Every so often someone in policing will relate a story about a piece of research they read or heard about that describes a relationship between two things – say sugar consumption and diabetes - that seems so obvious that it can only be termed the “Duh factor.” Usually, when such stories are told they are accompanied with the question, “why did they bother?”
I bring this up because I’ve been following some recent research on ACEs and criminality. For those of you not up on all of the latest buzz terms, ACE stands for adverse childhood experience(s). It refers to such traumatic events as neglect, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, foster care, the loss of a parent and so on. Some have even argued that poverty is also an ACE. The idea among ACE researchers is that individuals with criminal histories are also more likely to also have one or more adverse experiences in childhood.
Much of the ACE work is framed within a social work or psychology framework, but these connections are well-known and have been studied for decades within the field of Criminology. In fact, we have a number of fairly influential theories that have been used to explain various aspects and they have been incredibly well-tested.
You might reasonably ask: given that we know criminals often have poor childhoods, why study this phenomenon at all? Isn’t this a bit of a Duh?
And from a public policy perspective, studying people who became criminals as a preventative exercise actually makes little sense. If the goal is to create interventions that prevent people from a life of crime, why wouldn’t you focus on people who had similar childhoods to those within the criminal population, but didn’t become criminals? Presumably, these are the individuals who can reveal much about what protective factors work to deter or prevent someone from going down the wrong path.
There are at least two explanations for the focus on criminal rather than non-criminal populations.
1. It’s easier for social scientists to access criminal populations than to identify and interview/survey people within the general population who have the desired backgrounds and characteristics. General surveys are big money and response rates can be poor. By way of contrast, people in jail and prison are, literally and figuratively speaking, a captive audience for researchers.
2. For criminologists, focusing on crime and criminals is ‘normal.’
Last week I was reading a great book by Siddharta Mukherjee called, The Laws of Medicine. His first law is “normal teach us rules, outliers teach us laws.” To illustrate this point, he used the example of a cancer drug trial in which the majority of patients did not improve when given the treatment. As patients weren’t responding, researchers stopped the trial, concluding the drug was useless. But one did respond (an ‘outlier’). What was it about that one woman? And, could we identify the genetic or other factor that led to her successful treatment (with the hopes of identifying similar others)?
The lesson: when researchers focus solely on those who do not improve with treatment (the ‘norm’ or ‘normal’ group in my Criminology example), they overlook the possibility of discovering important protective or beneficial factors that can help to answer key questions and illuminate our way forward.