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1 Threat Detection and Stress Reactivity: Emergence of Appraisal Systems that Increasingly Guide Action Readiness

1 Threat Detection and Stress Reactivity: Emergence of Appraisal Systems that Increasingly Guide Action Readiness

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6.1 Threat Detection and Stress Reactivity: Emergence of Appraisal Systems …


perhaps because of their importance in tuning stress and threat detection systems.

Consistent with their depiction as “internal working models,” these generalized

expectancies, because they are experience based, are posited not only to be constructed as “running totals,” but also to be continuously updated, revised, and

reworked based on subsequent experiences.

Coping appraisals. In terms of coping, these kinds of generalized expectancies,

built up through associative and operant conditioning over the first months of life,

can be considered to work with neurobiological stress and threat detection subsystems through the mechanism of (implicit) appraisals of potentially stressful

environmental encounters (Thayer et al. 2012). Several mechanisms of effects have

been suggested (Dykas and Cassidy 2011). On the one hand, appraisals may support a calm and open interest to actual experiences, both challenging and threatening. On the other hand, these appraisals may contribute to the emergence of an

implicit positive bias. They may predispose infants to view potentially stressful

encounters as largely benign—because protection, comfort, and care are available,

events are predictable and responsive to one’s actions, and genuine expression of

states and preferences are understood, respected, and met with corresponding

complementary responses.

These kinds of implicit appraisals may introduce a buffer between stressful

encounters and infants’ neurophysiological stress reactivity, nourishing an optimistic bias that may help to counteract the normative precautionary negative bias of

these systems (Thayer and Lane 2009). Although research has not yet explored this

possibility in infants, such a combination of appraisals may even provide a psychological foundation for some of the hyporesponsivity of stress reactivity systems,

which may continuously be buffered or down-regulated by appraisals of potentially

arousing or distressing events, not as threats, but as manageable “challenges”

(Maier 2015; Thayer et al. 2012).

These biased appraisals should be helpful, even during episodes that actually are

stress-inducing, such as the inevitable experiences of caregiver unavailability,

unpredictability, noncontingency, frustration, or novelty—when infants’ needs are

not met or are actually thwarted. Benign implicit appraisals may allow infants to

discount these encounters as exceptions or anomalies (Sherman et al. 2015), and

meet them with more vigorous exertions—through both action and communication

—aimed at getting their needs met. Under these conditions, infants express their

genuine opinions by protesting or crying—implying that “I feel pain and I don’t

like it”—which is a realistic local appraisal and response. However, the larger

“neurosymphony” of stress reactivity is not necessarily activated (Nachmias et al.

1996), perhaps because it is shielded at the psychological level by benign implicit

appraisals that buffer experiences of threat, and at the social level by the presence of

the trusted caregiver as a backup.

It is important to note that, as internal working models of attachment relationships

and expectations of control emerge and are successively differentiated during the

second half of the infant’s first year, they serve two important functions in developing coping systems. On the one hand, implicit appraisals create a psychological


6 Development of Coping during Infancy …

buffer between infants’ stressful encounters and their neurophysiological stress

reactivity—and so establish a space for the future development of increasingly more

agentic and autonomous coping to take root. On the other hand, however, in order to

serve the needs of an adaptive system, these rudimentary coping appraisals should

remain well integrated with actual experience: They are continuously tethered to

experiences on the ground because they are based on a cumulative tally of actual

challenging and stressful transactions with the social and physical environment

(Sherman et al. 2015). Such close integration allows the emergent properties of the

coping system to be incorporated in ways that foster coherent functioning during its

successive reorganizations. Just as, during the first days of life, caregivers’ emergent

external coping remained well integrated with infant actual neurophysiological stress

reactivity through processes of attunement, so too, during the remaining months of

the first year of life, do emergent problem-focused and emotion-focused coping

appraisals remain well integrated with actual coping interactions through processes

of experience-based statistical learning.

Seeds of self-systems. These early generalized expectancies can also be viewed

as contributors to the future development of key components of the coping system.

They may represent rudimentary “seeds” that will give rise to the successively more

complex and differentiated self-systems that will play bigger and bigger roles in

coping, and will eventually be entrusted with its intentional guidance at later ages.

According to motivational theorists, these self-systems, from birth, can be seen as

organized around three innate psychological needs: for relatedness, competence,

and autonomy (Connell and Wellborn 1991; Deci and Ryan 1985). As described by

attachment theorists (Carlson and Sroufe 1995; Laible and Thompson 1998; Sroufe

and Waters 1977), infants’ fundamental needs for relatedness or belonging are met

when caregivers are warm and sensitive. Based on a history of such interactions,

infants build generalized expectancies of security, or that loving care is available

when they are distressed and that they are deserving of such care (Lewis 1997;

Sherman et al. 2015).

At the same time, as described by control theorists, when infants experience the

world as predictable and responsive, this meets their needs for competence or

effectance (Morgan et al. 1990; White 1959). A history of such interactions leads

infants to generally expect that the world will respond contingently and dependably

to their actions, and to construct a sense of mastery or efficacy in the face of

environmental challenges (Frankenhuis et al. 2013). Moreover, as described by

self-determination theory, when infants experience sensitive caregiving, in which

their preferences are attended to and respected, this meets the fundamental need for

autonomy (Deci and Ryan 1985). Over time, infants develop generalized

expectancies trusting that they are welcome to express authentic preferences and

feelings, and that “what I need, matters.” Although empirical work in infancy, for

good reasons, is sparse (Sherman et al. 2015), these kinds of self-related convictions

have been studied as contributors to coping at later ages, as can be seen in the large

literatures on internal working models (e.g., Zimmer-Gembeck et al. 2016),

perceived control (e.g., Folkman and Lazarus 1985), and self-determination

(e.g., Skinner and Edge 2002a, b).

