Sexual selection and sex differences in the prevalence of childhood externalizing and adolescent internalizing disorders

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208 Scopus citations

Abstract

Despite the well-established sex difference in prevalence of many childhood and adolescent psychopathological conditions, no integrative metatheory of sex differences in psychopathology exists. This review attempts to provide a metatheoretical framework to guide empirical examination of sex differences in prevalence of childhood-onset "externalizing" and adolescent-onset "internalizing" disorders, based on sexual selection evolutionary theory. Sexual selection theory suggests important between-sex differences in markers, mechanisms, etiology, and developmental timing of risk and resilience relevant to psychopathology. Namely, sexual selection theory hypothesizes that disinhibition and sensationseeking may be important proximate risk markers for childhood-onset externalizing disorders in males. The theory suggests that these male-biased markers may be a product of their higher exposure to prenatal testosterone, which makes them more susceptible to prenatal stressors with downstream effects on dopaminergic neurotransmission, especially for those with genetic alleles associated with lower dopaminergic function. In contrast, sexual selection theory hypothesizes that negative emotionality, empathy, and cognitive rumination may be important proximate risk markers for adolescent-onset internalizing disorders in females. The theory suggests that these markers are propagated by rapidly rising levels of estradiol at puberty that interact with cortisol and oxytocin. These hormones exert downstream effects on the serotonergic system in such a way as to increase females' sensitivity to interpersonal stressors particularly at puberty and especially for those with lower functional serotonergic activity. Such a metatheory can help integrate prior ideas about sex differences and can also generate new predictions of sex differences in markers, etiology, mechanisms, and developmental timing of common forms of psychopathology.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1221-1259
Number of pages39
JournalPsychological Bulletin
Volume139
Issue number6
DOIs
StatePublished - Nov 2013

Keywords

  • Evolutionary theory
  • Psychopathology
  • Sex differences
  • Sexual selection

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology

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