None of us are conceived or born as full adults; we all need to grow and develop from single cells to fully-formed adults. Unfortunately – for the sake of development, anyway – the future world you will find yourself in is not always predictable, which makes development a tricky matter at times. While there are often regularities in the broader environment (such as the presence or absence of sunlight, for instance), not every individual will inhabit the same environment or, more precisely, the same place in their environment. Consider two adult males, one of whom is six-feet tall and 230 pounds of muscle, and the other being five-feet tall and 110 pounds. While the dichotomy here is stark, it serves to make a simple point: if both of these males developed in a psychological manner that led them to pursue precisely the same strategies in life – in this case, say, one involving aggressive contests for access to females – it is quite likely that the weaker male will lose out to the stronger one most (if not all) of the time. As such, in order to be more-consistently adaptive, development must be something of a fluid process that helps tailor an individual’s psychology to the unique positions they find themselves in within a particular environment. Thus, if an organism is able to use some cues within their environment to predict their likely place in it in the future (in this case, whether they would grow large or small), their development could be altered to encourage their pursuit of alternate routes to eventual reproductive success.
Because pretending you’re cut out for that kind of life will only make it worse
Let’s take that initial example and adapt it to a new context: rather than trying to predict whether one will grow up weak or strong, a child is trying to predict the probability of receiving parental investment in the future. If parental investment is unlikely to be forthcoming, children may need to take a different approach to their development to help secure the needed resources on their own, sometimes requiring their undertaking risky behaviors; by contrast, those children who are likely to receive consistent investment might be relatively less-inclined to take such risky and costly matters into their own hands, as the risk vs. reward calculations don’t favor such behavior. Placed in an understandable analogy, a child who estimates they won’t be receiving much investment from their parents might forgo a college education (and, indeed, even much of a high-school one) because they need to work to make ends meet. When you’re concerned about where your next meal is coming from there’s less time in your schedule for studying and taking out loans to not be working for four years. By contrast, the child from a richer family has the luxury of pursuing an education likely to produce greater future rewards because certain obstacles have been removed from their path.
Now obviously going to college is not something that humans have psychological adaptations for – it wasn’t a recurrent feature of our evolutionary history as a species – but there are cognitive systems we might expect to follow different developmental trajectories contingent on such estimations of one’s likely place in the environment; these could include systems judging the relative attractiveness of short- vs long-term rewards, willingness to take risks, pursuit of aggressive resolutions to conflicts, and so on. If the future is uncertain, saving for it makes less than taking a smaller reward in the present; if you lack social or financial support, being willing to fight to defend what little you do have might sound more appealing (as losing that little bit is more impactful when you won’t have anything left). The questions of interest thus becomes, “what cues in the environment might a developing child use to determine what their future will look like?” This brings us to the current paper by Abajobir et al (2016).
One potential cue might be your experiences with maltreatment while growing up, specifically at the hands of your caregivers. Though Abajobir et al (2016) don’t make the argument I’ve been sketching out explicitly, that seems to be the direction their research takes. They seem to reason (implicitly) that parental mistreatment should be a reliable cue to the future conditions you’re liable to encounter and, accordingly, one that children could use to alter their development. For instance, abusive or neglectful parents might lead to children adopting faster life history strategies involving risk-taking, delinquency, and violence themselves (or, if they’re going the maladaptive explanatory route, the failure of parents to provide supporting environments could in some way hinder development from proceeding as it usually would, in a similar fashion to not having enough food growing up might lead to one being shorter as an adult. I don’t know which line the authors would favor from their paper). That said, there is a healthy (and convincing) literature consistent with the hypothesis that parental behavior per se is not the cause of these developmental outcomes (Harris, 2009), but rather that it simply co-occurs with them. Specifically, abusive parents might be genetically different from non-abusive ones and those tendencies could get passed onto the children, accounting for the correlation. Alternatively, parents that maltreat their children might just happen to go together with children having peer groups growing up more prone to violence and delinquency themselves. Both are caused by other third variables.