6.2 Action Regulation: Development of Intentionality …



Action Regulation: Development of Intentionality

and Goal-Directed Coping

During the first year of life, just as infants’ threat detection systems are expanded to

incorporate implicit appraisals, a second set of developments underlies a second

transformation, in this case, focused on the stress reactivity system: These systems

are expanded to incorporate increasingly intentional and goal-directed actions—

setting conditions for the reorganization of early forms of both emotion-focused and

problem-focused coping. The developing attachment relationship, along with the

emergence of benign implicit appraisals (i.e., a secure internal working model and

generalized expectancies of trust and efficacy), provides infants with a secure base

that supports growing exploration and constructive engagement (Bowlby 1973).

When infants basic biological and psychological needs are met, attention and energy

that would otherwise be captured by threats and experiences of distress can be turned

to constructive interactions with the social and physical world, and expended in

pursuit of interesting sights, sounds, tactile sensations, and interpersonal interactions

(Nigg 2006). Such engagement is likely promoted by infants’ intrinsic motivation, or

their spontaneous interest and enjoyment of interactions that are prosocial, expressive, or mastery-oriented (Morgan et al. 1990).

Action readiness, emotions, and “intrinsic coping.” In fact, intact newborns

come with systems that support constructive engagement in challenging tasks.

These intrinsic attentional, emotional, and motivational systems normatively

become the default action system early in the first year of life, as long as two

conditions are met: Homeostatic functioning must be well established and the

systems cannot be overwhelmed by stress. Under such conditions, intrinsic action

systems flourish. Infants can detect and orient to events of adaptive significance and

can respond in differentiated ways to a subset of basic and important stressors,

based on an “innately determined appreciation of the survival value of stimuli”

(Barrett and Campos 1991, p. 23). Sometimes described as “basic” emotions (Izard

2009), “primordial” emotions (Barrett and Campos 1991), preadapted species

general stress responses (Bowlby 1969), or intrinsic motivations (White 1959), they

include specific appreciations of the significance of internal states or interactions

with the environment that capture newborns’ attention, marked by a specific family

of emotions, that trigger a particular action tendency which readies the organism to

respond, for example, (1) the freeze/flight action tendency triggered by novelty or

threat and marked by fear, (2) the fight/protest action tendency triggered by the

blockage of goals and marked by anger, and (3) the aversion/repulsion action

tendency triggered by exposure to unpalatable substances and marked by disgust.

In functionalist theories of emotion, these processes are sometimes considered

primitive or intrinsic forms of “coping” (Barrett and Campos 1991). They serve

multiple adaptive functions, including actually changing the organism–environment

relationship, for example, by spitting out a bitter substance, struggling until freed

from a blanket, or closing one’s eyes to reduce visual stimulation. These responses

also lead to learning: which substances to avoid, how to overcome obstacles, and


6 Development of Coping during Infancy …

which attributes or events are dangerous. They also communicate information to

social partners: alerting others to contaminated substances or danger, and informing

them about one’s determination to complete one’s own goals (see Barrett and

Campos 1991, Table 2.1).

In challenging, but not overwhelming, interactions with social partners and

material environments, infants develop the capacity to flexibly deploy and focus

attention on their intentional and goal-directed actions, based on motivational goals

and expectations about the effects their actions will produce (Braungart-Rieker and

Stifter 1996; Bridges and Grolnick 1995; McCarty et al. 1999). Perhaps the enriched

world provided by the caregiver comes to be viewed as full of potentially interesting

experiences: novel objects and people, opportunities to explore, experiment, and

learn about environmental and social affordances and the effects of one’s own actions.

Such motivation provides energy and direction for the practice of motor behaviors,

such as visual orienting, reaching, and grasping, eventually culminating in

self-produced locomotion during the second half of the first year of life (Adolph and

Berger 2015). In turn, motor development sets up conditions for the continuous

practice, consolidation, and improvement of sensorimotor coordination, which promote more effective transactions with the social and physical worlds (Campos et al.

2004). Nurturance of infants’ intrinsic motivations primes readiness for constructive

action in response to demands and challenges, supporting default responses to

potentially stressful experiences that resemble constructive families of coping, such

as exploration, engagement, and expression of genuine feelings and preferences.

Goal-directed action and early “problem-focused coping.” These capacities

create ideal conditions for the practice and consolidation of goal-directed action and

the development of sensorimotor intentionality during the first year of life

(Delafield-Butt and Gangopadhyay 2013). Actions, including attention, emotion,

motivation, and motor behaviors, come to be coordinated or regulated by intentions

and by feedback about the effects of these actions in reaching their intended goals

(Delafield-Butt and Gangopadhyay 2013; Zeedyk 1996). Especially important to the

development of coping are episodes in which infants cannot fully realize their

intentions, that is, when their efforts are not successful. As noted by Barrett and

Campos (1991), “stress serves to organize adaptive responses to the encounter”

(p. 22). The tension created by blocked or unreached goals can spontaneously organize infants’ biobehavioral systems, both across the neurological subsystems themselves (Lewis and Todd 2007) and between neurophysiological and action subsystems

(including attention, emotion, motivation, and motor subsystems). Such interactions

not only exercise and consolidate existing connections, but (as might be expected by

the “demandingness” of challenging encounters in which goals are not immediately

reached) they also stretch infants’ actions into a zone of proximal development, where

new strategies, experiments, and coordinations are generated and implemented.

These long strings of persistent action attempts begin to systematically link preferences to goal-directed intentions and may introduce emotion- and problem-focused

“coping” responses based on goal relevance. Even during the first year of life, “failure” can trigger rudimentary compensatory actions that also resemble coping: Infants

may become more energized, increase their exertions toward the goal, and try out

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