Childhood multiple risk factor exposure exceeds the adverse developmental impacts of singular exposures. Multiple risk factor exposure may also explain why sociodemographic variables (e.g., poverty) can have adverse consequences. Most research on multiple risk factor exposure has relied upon cumulative risk (CR) as the measure of multiple risk. CR is constructed by dichotomizing each risk factor exposure (0 = no risk; 1 = risk) and then summing the dichotomous scores. Despite its widespread use in developmental psychology and elsewhere, CR has several shortcomings: Risk is designated arbitrarily; data on risk intensity are lost; and the index is additive, precluding the possibility of statistical interactions between risk factors. On the other hand, theoretically more compelling multiple risk metrics prove untenable because of low statistical power, extreme higher order interaction terms, low robustness, and collinearity among risk factors. CR multiple risk metrics are parsimonious, are statistically sensitive even with small samples, and make no assumptions about the relative strengths of multiple risk factors or their collinearity. CR also fits well with underlying theoretical models (e.g., Bronfenbrenner's, 1979, bioecological model; McEwen's, 1998, allostasis model of chronic stress; and Ellis, Figueredo, Brumbach, & Schlomer's, 2009, developmental evolutionary theory) concerning why multiple risk factor exposure is more harmful than singular risk exposure. We review the child CR literature, comparing CR to alternative multiple risk measurement models. We also discuss strengths and weaknesses of developmental CR research, offering analytic and theoretical suggestions to strengthen this growing area of scholarship. Finally, we highlight intervention and policy implications of CR and child development research and theory.
© 2013 American Psychological Association