Executive Editor Michael Roy talks with Avshalom Caspi, Ph.D., about his research on the relationship between early-life stress and later
By Adam Rogers, Wired Magazine
Terrie Moffitt has been trying to figure out why men are terrible for more than 25 years. Or, to calibrate: Why some men are really terrible—violent, criminal, dangerous—but most men are not. And, while she’s at it, how to tell which man is going to become which.
A small number of people are responsible for the vast majority of crimes. Many of those people display textbook “antisocial behavior”—technically, a serious disregard for other people’s rights—as adolescents. The shape of the problem is called the age-crime curve, arrests plotted against the age of the offender. It looks like a shark’s dorsal fin, spiking in the teenage years and then long-tailing off to the left.
In 1992, Moffitt, now a psychologist at Duke University, pitched an explanation for that shape: The curve covers two separate groups. Most people don’t do bad things. Some people only do them as teenagers. And a very small number start doing them as toddlers and keep doing them until they go to prison or die. Her paper became a key hypothesis in psychology, criminology, and sociology, cited thousands of times.
In a review article in Nature Human Behaviour this week, Moffitt takes a ride through two decades of attempts to validate the taxonomy. Not for girls, Moffitt writes, because even though she studies both sexes, “findings have not reached consensus.” But for boys and men? Oh yeah.
To be clear, Moffitt isn’t trying to develop a toxicology of toxic masculinity here. As a researcher she’s interested in the interactions of genes and environment, and the reasons some delinquent children—but not all—turn into crime-committing adults. That’s a big enough project. But at this exact cultural moment, with women of the #MeToo movement calling sexual harassers and abusers to account just as mass shootings feel as if they’ve become a permanent recurring event—and when almost every mass shooter, up to and including the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, has been a man—I’m inclined to try to find explanations anywhere that seems plausible. US women are more likely to be killed by partners than anyone else. Men commit the vast majority of crimes in the US. So it’s worth querying Moffitt’s taxonomy to see if it offers any order to that chaos, even if it wasn’t built for it.
“Grown-ups who use aggression, intimidation, and force to get what they want have invariably been pushing other people around since their very early childhood,” Moffitt says via email from a rural vacation in New Zealand. “Their mothers report they were difficult babies, nursery day-care workers say they are difficult to control, and when all the other kids give up hitting and settle in as primary school pupils, teachers say they don’t. Their record of violating the rights of others begins surprisingly early, and goes forward from there.”
So if you could identify those kids then, maybe you could make things better later? Of course, things are way more complicated than that.
Since that 1993 paper, hundreds of studies have tested pieces of Moffitt’s idea. Moffitt herself has worked on a few prospective studies, following kids through life to see if they fall into her categories, and then trying to figure out why.
For example, she worked with the Dunedin Study, which followed health outcomes for more than 1,000 boys and girls in New Zealand starting in the early 1970s. Papers published from the data have included looks at marijuana use, physical and mental health, and psychological outcomes. Moffitt and her colleagues found that about a quarter of the males in the study fit the criteria she’d laid out for “adolescence limited” antisociability; they’re fine until they hit their teens, then they do all sorts of bad stuff, and then they stop. And 10 percent were “life-course persistent”—they have trouble as children, and it doesn’t stop. As adolescents, all had about the same rates of bad conduct.
But as children, the LCP boys scored much higher on a set of specific risks. Their mothers were younger. They tended to have been disciplined more harshly, and have experienced more family strife as kids. They scored lower on reading, vocabulary, and memory tests, and had a lower resting heart rate—some researchers think that people feel lower heart rates as discomfort and undertake riskier behaviors in pursuit of the adrenaline highs that’ll even them out. “LCP boys were impulsive, hostile, alienated, suspicious, cynical, and callous and cold toward others,” Moffitt writes of the Dunedin subjects in her Nature Human Behaviour article. As adults, “they self-reported excess violence toward partners and children.” They had worse physical and mental health in their 30s, were more likely to be incarcerated, and were more likely to attempt suicide.
Other studies have found much the same thing. A small number of identifiable boys turn into rotten, violent, unhappy men.
Could Moffitt’s taxonomy account for sexual harassers and abusers? In one sense, it seems unlikely: Her distinction explicitly says by adulthood there should only be a small number of bad actors, yet one of the lessons of #MeToo has been that every woman, it seems, has experienced some form of harassment.
Meta-analyses of the incidence of workplace sexual harassment vary in their outcomes, but a large-scale one from 2003 that covered 86,000 women reported that 56 percent experienced “potentially harassing” behaviors and 24 percent had definitely been harassed. Other studies get similar results.
