University of ArizonaNorton School of Family and Consumer Sciences

Bruce J. Ellis, Ph.D.

John & Doris Norton Endowed Chair in Fathers, Parenting, and Families
Family Studies and Human Development
650 N Park Ave
Tucson, Arizona 85721-0078
(520) 626-5703

Go Directly to:
Areas of Expertise | Research Focus | Current Projects | Subjects Taught |
Select PublicationsFathers, Parenting, and Families Initiative | Evolution Institute workshop on Risky Adolescent Behavior | Press Releases (public summaries of research) | Web-Based Presentations

As an iconoclast in my youth, and someone who was always attracted to big ideas, I developed a passionate interest in evolutionary psychology—the idea that Darwin’s great theory could help explain human psychology and behavior.  I knew that I was on to something when I gave my very first classroom presentation on this topic (in an undergraduate Sociology of Sex Roles class at Cal Poly); it caused such a stir that the professor went in for 3 hours of Gestalt Therapy afterwards.  Now I always tell my students that if they can so fundamentally challenge their professors’ ideas that it sends them into therapy, then they are doing their jobs as creative thinkers and learners.  

After graduating from Cal Poly, I tried writing popular science books on evolutionary psychology. That didn’t really work out, so I went to graduate school instead. I was originally trained as a canonical evolutionary psychologist in David Buss’ laboratory at the University of Michigan, where I studied the mating behavior of college students. My first scientific publication was on sexual fantasy and received extensive coverage in Playboy magazine. All of my early work, however, largely ignored developmental processes. I eventually became dissatisfied with this approach, underwent three years of postdoctoral training in developmental psychopathology at Vanderbilt University, and shifted from studying adult behavior to child and adolescent development. I took my first academic job at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, a country that boasts 12 sheep for every 1 human being. In time I was attracted back to the United States by the excellent opportunities at the Norton School and the better human-to-sheep ratio.   

In both my teaching and research, I emphasize the importance of combining nature and nurture to understand fathers, parenting, and family stress and their effects on development. As the Norton Chair, my goal is collaboration and advancement of knowledge around a set of shared research questions in this area. To make sense of it all, I rely on evolutionary theory, which guides how I form hypotheses, aids in recognizing and integrating significant observations, and suggests lines of research to pursue (and avoid).  

Areas of expertise: 
  • Evolutionary-developmental psychology
  • Impact of fathers and families on adolescent development
  • Timing of puberty
  • Neurobiological susceptibility to environmental influence
  • Adaptive individual differences

Research Focus: 

As an overarching goal of my career, I seek to integrate evolutionary biology and developmental psychology—to create a new field of study, which David Bjorklund and I have called evolutionary developmental psychology (Ellis & Bjorklund, 2005; Bjorklund, Ellis, & Rosenberg, 2007). Along these lines, my research focuses on generating and testing evolutionary models of developmental experience. At one level, this focus involves theory development: advancing new models of how evolution has shaped the child’s brain to respond to specific features of family environments and the larger ecological context. This theoretical work has twice been recognized by the George A. Miller Award from the American Psychological Association. At another level, my work focuses on theory testing: examining the impact of fathers, family relationships, and socioecological conditions on children’s biological stress responses, timing of pubertal development, and first sexual experience and pregnancy. Although my research has shown replicable effects of families and ecological stress on these developmental outcomes, the size of these effects differ across individuals. That is, some children are more impacted by their rearing experiences than are others. Another focus of my research, therefore, is investigating differences between children in their neurobiological susceptibility to environmental influence.

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Current Projects: 
  • Principal Investigator, Impact of Fathers on Adolescent Sexual Development and Risk Behaviors: Sibling Study. Supported by Fathering the Future Trust; Norton Fathers, Parenting, & Families Endowment; private donors to Norton School; Frances McClelland Institute.  Collaborators: Jacqueline Tither, Gabriel Schlomer, Elizabeth Tilley, Emily Butler.
  • Principal Investigator, Influence of Family Stress and Support on Adolescent Sexual Development and Risk Behaviors: Longitudinal Studies. Supported by grants from United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and National Science Foundation (NSF). Collaborators: Jenee Jackson, Julianna Deardorff, Robert Quinlan, Marilyn Essex, Judy Garber, Ken Dodge, Robert Hiatt, Elizabeth Shirtcliff.
  • Co-Investigator, Biological Reactivity to Stress as a Marker of Susceptibility to Environmental Influence. Funding from the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH). Collaborators: Tom Boyce, Marilyn Essex, Elizabeth Shirtcliff, Julianna Deardorff, Marco Del Giudice, Jenee Jackson.
  • Principal Investigator, Effects of Harsh versus Unpredictable Environments on Risky Adolescent Behavior. Collaborators: Gabriel Schlomer, Barbara Brumbach, AJ Figueredo, Jay Belsky.
  • Co-Investigator, Parent-Offspring Conflict. Collaborators: Gabriel Schlomer, Judy Garber, Marco Del Giudice.
  • Co-Investigator, Children’s Performance on a False Belief Task is Impaired by Activation of an Evolutionarily-Canalized Response System.  Collaborators: David Bjorklund, Ashley King, Thomas Keenan. 
  • Co-Principal Investigator, Fathers, Parents and Family Connections. Funded by the Norton Endowment for Fathers, Parenting and Families. Principal Investigator: Melissa Barnett.  Collaborators: Dennis Embry, Gabriel Schlomer, Tomas DeBaca, Ashley King, Triin Anton, Elizabeth Tilley.

