Jack C. Wright

Associate Professor
(401) 863-3974
Office Location: 
Metcalf 355
Research Focus: 
Personality, individual differences, developmental psychopathology

Jack Wright received his PhD in Psychology from Stanford University and his BA from Princeton University. He served as Chair of the Psychology Department at Brown from 1990-93, and since 1990 has been the Research Director of Wediko Children's Services in Boston, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit agency that provides residential and school-based consulting services for at-risk youth. His research interests include the assessment and perception of personality and individual differences in social behavior, with an emphasis on developmental psychopathology, espcecially aggression, withdrawal, and anti-social behavior in middle childhood.

Research Summary:

Contextualized assessment of behavior change

This research examines how a contextual approach to assessment can enhance our understanding of child psychopathology and our ability to interpret and predict children's responses to intervention.

Research Interests:

My research is on the assessment and perception of personality and individual differences in childhood. Current research focuses on developmental psychopathology, especially aggression, withdrawal, and anti-social behavior in middle childhood. In contrast to widely used diagnostic and syndromal approaches that emphasize the overall frequency of children's behavior problems, our contextualist framework examines the social environments children encounter in their interactions with adults and peers, how these environments influence children's reactions, and how children's reactions reciprocally influence their immediate social ecology. 

Field studies use extensive observations of children's social interactions clarify how children change in response

with topographically-similar overall behavior rates nevertheless differ both in their immediate social ecologies and how they respond to the interpersonal stimuli they encounter. Laboratory experiments, using computer-simulated analogue children, examine how children and adults encode and interpret target's social environments and the cross-situational patterning of their responses to specific social situations. Related research examines the discrepancies between standardized assessment methods, which de-emphasize contextual influences, and personality impressions by laypeople and clinicians, which often appear to be more sensitive to the cross-situational organization of behavior. 

Our field research takes advantage of a collaboration, now spanning two decades, with a summer residential treatment program for at-risk youth in New Hampshire. Each summer, approximately 150 children with emotional and behavior programs are enrolled in the 45-day program, served by a staff of more than 100 counselors and teachers. Daily classroom instruction focuses on academic mastery and a structured activity schedule fosters age-appropriate interests and social interaction. Individualized treatment plans identify each child's problem behaviors, defined behavioral goals, and set forth cognitive-behavioral interventions to promote affective self-regulation and adaptive social functioning. The setting has provided unique opportunities for extensive behavioral observations throughout each day of the session and in a wide range of social and academic settings, allowing in-depth, fine-grained analyses of the social interactional processes that contribute to children's problem and prosocial behaviors. 

Supported in part by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, a three-year project beginning in the summer of 2006 will obtain detailed assessments from parents and teachers of the children before they enter the program, fine-grained observations of the children's social interactions during the residential session, and multiple follow-up assessments after children return to home and school in the fall. Building on previous studies on the contextual patterning of behavior, this research will develop a contextualist framework for studying behavior change and the evaluation of treatment effectiveness. Rather than operationalizing change in terms of overall reductions in symptom frequency, change is operationalized in terms of the distinct social interactional processes that contribute to symptom reduction, including changes in the social environment, changes in the patterning of children's reactions to their environments, or both. In this way the research aims to clarify why treatment effects often fail to generalize from the intervention setting to other settings, why some children show "worsening" or "deviancy training" during interventions, and how outcome research can benefit from incorporating process-oriented, context-sensitive measures of the changes children undergo during treatment.