But as pollsters say, check the cross-tabs. Harassment has sub-categories. Many—maybe most—women experience the gamut of harassing behaviors, but sub-categories like sexual coercion (being forced to have sex as a quid pro quo or to avoid negative consequences) or outright assault are rarer than basic institutional sexism and jerky, inappropriate comments. “What women are more likely to experience is everyday sexist behavior and hostility, the things we would describe as gender harassment,” says John Pryor, a psychologist at Illinois State University who studies harassment.
Obviously, any number greater than zero here is too high. And studies of prevalence can’t tell you if so many women are affected because all men harass at some low, constant ebb or few men do it, like, all the time. Judging by reports of accusations, the same super-creepy men who plan out sexual coercion may also impulsively grope and assault women. Those kind of behaviors, combined with the cases where many more accusers come forward after the first one, seem to me to jibe with the life-course persistent idea. “Sometimes people get caught for the first time as an adult, but if we delve into their history, the behavior has been there all along,” Moffitt says. “Violating the rights of others is virtually always a life-long lifestyle and an integral part of a person’s personality development.”
That means it’s worth digging into people’s histories. Whisper networks have been the de facto means of protecting women in the workplace; the taxonomy provides an intellectual framework for giving them a louder voice, because it suggests that men with a history of harassment and abuse probably also have a future of it.
Now, some writers have used the idea of toxic masculinity to draw a line between harassment, abuse, and mass shootings. They’re violent, and the perpetrators tend to be men. But here, Moffitt’s taxonomy may be less applicable.
Despite what the past few years have felt like, mass shootings are infrequent. And many mass shooters end up committing suicide or being killed themselves, so science on them is scant. “Mass shootings are such astonishingly rare, idiosyncratic, and multicausal events that it is impossible to explain why one individual decides to shoot his or her classmates, coworkers, or strangers and another does not,” write Benjamin Winegard and Christopher Ferguson in their chapter of The Wiley Handbook of the Psychology of Mass Shootings.
That said, researchers have found a few commonalities. The shooters are often suicidal, or more precisely have stopped caring whether they live or die, says Adam Lankford, a criminologist at the University of Alabama. Sometimes they’re seeking fame and attention. And they share a sense that they themselves are victims. “That’s how they justify attacking others,” Lankford says. “Sometimes the perceptions are based in reality—I was bullied, or whatever—but sometimes they can be exacerbated by mental health problems or personality characteristics.”
Though reports on mass shooters often say that more than half of them are also domestic abusers, that number needs some unpacking. People have lumped together mass shootings of families—domestic by definition—with public mass shootings like the one in Las Vegas, or school shootings. Disaggregate the public active shooters from the familicides and the number of shooters with histories of domestic abuse goes down. (Of course, that doesn’t change preposterously high number of abused women murdered by their partners outside of mass shooting events.)
What may really tip the mass shooter profile away from Moffitt’s taxonomy, though, is that people in the life-course persistent cohort do uncontrolled, crazy stuff all the time. Yes, some mass shooters have a history of encounters with law enforcement, let’s say. But some don’t. Mass shootings are, characteristically, highly planned events. “I’m not saying it’s impossible to be a mass shooter and have poor impulse control, but if you have poor impulse control you won’t be able to go for 12 months of planning an attack without ending up in jail first,” Lankford says.
Moffitt isn’t trying to build a unified field theory of the deadly patriarchy. When I suggest that the societal structures that keep men in power relative to women, generally, might explain the behavior of her LCP cohort, she disagrees. “If sexual harassment and mass shootings were the result of cultural patriarchy and societal expectations for male behavior, all men would be doing it all the time,” Moffitt says. “Even though media attention creates the impression that these forms of aggression are highly prevalent and all around us, they are nevertheless still extremely rare. Most men are trustworthy, good, and sensible.”
She and her colleagues continue to look for hard markers for violence or lack of impulse control, genes or neurobiological anomalies. (A form of the gene that codes for a neurotransmitter called monoamine oxidase inhibitor A might give some kids protection against lifelong effects of maltreatment, she and her team have found. By implication not having that polymorphism, then, could predispose a child raised under adverse circumstances to psychopathology as an adult.) Similarly, nobody yet knows what digital-native kids in either cohort will do when they move their bad behavior online. One might speculate that it looks a lot like GamerGate and 4chan, though that sociological and psychological work is still in early days.
But for now, Moffitt and her co-workers have identified risk factors and childhood conditions that seem to create these bad behaviors, or allow them to flourish. That’s the good news. “We know a lifestyle of aggression and intimidation toward others starts so young,” Moffitt says. “It could be preventable.”
Story originally published in Wired Magazine on 2/23/18