Your personality usually can’t be blamed on them; you’re you all on your own
Whatever the nature of that correlation, Abajobir et al (2016) sought to use parental maltreatment from ages 0 to 14 as a predictor of later delinquent behaviors in the children by age 21. To do so, they used a prospective cohort of children and their mothers visiting a hospital between 1981-83. The cohort was then tracked for substantiated cases of child maltreatment reported to government agencies up to age 14, and at age 21 the children themselves were surveyed (the mothers being surveyed at several points throughout that time). Out of the 7200 initial participants, 3800 completed the 21-year follow up. At that follow up point, the children were asked questions concerning how often they did things like get excessively drunk, use recreational drugs, break the law, lie, cheat, steal, destroy the property of others, or fail to pay their debts. The mothers were also surveyed on matters concerning their age when they got pregnant, their arrest records, martial stability, and the amount of supervision they gave their children (all of these factors, unsurprisingly, predicting whether or not people continued on in the study for its full duration).
In total, of the 512 eventual cases of reported child maltreatment, only 172 remained in the sample at the 21-year follow up. As one might expect, maternal factors like her education status, arrest record, economic status, and unstable marriages all predicted increased likelihood of eventual child maltreatment. Further, of the 3800 participants, only 161 of them met the criteria for delinquency at 21 years. All of the previous maternal factors predicted delinquency as well: mothers who were arrested, got pregnant earlier, had unstable marriages, less education, and less money tended to produce more delinquent offspring. Adjusting for the maternal factors, however, it was reported that childhood maltreatment still predicted delinquency, but only for the male children. Specifically, maltreatment in males was associated with approximately 2-to-3.5 times as much delinquency as the non-maltreated males. For female offspring, there didn’t seem to be any notable correlation.
Now, as I mentioned, there are some genetic confounds here. It seems probable that parents who maltreat their children are, in some very real sense, different than parents who do not, and those tendencies can be inherited. This also doesn’t necessarily point a causal finger directly at parents, as it is also likely that maltreatment correlates with other social factors, like the peer group a child is liable to have or the neighborhoods they grow up in. The authors also mention that it is possible their measures of delinquency might not capture whatever effects childhood maltreatment (or its correlates) have on females, and that’s the point I wanted to wrap up discussing. To really put these findings on context, we would need to understand what adaptive role these delinquent behaviors – or rather the psychological mechanisms underlying them – have. For instance, frequent recreational drug use and problems fulfilling financial obligations might both signal that the person in question favors short-term rewards over long-term ones; frequent trouble with the law or destroying other people’s property could signal something about how the individual in question competes for social status. Maltreatment does seem to predict (even if it might not cause) different developmental courses, perhaps reflecting an active adjustment of development to deal with local environmental demands.
The kids at school will all think you’re such a badass for this one
As we reviewed in the initial example, however, the same strategies will not always work equally well for every person. Those who are physically weaker are less likely to successfully enact aggressive strategies, all else being equal, for reasons which should be clear. Accordingly, we might expect that men and women show different patterns of delinquency to the extent they face unique adaptive problems. For instance, we might expect that females who find themselves in particularly hostile environments preferentially seek out male partners capable of enacting and defending against such aggression, as males tend to be more physically formidable (which is not to say that the women themselves might not be more physically aggressive as well). Any hypothetical shifts in mating preferences like these would not be captured by the present research particularly well, but it is nice to see the authors are at least thinking about what sex differences in patterns of delinquency might exist. It would be preferable if they were asking about those differences using this kind of a functional framework from the beginning, as that’s likely to yield more profitable insights and refine what questions get asked, but it’s good to see this kind of work all the same.
References: Abajobir, A., Kisely, S., Williams, G., Strathearnd, L., Clavarino, A., & Najman, J. (2016). Gender differences in delinquency at 21 years following childhood maltreatment: A birth cohort study. Personality & Individual Differences, 106, 95-103.
Harris, J. (2009). The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. Free Press.