Subjects Taught: 
  • Biosocial development (undergraduate and graduate)
  • Applied Statistical Analysis (graduate)
  • Research Methods in Family Studies and Human Development (graduate)
  • Adolescent Health and Development (graduate)
  • Developmental Plasticity and Evolution (graduate)
  • Family Relationships and Development of Reproductive Strategies (graduate)

Select Publications: 

Please contact Dr. Bruce Ellis if you are unable to locate one of the publications listed below.

Note: Asterisks indicate graduate students under the direction of Ellis.

Ellis, B.J.,*Schlomer, G.L., *Tilley, E.H., & Butler, E.A. (in press). Impact of fathers on risky sexual behavior in daughters: A genetically and environmentally controlled sibling studyDevelopment and Psychopathology.

Belsky, J., *Schlomer, G.L., & Ellis, B.J. (in press). Beyond cumulative risk: Distinguishing harshness and unpredictability as determinants of parenting and early life history strategyDevelopmental Psychology.

*Schlomer, G.L., Del Giudice, M., & Ellis, B.J. (in press). Parent-offspring conflict theory: An evolutionary framework for understanding conflict within human families. Psychological Review.

Ellis, B.J. (2011). Toward an evolutionary-developmental explanation of alternative reproductive strategies: The central role of switch-controlled modular systems. In D.M. Buss & P.H. Hawley (Eds.), The evolution of personality and individual differences (pp. 177-209). New York: Oxford University Press.

Ellis, B.J., Shirtcliff, E.A., Boyce, W.T., Deardorff, J., & Essex, M.J. (2011). Quality of early family relationships and the timing and tempo of puberty: Effects depend on biological sensitivity to contextDevelopment and Psychopathology, 23, 85-99.

Ellis, B.J., Boyce, W.T., Belsky, J., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J., & van IJzendoorn, M.H. (2011). Differential susceptibility to the environment: An evolutionary- neurodevelopmental theory. Development and Psychopathology, 23, 7-28.

Ellis, B.J., & Boyce, W.T. (2011). Differential susceptibility to the environment: Toward an understanding of sensitivity to developmental experiences and context. Editorial introducing Special Section of Development and Psychopathology, 23, 1-5.

*Kavanagh, P.S., *Robins, S., & Ellis, B.J. (2010). The mating sociometer: A regulatory mechanism for mating aspirations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 120-132.

*Schlomer, G.L., Ellis, B.J., & Garber, J. (2010). Mother-child conflict and sibling relatedness: A test of hypotheses from parent-offspring conflict theory. Journal of Research in Adolescence, 20, 287-306.

Ellis, B.J., Figueredo, A.J., *Brumbach, B.H., & *Schlomer, G.L. (2009). Fundamental dimensions of environmental risk: The impact of harsh versus unpredictable environments on the evolution and development of life history strategies. Human Nature, 20, 204-268.

*Brumbach, B.H., Figueredo, A.J., & Ellis, B.J. (2009). Effects of harsh and unpredictable environments in adolescence on the development of life history strategies: A longitudinal test of an evolutionary model. Human Nature, 20, 25–51.

*Jackson, J.J., & Ellis, B.J. (2009). Synthesizing life history theory with sexual selection: Toward a comprehensive model of alternative reproductive strategies. Commentary in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32, 31-32.

*Tither, J.M., & Ellis, B.J. (2008). Impact of fathers on daughters’ age at menarche: A genetically- and environmentally-controlled sibling study. Developmental Psychology, 44, 1409-1420.

Ellis, B.J., & Boyce, W.T. (2008). Biological sensitivity to context. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 183-187.

Park, I.J.K., Garber, J., Ciesla, J.A., & Ellis, B.J. (2008). Convergence among multiple methods of measuring the family environment: Relation to depression in mothers and their children. Journal of Family Psychology, 22, 123-134.

Ellis, B.J., & Essex, M.J. (2007). Family environments, adrenarche, and sexual maturation: A longitudinal test of a life history model. Child Development, 78, 1799-1817.

Bjorklund, D.F., Ellis, B.J., & Rosenberg, J.S. (2007).  Evolved probabilistic cognitive mechanisms: An evolutionary approach to gene x environment x development interactions. Advances in Child Development and Behavior, 35, 1-36.

