clinical Psychologists and Professors in the College of Dentistry at New York University. They co-direct the Family Translational Research Group. Their SOBC research examines patterns of coercive processes within parent-child and couple dyads. These coercive processes, if engaged frequently, are believed to lead to poor consequences for health behaviors such as tooth brushing, eating, and drinking.


Q: Your work focuses on the interesting idea that coercive patterns in dyadic relationships may be maintained because both members of the dyad are reinforced for escalating the hostility in an interaction. You suggest that both the “winner” and “loser” of a particular argument are reinforced for their coercive behavior at the argument’s conclusion. Can you say more about how those maladaptive relationship dynamics are believed to be maintained over time with respect to the psychological principles of positive and negative reinforcement?


Dr. Amy Slep: This was groundbreaking work done by Gerry Patterson and his colleagues. They tested the idea that negative reinforcement, which is the removal of something unpleasant or aversive, can shape conflict and aggression. He posited that not only does one person “win” the conflict in that her escalating anger gets the other person to give in, but the other person is also negatively reinforced in that giving in ends the conflict and the other person stops behaving aversively. In that way, both people are negatively reinforced—one for escalating and the other for quitting. This cycle is related to aggression and conduct problems in youth. Our research suggests it is also related to health behaviors.


Q: Measuring coercion in the real world poses substantial challenges. What are some of the largest hurdles you have faced in researching this question, and how have you addressed them in your approach to developing psychometrically valid and reliable measures of coercive processes?


Dr. Richard Heyman: Our SOBC project involves recording couple and parent-child interactions in our lab in what are known as analogue behavioral observations. They are analogue because they are fairly naturalistic but are set up to be challenging (e.g., we find out couples’ biggest areas of disagreement and have them discuss those) so that we can most efficiently see behaviors such as coercive escalation.


One of the biggest challenges is that there are no self-report measures of coercion, let alone validated ones. Measuring coercion typically requires access to the dyad, somewhat extended periods of observation (multiple observations of at least 10 minutes are the norm), trained coders spending about an hour per 10 minutes, etc. These methodological requirements limit how easily coercion can be measured in real-world settings other than a therapist’s office. We’d like to get both the measurement and interventions brief enough to be used in settings such as health practitioners’ offices. We developed a self-report measure as part of the SOBC project and will get to test how validly individuals can report on coercion.


Q: Successfully intervening upon these problematic processes within dyads could advance the mission of SOBC substantially. After all, human behaviors do not occur in isolation but rather in a relational and familial context. You have suggested several promising avenues for interventions drawn from the experimental literature. For example, one approach involves cognitive restructuring, and a different approach involves altering behavior using implementation intentions. Can you tell us a little about each of these two kinds of interventions, and how they may be adapted for optimal use in targeting coercive processes?


Dr. Amy Slep: One simple cognitive variable that can reduce the probability of coercive escalation is the attribution one makes for their partner’s aversive behavior. If a child misbehaves and the mother thinks it’s because he is tired, she handles that more calmly and more effectively than if she thinks her child is being defiant on purpose. One simple intervention we are testing is whether priming benign attributions before dyads have challenging interactions makes them less coercive. Implementation intentions are an approach to helping people have an easier time enacting a new behavioral plan, such as taking a deep breath or not responding if their partner starts to annoy them. They develop a specific plan for how to apply their new strategy to “not take a turn.” We are testing whether this brief exercise helps people use non-coercive behaviors in conflictual interactions in the laboratory.


Q: Cognitive control and self-regulation are likely to play a role in dyads’ learning to avoid coercive processes. Your work has interesting implications for potential differences between parent-child dyads and couple dyads due to age-related differences in executive function. Based on these considerations, is a particular kind of intervention likely to be most effective for children in parent-child dyads, whereas a different kind of intervention might be most effective for couples?


Dr. Richard Heyman: Interesting question. While this might apply to older children (and especially with adolescents), behavioral interventions with young children target the parents only. One of the hallmarks of any dyadic intervention is that if you change one person’s behavior, you change the typical trajectory of the way the behavioral exchange unfolds. Thus, if the parent changes his/her responses, the nature of the parent-child interaction will change. If you’re intervening with couples, you could do the same thing or you could try to improve each person’s behavior, doubling your chances that some dyadic impact will occur. The same dual approach could be taken with adolescents and parents, but not with two-year-olds.