Post No.: 0502
Psychological traumas and/or physical (especially head) traumas are strongly linked with violent criminality. One’s mother abusing drugs (including alcohol) while pregnant, high testosterone levels, low resting heart rates, and physical differences in the brain that affect one’s fear and reward processes (e.g. shrunken amygdalae, enlarged ventral striata, holes in the temporal cortex), seem to be strong correlates too.
But are these latter brain differences causes or effects? Do the initial genetics of violent criminals, or does traumatic life events, cause their brains to become physically the way they are? We can exhibit low emotional responses due to brain damage, which physically affects our amygdalae, or we can exhibit low emotional responses due to intentionally shutting out our emotions during our young developmental years as a result of facing childhood traumas, which in turn physically affects the development of our amygdalae.
Well either way, it sets a predisposition. However, a predisposition is not a destiny. And one’s upbringing and current environmental factors could’ve been/could be different rather than was/is inevitable too. There’s also strong evidence to suggest that genes alone aren’t enough – epigenetic effects involve genes that are activated/deactivated by environmental or life events (e.g. juveniles experiencing traumas such as abuse or neglect), which in turn affect one’s behaviours. If this results in negative outcomes, these genes wouldn’t have been a problem if it weren’t for the environmental factors or life events that switched them. (Research is currently ongoing to see if traumas can even be transgenerationally epigenetically inherited in humans i.e. the traumas that parents or grandparents experience affecting the gene expressions their children or grandchildren inherit, by passing these effects through the sperm or eggs.)
An environment of violence (especially if it’s seen to be rewarding e.g. gang members gaining respect for committing violence, robberies that result in financial gains) is a risk factor. Witnessing and/or experiencing a lot of violence when young, such as at home due to corporal punishment, especially if hit on the head in particular (e.g. clouts to the skull as a reprimand), can lead to physical brain damage as well as psychological damage. These can lead to a lower sensitivity to violence.
Understand that, unlike in the movies, when you hit someone on the head or hit your own head – you most likely aren’t going to ‘knock sense into them’ or suddenly gain some amazing skill as a consequence(!) Increasing order by crudely bashing something together is incredibly unlikely even if not technically impossible – it’s like there’s nothing against the laws of physics to casually throw some sand onto the ground and out comes a beautiful sandcastle, but you’re far more likely going to just make a messy pile of sand. So we don’t ‘knock sense into people’ – we very carefully nurture it.
For the most part, when brain cells are damaged or die – whatever the cause – they will not be repaired or be replaced by new brain cells. The brain might adapt by using other, healthy, parts of the brain to perform functions that any lost brain tissue used to do, particularly if a brain is young enough, and surviving neurons can form new connections with other surviving neurons – but lost brain tissue is permanently lost and the cavity is filled in with fluid instead. Therefore this is unlike muscles, skin, the liver and many other organs, which can heal over time. This lost brain tissue is in turn potentially going to affect one’s thoughts, feelings, behaviours and/or personality to some degree or another, and usually in a negative way. It therefore ironically makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to try to ‘knock some sense into someone’!
A person may argue that they were constantly hit by their parents as a child but nothing bad happened to them – but it’s like even the best boxers get hit frequently but only sometimes does a boxer suffer an immediately obvious brain injury i.e. some are luckier than others. It’s also often the case that such problems only manifest many years later when the exact cause(s) start to get more uncertain because of the time delay linking cause with effect. A person may also lose a few IQ points without realising it i.e. if one claims to not have suffered any ill effects then one mightn’t realise that one’s life would’ve actually turned out to have been even better compared to if one had not been physically abused at all? We also need to weigh in all of the other risk factors, as well as all of the protective factors, in an individual’s life too, to work out the overall net effect; which is highly complex. It’s complex but effects nevertheless have causes.
We can also see that traumas beget traumas – for example, a poor single mother cannot look after her child anymore, which is a traumatic situation for her, so she abandons her child, which is a traumatic situation for the child; and this child, for facing such a risk factor, in combination with other unfortunate risk factors related to poverty and his/her situation, commits a crime as an adult, which can traumatise other lives and families, and so on. And then there’s feedback in the system as different individuals with heightened risk factors amplify each other’s behaviours (e.g. racists versus victims of racism fighting back). Everybody is, essentially, in everybody else’s environment and therefore is potentially a part of other people’s environmental risk/protective factors based on how we treat each other in society. Person A abusing or bullying person B, and then person B abusing or bullying person C as a result, is a common pattern. Violence is thus culturally contagious.
So it’s not just about the picture of individuals but the picture of entire communities – or even the entire world when it comes to geopolitics – regarding both risk factors and protective factors. It’s a complex overall picture but one that gets clearer the more we learn and understand about social psychology.
