Children’s implicit understanding of the stress-illness link: testing development of health cognitions

Tara J. Cheetham, Julie M. Turner-Cobb, Tim Gamble

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (SciVal)


Objective: Innate knowledge and developmental stage theory have been used to explain children’s understanding of concepts relating to health, illness, and stress. The aim of this study was to investigate the degree to which children demonstrate unconscious cognitive associations between the concepts of stress and illness.
Design: The study employed an experimental design using an age appropriate implicit association task.
Methods: Thirty-two children (5-11 years of age) completed the Pre-School Implicit Association Test (PSIAT), a computer-based measure of reaction time to consistent (stress and illness) and inconsistent (stress and health) concept pairings.
Results: Whilst age group had a significant effect on reaction times (older children generally displaying faster RTs than younger children) those as young as 5-6 years of age were able to demonstrate implicit associations between stress and illness using the PSIAT. There was also some indication that this association peaks at around 7-8 years of age.
Conclusions: Findings support a combination of developmental stage theory and the innate theory of children’s understanding. Whilst sample size is small, this study is the first to apply the PSIAT to the context of implicit cognitive associations between stress and illness in children. Findings have potential implications for the delivery of interventions to facilitate health promotion and development of positive health behaviours in children and indicate that even children as young as 5-6 years have some ability to relate to the concept that stress may influence illness.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)781–795
JournalBritish Journal of Health Psychology
Issue number4
Early online date22 Dec 2015
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2016


  • Stress
  • Children
  • Health promotion and prevention
  • Developmental perspectives


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