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The psychology of stuttering

Updated: Jun 8

Here at Victory Consultancy, our aim is to use psychological science to investigate and solve behavioural and social problems. Stuttering is a speech problem affecting 1% of the general population. The most common form of stuttering is developmental which often begins in early childhood during formative years. The etiology of stuttering is strongly debated often considered to be a neurological or a psychological condition. A review of brain studies suggests that people who stutter (PWS) have some structural and functional abnormalities in some brain areas. However, these abnormalities are reported to possibly be the result of chronic stuttering rather than the cause of it.

Nature vs Nurture

Nonetheless, compelling evidence from twin studies report that moderate to large variance of stuttering is hereditary. However, these studies also have found that environmental factors contributes moderately to the etiology of stuttering. Put simply, stuttering is a result of both nature and nurture. However, little is known of the exact nurturing or environmental factors. This was the main cause of an empirical study conducted by me (Victor) that looked into the psychological factors with the most variance contributing to stuttering in adults.

The primary hypothesis of the study (currently under journal review) was that psychological factors will have a moderate effect on self-reported stuttering in adults who stutter. Using quantitative statistical techniques and data from adults who stutters from across 5 continents, the hypothesis was supported. Combining data from the study, the literature, and from direct experience of working with adults who stutter. The image below simplify key areas of relevance.

Psychosocial drivers of stuttering

  • Attentional shifting: This refers to the ability to cognitively switch attention between tasks and mental models. Its directly related to the development of executive functioning. Attentional shifting is involve in many cognitive daily processes and optimal development is strongly linked to early childhood experiences. For individuals who stutter, deficit in executive shifting manifest as difficulties disengaging attention from threatening stimuli.

  • Social engagement: This captures our diverse rich social experiences. It requires us to be presently engaged with our environment. From a neuropsychological view, engaging with diverse stimulating social experiences facilitates neural plasticity which supports optimal brain development and executive functioning. People who stutter usually have less diverse stimulating social experiences or are more disengaged during social experiences.

  • Protective behaviours: There are clear evolutionary and survival value for protective behaviours. However, too much of this can prevent optimal engagement with our environment which is necessary for cognitive and psychological development. People who stutter usually consciously and unconsciously adopt rigid protective behaviours to reduce or avoid the perceived impact of anticipating their stutter and the consequences of stuttering.

I feel the need to add that the above is not meant to provide a complex breakdown of how the different mechanisms interacts. Its a simplification to help those looking for a starting point on what to reflect on or what to consider learning more about from a psychosocial perspective. Next, I will explore stuttering from a psychodynamic perspective with an emphasis on the unconscious processes involve.

If you are a person who stutter or a parent and have any questions feel free to reach out to me. Alternatively, join the mailing list below to join the conversation.


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