May 14, 2009
Genes Determine Crime Victim Risks In Adolescents?

We live in the age of genes.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Genes trump environment as the primary reason that some adolescents are more likely than others to be victimized by crime, according to groundbreaking research led by distinguished criminologist Kevin M. Beaver of The Florida State University.

The study is believed to be the first to probe the genetic basis of victimization.

The idea of a genetic basis for victimization is highly plausible. Some muscular, tall, with fast reflexes, the ability to run fast, with an alpha dominant personality is a lot less likely to get messed with. Lots of personality traits which partial genetic bases influence one's willingness to put one at risk.

"Victimization can appear to be a purely environmental phenomenon, in which people are randomly victimized for reasons that have nothing to do with their genes," said Beaver, an assistant professor in FSU's nationally top-10-ranked College of Criminology and Criminal Justice. "However, because we know that genetically influenced traits such as low self control affect delinquent behavior, and delinquents, particularly violent ones, tend to associate with antisocial peers, I had reasons to suspect that genetic factors could influence the odds of someone becoming a victim of crime, and these formed the basis of our study."

Beaver analyzed a sample of identical and same-sex fraternal twins drawn from a large, nationally representative sample of male and female adolescents interviewed in 1994 and 1995 for the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. "Add Health" interviewers had gathered data on participants that included details on family life, social life, romantic relationships, extracurricular activities, drug and alcohol use, and personal victimization.

The data convinced Beaver that genetic factors explained a surprisingly significant 40 to 45 percent of the variance in adolescent victimization among the twins, while non-shared environments (those environments that are not the same between siblings) explained the remaining variance. But among adolescents who were victimized repeatedly, the effect of genetic factors accounted for a whopping 64 percent of the variance.

Kids at genetic risk of victimization are at much greater risk if they live in higher crime areas. Parents ought to consider the personalities and physiques of their kids when deciding where to live.

It is not all down to genes. But genes play a big role.

"However, we're not suggesting that victimization occurs because a gene is saying 'Okay, go get victimized,' or solely because of genetic factors," Beaver said. "All traits and behaviors result from a combination of genes and both shared and non-shared environmental factors."

When offspring genetic engineering becomes possible and the alleles for lowering crime victimization risks become known some parents eager to give their children every edge will choose genes that cut risks that their children will become victims.

Update: Here's a study that complements the one above: first graders with depression are more likely to get beat on.

Children entering first grade with signs of depression and anxiety or excessive aggression are at risk of being chronically victimized by their classmates by third grade. That's the finding of a new longitudinal study that appears in the May/June 2009 issue of the journal Child Development.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Victoria, looked at more than 400 Canadian children beginning in the autumn of first grade. The children were asked about their experiences being bullied (such as being hit, pushed, and shoved, or being teased and excluded from play). Their teachers were asked to report on the children's symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as on their displays of physical aggression. The researchers returned at the end of first, second, and third grades, at which time they asked the children and their teachers to report on the same issues.

Most children (73 percent) showed few symptoms of depression and anxiety over the three years. But 7 percent of the children showed continuously high levels. The remaining 20 percent showed moderate symptoms at first, but these increased over time. Victimization by depressed and anxious children wasn't evident until third grade.

So then Prozac might reduce bullying.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 May 14 11:20 PM  Society Genes Crime

Anders Sandberg said at May 15, 2009 7:33 AM:

One part of the genetic basis might be intelligence. This study shows that (controlling for SES) people in the lower 11% of the IQ range had about five times higher risk of being a homicide victim:

G. David Batty, Ian J. Deary, Anders Tengstrom, Finn Rasmussen. IQ in early adulthood and later risk of death by homicide: cohort study of 1 million men, The British Journal of Psychiatry (2008) 193: 461-465

The causality is a bit unclear, but could include inability to talk one's way out of trouble, not recognizing risks, drug use or even a tendency to socialize with potential perpetrators.

Tom Billings said at May 15, 2009 11:56 AM:

At present, one component of genetic risk for victimization will certainly be the presence of an Autistic Spectrum Disorder(ASD). Not only are ASD kids who are even mildly affected less able to tell when a social situation is souring, they all too often fail to detect the obvious signs of predatory behavior in others early in their life. Later in life, they may have developed habits of seeing them everywhere, and thus have to discount their established emotional assumptions about their environment, and sometimes they will do so incorrectly. This has been exacerbated, though, by official attitudes towards those children who are not socially nimble, and who, because of the ASD they were born with, cannot learn to come anywhere near normal levels of social nimbleness. Scripts used by Aspies help, but scripts run out, often at just the time a neurotypical sees the social activity they wanted, and accelerates the social dance.

There is a long history of violence against children with ASD behaviors in schools. Often, the social isolation of such children alone is enough to attract those with some degree of sociopathy, who believe them to be easy prey, and are often all too correct in that opinion. With the rise in numbers of ASD children, a bit of change is in the air about this. Where 50 years ago an ASD child simply heard the refrain "you've just got to learn how to get along" from school administrators in response to complaints of violent assaults, some schools are reforming those attitudes.

In a local school district I attended between 1956 and 1969 there was such a reform about the turn of the century. In the years I attended, I experienced many bullying incidents, a systematic harassment campaign lasting 6 years, and 2 attempts at murder, using knives. As late as the 1990s that activity had escalated to the use of guns against those with ASDs, as reported to me by fellow Aspies who are now counselors in that school district. This reform demanded a refusal to make allowance for bullying or stronger violence, just because the assaulted kid "acts strange". This required intensive retraining out of the old attitudes for many administrators. After 3 years the rates for violence against those with ASDs were so low that only 3 bullying incidents were mentioned recently by those counselors to me as having happened between 2003 and 2008.

So, we can see that the old attitudes of adults towards those with a genetic disorder such as ASDs are also a substantial component in violence towards them. The genetic disorder that decreases social nimbleness is still there, and in an agrarian culture environment would still lead to the violence that kept ASD populations much smaller as a percentage of the whole population in such cultures. That does not mean that those behaviors need be tolerated in the schools of an industrial culture.

Indeed, from inside the autistic community, one can look at the debates about something other than genetics causing ASDs with little toleration, IMHO. The reason there are more kids with deeper spectrum ASDs is that parents with less visible ASDs were not killed before they had a chance to have children. Agrarian culture's demand for close social interaction amongst an isolated rural population is no longer nearly as violent, as industrial culture grows and becomes more predominant.

Not too far into the future we will be able to cure ASDs in utero. Some years later, we may well be able to get adults with ASDs all the brain interconnection bandwidth of neurotypicals. We may even be able to get them mirror neurons that work well enough. Then that part of the victimization problem will be a historical footnote.

It is the interaction of genetics with particular cultural contexts that determines violence against a child.


Tom Billings

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