Zhi Li, Ph.D.

Research Faculty
Mt. Hope Family Center


My research focused on the effects of family adversity on child and adolescent development, including strategic adaptation to it, as well as variation in susceptibility to environmental exposures (e.g., harsh parenting). My work is guided by theoretical conceptualization of evolutionary developmental perspective, family system theory, and developmental psychopathology framework. In particular, my three primary research lines are as follows:

(1) Informed by evolutionary theory of socialization (Belsky, Steinberg, & Draper, 1991), my first line of research seeks to evaluate the impact of family adversity on child and adolescent development and adaptation. More specifically, in contrast to viewing children’s development as atypical, impaired, and dysfunctional, the evolutionary theory of socialization highlighted that these risky strategies may have adaptive fitness under high-risk contexts (e.g., poverty, chaos). Thus, my research seeks to gain a more fine-grained understanding into children’s development and adaptation to various stressful context within the socioemotional, cognitive, and biological domains.

(2) Guided by the differential susceptibility theory, my second line of research interest seeks to identify possible “plasticity factors” which account for why some individuals, be they children or parents, prove more and others less affected by their developmental experiences and environmental exposures. This line of inquiry has led me to focus on the contextual moderating effects of genetic polymorphisms, physiological stress reactivity, and temperament/behavior (e.g., sensory processing sensitivity, dove temperament).

(2) My third line of research is guided by family systems frameworks which highlight the interdependent nature of family dynamics. This leads to a focus on both mothers, fathers and children, as well as parenting and the couple relationship. This line of work focuses on dyadic or triadic family dynamics in addition to a single-person approach (e.g., solely focusing on the child). Furthermore, looking into the dynamic family processes provides unique perspectives in understanding the nature of parent-child interaction that happens in a transient manner during real-life interactions.