The overarching goal of this R03 Small Grant application is to investigate new methods of studying the social cognitive processes that underlie child physical abuse (CPA) risk. The proposed study is the first to apply the false recognition paradigm to the study of spontaneous trait inferences in parents with varying degrees of CPA risk. Although the false recognition paradigm is a well-established method used in social cognitive research, its application to research designed to examine individual differences in the types and amounts of spontaneously inferred traits has only recently been explored. Moreover, data collected using the false recognition paradigm are amenable to process dissociation analyses, which allow for examination of the extent to which controlled (i.e., slow, effortful) cognitive processes and automatic (i.e., fast, efficient) cognitive processs contribute to the spontaneous trait inferences made by high (versus low) CPA risk parents. The proposed study stems from the Social Information Processing model of (CPA) which posits that parent'pre-existing schemata and the manner in which information is processed may contribute to abusive parenting behaviors. Research to date suggests that parents that are at high risk for CPA form more negative and/or less positive inferences about children's dispositions;however, the locus of this difference remains unclear (i.e., are the inferences made by high CPA risk parents more negative, less positive, or both?). Understanding the patterning of spontaneously inferred traits (and extent to which such trait inferences are derived automatically or are the result of slower more controlled processes) are relevant to the design of interventions that seek to alter cognitive processes as a strategy for reducing parental aggression. In the proposed study, 200 parents with varying degrees of CPA risk will be recruited to complete the false recognition paradigm, which involves viewing photographs of children paired with behavior descriptions intended to strongly or vaguely imply a trait. Of interest is whether: 1) high, compared to low, CPA risk parents spontaneously form more negative and/or less positive inferences from children's behaviors, 2) whether CPA risk group differences in spontaneously inferred traits are larger when traits are vaguely (versus strongly) implied, and 3) whether the extent to which automatic versus controlled processes associated with various types of inferences varies by parental CPA risk status. Ultimately, the results of this research will contribute to our understanding of impression formation, parenting cognitions, and the hypothesized antecedents of child physical abuse. Clarifying the social cognitive processes associated with CPA risk is important foundational research designed to support the development of efficacious and theory-driven interventions designed to reduce risk of parental aggression toward children.

Public Health Relevance

Child physical abuse is a widespread public health concern that poses both short-term and long-term consequences for victims. The proposed research will study cognitive factors that are thought to be causal risk factors for child physical abuse. Understanding the cognitive determinants of child physical abuse will inform the development of efficacious and theory-driven interventions designed to reduce parental aggression toward children.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Small Research Grants (R03)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Pediatrics Subcommittee (CHHD)
Program Officer
Esposito, Layla E
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Northern Illinois University
Schools of Arts and Sciences
De Kalb
United States
Zip Code
McCarthy, Randy J; Skowronski, John J; Crouch, Julie L et al. (2017) Parents' spontaneous evaluations of children and symbolic harmful behaviors toward their child. Child Abuse Negl 67:419-428
McCarthy, Randy J; Crouch, Julie L; Basham, Ariel R et al. (2016) Validating the Voodoo Doll Task as a Proxy for Aggressive Parenting Behavior. Psychol Violence 6:135-144
McCarthy, Randy J; Crouch, Julie L; Skowronski, John J et al. (2013) Child physical abuse risk moderates spontaneously inferred traits from ambiguous child behaviors. Child Abuse Negl 37:1142-51