Genetics and environments impact the way we develop as humans, and the way we act in society, but often one has more of an impact that the other. In this case I chose to argue that environmental, nurture, impacts abusive behavior more than genetics do. I believe that a person who has experienced abuse as a child is more likely to perpetrate as an adult- and there is a large amount of research to support this view point. Of course, genetics/nature plays a role in the development of a person who goes on to abuse another person, but the main influence is from nurture more than nature.
There was a study done to look at the genetic impact on intimate partner violence which revealed “certain genetic variants may increase the risk or probability of violence through their impact on other factors” (Stuart, McGeary, Shorey, Knopik, Beaucage, & Temple, 2014). We can pull from this that there is an influence from genetics, but it is not causing the perpetration itself. A person may be more likely genetically to have aggressive or abusive tendencies, but the environment of a person is what really determines if they end up perpetrating or not. A person can be an angry or aggressive person without ever actually being violent onto another person- it is a slippery slope but still just because one is angry does not make them an abuser. Child abuse impacts both the environment and genetics of someone because it “can leave epigenetic marks – chemical tags – that can alter normal gene expression… and extreme early trauma may nevertheless leave footprints on the brain” (Myers & DeWall, 2018, p.188). This goes to show how childhood abuse impacts a person’s nature and nurture due to traumas ability to change someone’s genetic makeup and make them more prone to become abusive. Here the environment is impacting the genes, so nurture is changing someone’s nature.
A child growing up in an environment full of abusive behaviors onto the child or between the adults around the child has been shown to increase the child’s risk of perpetrating violence substantially (Richards, Tillyer, & Wright, 2017). The social learning theory has been used when researching the nurture argument because the social learning theory “assumes that we acquire our identity in childhood, by observing and imitating others’ gender-linked behaviors and by being rewarded or punished for acting in certain ways” (Myers & DeWall, 2018, p.160). Looking through the social learning theory lens when it comes to witnessing abuse as a child leading to becoming an abuser as an adult, then the nurture argument makes the most sense. Research has shown that “children who experience family of origin violence are more likely to learn the utility of violence and model violence in their own relationships” (Richards, Tillyer, & Wright, 2017). Children observe and grow up thinking that this violent behavior is normal and is okay which causes them to develop these negative behaviors for their own relationships. The environment to which these children are growing, and learning is unhealthy and it is setting them up to be more at risk of becoming an abuser in their future than someone who has never witnessed this kind of violence. The environment has a much larger impact here than their genetic make-up.
There is evidence that shows that “emotional abuse can contribute to insecure attachments that are associated with violence in later relationships” (Richards, Tillyer, & Wright, 2017). All types of abuse are underreported and hard to always notice but emotional abuse is even more difficult because it does not leave any physical marks which makes it harder for a bystander, such as a friend or teacher, to notice signs therefore leading it to be even more underreported. In the research done by Richards, Tillyer, & Wright, their results showed that “emotional abuse disrupts children’s secure attachment with caregivers and as a result leaves children with limited opportunities to learn to express the spectrum of positive and negative emotions healthily, as well as process and react to other’s emotions without the use of violence…” (2017). The inability to properly express emotions could lend a hand in a person growing up to be an abuser. Being at risk like this makes it even more important for these children to learn proper emotions and how to handle them but if they do not have properly emotion expressing people in their life, then they may never learn how to properly express their own emotions.
Attachment theory plays a role here because with emotional abuse comes the lack of proper attachment and according to the textbook “many researchers now believe that our early attachments form the foundation for our adult relationships and our comfort with affection and intimacy” (Myers & DeWall, 2018, p.186). And according to the textbook as well “some 30 percent of people who have been abused later abuse their children… four times the U.S. national rate of child abuse” (Myers & DeWall, 2018, p.188). Taking attachment into account it does not guarantee one will be abusive later in life, but it sets one up to form unhealthy relationships and behaviors within those. Protective factors, such as therapy, or another caregiver who helps you form healthy attachment etc., are able to help these individuals not be abusive but there is no guarantee there either but yet again the environment is making the largest impact.
Being abused as a child can lead to a lower self-confidence or self-worth throughout life and could lead to a person trying to over compensate for this lack of self-esteem by controlling and asserting their power over someone else. As well as, looking at how gender can impact intimate partner violence. In a heterosexual couple, there are often social norms for the men in the relationship. Stereotypically that he is the “bread winner”, masculine, dominant, and the head of the household, the list goes on. When these norms are disrupted, men can feel inferior within themselves and less confident which can lead them to put the pressure and control onto their partner in order to over compensate for their lack of control/power in other parts of their lives. This type of behavior can happen regardless of a history of abuse but still is influenced by their environment, their society is telling them that these norms need to be upheld and there is extra pressure when they are not being upheld. Yet again this gender and the pressure put on their gender is all created by their environments.
Personally, even before reading all the research presented here, I believed that being abused as a child has a larger impact on your future than does your genetic make-up. Understanding that as a child anything that they are experiencing and witnessing at home is all “normal” to the child and it is “right” because they do not know any better and they are supposed to trust their caregivers is important when looking at the nature vs. nurture debate. Sometimes people continue to believe the experience they saw and experienced is “normal” because they do not know any better and thus could grow up to be abusive and or even be abused themselves because they saw how they were treated, or their parents were treated and accept the treatment they think they deserve. This is not a guarantee that someone who grows up in an abusive environment will be abusive or abused but the risk is substantially higher.
I also like to believe in positive psychology in the sense that everyone is born to flourish, and no one is born abusive even if they do have genes that would make them more likely to become abusive, their environment is what shapes them into the abusive or non-abusive person they become. People are good, but their environments sometimes morph them into a less good version of themselves and leads them to do things such as being abusive.
There are many reasons why a person perpetrates violence, some known, and some even unknown, but regardless the emphasis of this paper was to look at the abuse at an early age and how it can lead to violence later on. Trauma shapes the structure of the brain, so biologically you are being impacted by your environment from an early age and it is changing how you experience your future, but environment is what impacts someone the most in this case. With all the factors presented that influence a person’s development we still can only predict so much about who someone will become. Not everyone who grows up in an abusive household will become abusive or abused but when looking at do genetics or environment influence abusive behavior more? Environment has substantially more influence.
- Barnes, J., Teneyck, M., Boutwell, B. B., & Beaver, K. M. (2013). Indicators of domestic/intimate partner violence are structured by genetic and nonshared environmental influences. Journal of Psychiatric Research,47(3), 371-376. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2012.10.016
- Myers, D. G., & DeWall, C. N. (2018). Psychology in modules. New York: Worth, Macmillian Learning.
- Richards, T., Tillyer, M., & Wright, E. (2017). Intimate partner violence and the overlap of perpetration and victimization: Considering the influence of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse in childhood. Child Abuse & Neglect, 67, 240.
- Stuart, G. L., McGeary, J. E., Shorey, R. C., Knopik, V. S., Beaucage, K., & Temple, J. R. (2014). Genetic associations with intimate partner violence in a sample of hazardous drinking men in batterer intervention programs. Violence against women, 20(4), 385-400.