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.”
– Adam Rogers
Photo source – Flickr.com