An interesting new study by Professor Alex Piquero in Dallas found a strong link between the age at which young people imagine they will die and the likelihood that they will commit crimes. Basically youth who expect to not be alive much past their teens were far more likely to be involved in criminal activity. Indeed those with the least hope for the future offended at higher rates and committed more serious crimes. This was a complex study with a sample of over 1400 offenders who were followed for 7 years.
This maybe should not be that surprising. If there is not much hope for the future then why not be reckless? What we see time and again in studies is how risk-taking increases when the chips are down and the world appears dangerous or uncertain. This can result from adverse parenting experiences or worrying neighbourhoods, or both. For example, a recent study found that homeless people in the UK were up to 10 times more likely to gamble than the rest of the population, while another study showed that just living in an area with more boarded up shops leads to higher testosterone levels in boys and more likelihood of drug use. Just feeling left out and fearing being ostracised leads to people making riskier financial decisions (cf Duclos et al). Almost every week we can find similar research, such as about increased sexual risk-taking in children who were traumatised to increased drug and alcohol use in samples of youth who had been abused.
While many are worried about such findings, we are often at a loss as to how to think about helping the situation. This is hardly surprising. Many suggest that such risk-taking behaviours are bad, both for the risk-taker and for society. Sometimes we see a very moral response, suggesting that acts such as drug-taking, precocious sexual activity or committing crimes, are wrong and somehow need correcting or punishing. Others argue for a psychoeducational approach, suggesting that there should be ways in which such young people can be helped, or in other words ‘saved from themselves’.
What many of these ideas leave out is that such risk-taking is in fact not maladaptive, but rather develops as an adaptive strategy., as many evolutionary psychologists have suggested. If we are brought up by two caring parents in a safe, affluent neighbourhood the chances are we will be less of a risk-taker, and for example might be emotionally well regulated, have more friends, do well academically, and be prepared to wait before having children, generally sire less, but invest more in each child. There is less need to take risks when the world feels safe and reliable. The logic of this is that if we see an apple of the tree and it is not ripe, if we believe that there are plenty more coming, we will wait, and defer gratification as it were. If it is now or never and we are hungry then we do not wait, it literally feels like now or never.
Such impulsiveness and risk-taking seems to have a psychobiological aspect, and what we often see is that very early stress, anxiety and trauma lead to psychobiological programming. Girls who are born into more stressful environments (eg abusive ones, or in depriving overseas orphanages) tend to hit puberty earlier and are also more likely to start having sex earlier.. What we know from the research and ideas that have come out of life-course theory is that when under stress we develop what is called a fast as opposed to a slow life-course strategy. The fast strategy generally means more risk-taking, less emotional regulation, and generally higher metabolic rates, leading to more illness later on and even earlier death . This is just what we tend to see in kids from the toughest and most adverse backgrounds, whether emotionally adverse or socoeconomically. They so often have all the symptoms of a fast life-course, such as speedier metabolic rates, higher heart rates, higher inflammation levels, shorter telomeres and higher cortisol levels, less executive functioning etc. After all it makes absolutely no sense to be calm or chilled when your parent might fly off the handle any second, leading to violence or verbal aggression. In such environments it pays to be wired. Such factors,, rather than the usually blamed bad diets, is almost definitely a huge contributor to the massive discrepancy in longevity rates in rich and poor areas.
Such risk-taking fast life-course responses would have been adaptive, and would have ensured survival in our evolutionary past. If the environment is too dangerous there is no point waiting too long to have kids, for example, nor too have too few .. the chances would be that one’s genes would not then be passed on. We also see this in other animal species. Such findings pose serious issues for those who wish to do something about it. The jury remains out about what might be effective, but what seems clear is that no single discipline has the answer, and interventions need to be at a range of levels. Some interventions, such as changing the physical environment or community interventions, have shown promise. Other psychological interventions such as mindfulness also seem to have an effect on such bodily reactivity, alongside more conventional psychological help. There are of course a range of more complex, socially endemic issues such as poverty, inequality levels etc , which if not tackled make it unlikely that community and indicidual approaches will be anything more than a neoliberal ‘sop’. Despite this, it is an exciting time for such science and it might be that we are on the cusp of new paradigms for such work.