*Healey, M.D., & Ellis, B.J. (2007). Birth order, conscientiousness, and openness to experience: Tests of the family-niche model of personality using a within-family methodology.  Evolution & Human Behavior, 28, 55-59.

Ellis, B.J., *Jackson, J.J., & Boyce, W.T. (2006). The stress response systems: Universality and adaptive individual differences.  Developmental Review, 26, 175-212.

Kirkpatrick, L. A., & Ellis, B.J.  (2006).  What is the evolutionary significance of self-esteem? The adaptive functions of self-evaluative psychological mechanisms.  In M. H. Kernis (Ed.) Self-esteem: Issues and answers (pp. 334-339). New York: Psychology Press.

Boyce, W. T., & Ellis, B.J. (2005). Biological sensitivity to context: I. An evolutionary-developmental theory of the origins and functions of stress reactivity. Development & Psychopathology, 17, 271-301.

Ellis, B.J., Essex, M.J., & Boyce, W.T. (2005). Biological sensitivity to context: II. Empirical explorations of an evolutionary-developmental theory. Development & Psychopathology, 17, 303-328.

Ellis, B.J., & Bjorklund, D.F. (Eds.) (2005).   Origins of the social mind: Evolutionary psychology and child development.   New York: Guilford Press.

Campbell, L., & Ellis, B.J. (2005).  Love and commitment.  In D.M. Buss (Ed.), The Evolutionary Psychology handbook (pp. 419-442).  New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Bjorklund, D.F., & Ellis, B.J. (2005).  Evolutionary psychology and child development: An emerging synthesis. In B.J. Ellis & D.F. Bjorklund (Eds.), Origins of the social mind: Evolutionary psychology and child development (pp. 3-18).  New York: Guilford Press.

Ellis, B.J. (2005).  Individual differences in pubertal timing: An evolutionary-developmental approach.  In B.J. Ellis & D.F. Bjorklund (Eds.), Origins of the social mind: Evolutionary psychology and child development (pp. 164-188). New York: Guilford Press.

Ellis, B.J. (2004).  Timing of pubertal maturation in girls: An integrated life history approach.  Psychological Bulletin, 130, 920-958.

Ellis, B.J., Bates, J.E., Dodge, K.A., Fergusson, D.M., Horwood, J.L., Pettit, G.S., & Woodward, L. (2003).  Does father absence place daughters at special risk for early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy?  Child Development, 74, 801-821.

Keenan, T., & Ellis, B.J. (2003).  Children’s performance on a false belief task is impaired by activation of an evolutionarily-canalized response system.  Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 85, 236-256.

*Durrant, R., & Ellis, B.J. (2003). Evolutionary Psychology.  In M. Gallagher & R.J. Nelson (Eds.), Comprehensive handbook of psychology, Vol. 3: Biological psychology (pp. 1-33). New York: Wiley & Sons. 

Ellis, B.J., Simpson, J.A., & Campbell, L. (2002).  Trait-specific dependence in romantic relationships. Journal of Personality, 70, 611-659.

Ellis, B.J., &  Ketelaar, T.  (2002).  Clarifying the foundations of evolutionary psychology: A reply to Lloyd and Feldman.  Psychological Inquiry, 13, 157-164.

Ellis, B.J. (2002). Of Fathers and Pheromones: Implications of Cohabitation for Daughters' Pubertal Timing. In A. Booth & A.C. Crouter (Eds.), Just living together: Implications of cohabitation for children, families, and social policy (pp. 161-172).  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Kirkpatrick, L. A., & Ellis, B.J.  (2001).  An evolutionary-psychological approach to self-esteem: Multiple domains and multiple functions.  In G. J. O. Fletcher & M. S. Clark (Eds.), Blackwell handbook of social psychology, Vol 2: Interpersonal processes (pp. 411–436).  Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers. 

Ellis, B.J., & Garber, J. (2000).  Psychosocial antecedents of variation in girls' pubertal timing: Maternal depression, stepfather presence, and marital and family stress.  Child Development, 71, 485-501.

Ellis, B.J., & Malamuth, N.M. (2000).  Love and anger in romantic relationships: A discrete systems model.  Journal of Personality, 68, 525-556.

Ketelaar, T., & Ellis, B.J. (2000).  Are evolutionary explanations unfalsifiable? Evolutionary psychology and the Lakatosian philosophy of science.  Psychological Inquiry, 11, 1-21.

Ellis, B.J., &  Ketelaar, T.  (2000).  On the natural selection of alternative models: Evaluation of explanations in Evolutionary Psychology.  Psychological Inquiry, 11, 56-68.

Ellis, B.J., McFadyen-Ketchum, S., Dodge, K.A., Pettit, G.A., & Bates, J.E. (1999). Quality of early family relationships and individual differences in the timing of pubertal maturation in girls: A longitudinal test of an evolutionary model.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 387-401.

Ellis, B.J. (1998).  The partner-specific investment inventory: An evolutionary approach to individual differences in investment. Journal of Personality, 66, 383-442.

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