Publication Date


Document Type


First Advisor

Milner, Joel S.||Skowronski, John J.

Degree Name

Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)

Legacy Department

Department of Psychology


Abusive parents--Psychology


Social information processing (SIP) models of abusive parenting typically describe the cognitive activities that occur prior to, and potentially contribute to, physical child abuse. Controlled processes and automatic processes impact how different aspects of information processing combine to influence parent behavior. Automatic processes place few demands on attention and contribute to short response latencies. The activation of automatic processes without the intervention of controlled processing may account for the instantaneous, explosive physical discipline sometimes present in abusive parenting. High-risk and physically abusive, compared to nonabusive, parents are thought to either engage in more automatic processing of child-related information, or engage in similar automatic processing with less interference from controlled processing to inhibit aggressive responding. Differences between high-risk and nonabusive parents in automatic processing may involve a variety of knowledge structures. For example, some research suggests that high-risk, relative to low-risk, parents differ in the level of accessibility of automatically activated, semantically-related negative schemata. However, differences in automatically activated evaluative schemata (e.g., attitudes about children) have not yet been examined. Although research examining automatic activation of evaluative knowledge structures has not yet been examined in the child abuse literature, the concept of automatic activation of evaluative knowledge structures has been examined in studies of racial prejudice. The present study used a sequential priming procedure paired with a lexical task in which parents were instructed to make evaluative decisions about the connotation of target words to implicitly measure automatically activated attitudes toward children and adults in parents at high risk, non-risk, and low risk for physically abusive parenting behavior. Results demonstrated that parallel valence between the prime and the target facilitated response. Furthermore, the results suggested that regardless of child abuse potential, child faces, relative to adult faces, facilitated responses to negative target words. The present study replicated previous findings reported in the social cognition literature and extended previous findings reported in the child maltreatment literature. Risk status appears to moderate response latency to semantic child-related schema; however, risk status did not moderate response latency to evaluative child-related schema. Instead, facilitation to negative adjectives was significantly greater when preceded by child faces, relative to adult faces. Faces of children, relative to faces of adults, appear to activate negative information structures that facilitate evaluative decisions of negative stimuli. Therefore, risk status may moderate negative (e.g., hostile, difficult) information structures of a conceptual nature, but not negative information structures of an attitudinal nature.


Includes bibliographical references (pages [87]-95).


viii, 144 pages




Northern Illinois University

Rights Statement

In Copyright

Rights Statement 2

NIU theses are protected by copyright. They may be viewed from Huskie Commons for any purpose, but reproduction or distribution in any format is prohibited without the written permission of the authors.

Media Type