Biological and/or life events that heighten or dampen certain emotions or tendencies, such as our empathy, responses to rewards, or a lack of fear of revenge or the anticipated repercussions of committing a crime, will increase our risks for certain behaviours, such as robbery or murder. So social and biological factors combine. Environmental and genetic factors combine. It’s multiple factors that aggregate. It’s also the risk factors minus the protective factors.
There’ll be biological, psychological and social factors, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), sexual, physical or emotional abuse or traumas (especially when young), and a person’s immediate surrounding culture (e.g. witnessing violence, experiencing racism). People born with seemingly minor biological, psychological and social disadvantages – that aren’t obvious and wouldn’t each individually warrant a diagnosis or problem – may together add up and then compound over the course of their lives. The dice is loaded against some individuals in ways that constrain their freedom of volition more than others – in this case by increasing the probability that they’ll commit a violent crime in the future. Some children are unfortunate in how they’re born or what they experience when young (see also Post No.: 0299), yet since it’s not all genetic – there are societal solutions that involve modifying their environment and social factors for the better (e.g. by reducing austerity, socio-economic inequality and discrimination).
As a thought experiment, if you are young/were young again and knew you had a heightened risk for criminality in the future – would you choose to do something to reduce those risks in any way you can? Most people probably would do so even if no solution is guaranteed to 100% work. This thus suggests that we should help any disadvantaged children – for prevention is typically better than punishment or attempted cure or treatment when we take a long-term and big-picture view. Trying to ‘cure’ former terror offenders is incredibly difficult – best to start children and adolescents off on the right path from the very start than to try to change a mind later. Prevention is best for the would-be victims of crime too for they wouldn’t become victims of crimes because those crimes would’ve been prevented.
This all expands our understanding that perpetrators of crime are usually victims of something themselves. And to punish people when they have and/or had unfortunate problems, circumstances, mental health issues or complex needs, and to take away what little they have, makes matters worse for them and the communities they’re in.
So there are strong arguments for treating violent crime not just as a criminal issue but also as a public health issue. Well in places where violent crime is a major problem, it’s as if it’s a behaviour that’s transmissible within a culture, like a disease. Effects have causes, and so it’s logical to try to tackle these causes – which include inequality, drinking problems, racism and other socio-economic factors – rather than wrongly assume that effects like criminality just ‘spontaneously’ appear because people just ‘spontaneously’ choose to commit crimes. Criminality is dependent on people’s biology, upbringing environment and current environment.
If being more compassionate and nurturing towards criminals works then it works, and VRUs (Violence Reduction Units) in the UK that treat crime as a public health issue have been claiming successes in reducing violent crime levels (although it’s difficult to tease apart what results are down to which elements).
It starts when young, such as the parenting a child receives (e.g. not all children have parents who care to wake them up if they’re going to be late for school), their education in terms of resolving conflicts in a more peaceful and productive manner (‘soft skills’) and not just academic achievements, and not excluding pupils from school so much (an early setback in life can compound for it affects a child’s education, which makes them less employable, which might tempt them into a life of crime, and then they’ll get a criminal record, which further makes them harder to employ, and so they’ll easily fall back into a life of crime if their time in custody focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation and they are left with no practical support once they are released, etc.). Prevention is better than trying to treat a problem that has already taken root.
This doesn’t necessarily mean being less tough on crime but shows us that we need to also, or especially, be tough on the causes of crime and become much better at shaping environments and positively encouraging desired behaviours in society (including improving parenting practices) that increase the protective factors and prevent or minimise the risk factors involved in violence and crime. Reducing gross levels of socio-economic inequality would be a good start.
Probably the first questions we must therefore ask before ever judging anyone is how was their background? Maybe we shouldn’t – or it’s folly trying to – judge people based on things that aren’t down to their own free and un-coerced choices (e.g. because their opportunities were limited for being born into poverty), or if we do judge such people then it’ll have to be with understanding and compassion. We can perhaps judge their choices if they had both the reasonable means to accept and reject each choice (like a person who voluntarily undertakes expensive cosmetic surgery could be judged as insecure and vain – albeit such a judgement should really again be made with understanding and compassion rather than condescendence because feeling so insecure can’t be nice). Maybe consequentially, when we reason such things through – all character judgements, if we still feel compelled to make them, must be made with better empathy at the end of the day (e.g. he/she’s a violent person but perhaps it was at least partly down to his/her own experiences of violent traumas or other unfortunate circumstances when young?) This isn’t naturally easy for us to do for we prefer to mount our high horses and claim superiority over others at every chance – but the science suggests we should try.