How does reactivity to frustrative non-reward increase risk for externalizing symptoms?


Frustration is a normative affective response with an adaptive value in motivating behavior. However, excessive anger in response to frustration characterizes multiple forms of externalizing psychopathology. How a given trait subserves both normative and pathological behavioral profiles is not entirely clear. One hypothesis is that the magnitude of response to frustration differentiates normative versus maladaptive reactivity. Disproportionate increases in arousal in response to frustration may exceed normal regulatory capacity, thus precipitating aggressive or antisocial responses. Alternatively, pathology may arise when reactivity to frustration interferes with other cognitive systems, impairing the individual’s ability to respond to frustration adaptively. In this paper we examine these two hypotheses in a sample of kindergarten children. First we examine whether children with conduct problems (CP; n = 105) are differentiated from comparison children (n = 135) with regard to magnitude of autonomic reactivity (cardiac and electrodermal) across a task that includes a frustrative non-reward block flanked by two reward blocks. Second we examine whether cognitive processing, as reflected by magnitude of the P3b brain response, is disrupted in the context of frustrative non-reward. Results indicate no differences in skin conductance, but a greater increase in heart rate during the frustration block among children in the CP group. Additionally, the CP group was characterized by a pronounced decrement in P3b amplitude during the frustration condition compared with both reward conditions. No interaction between cardiac and P3b measures was observed, suggesting that each system independently reflects a greater sensitivity to frustration in association with externalizing symptom severity.