Saturday, September 20, 2014

How Much of Our Current Political Insanity Can Be Attributed to Early Childhood Brain Damage?

Kevin Drum had a recent blog post on how incarceration rates are down among younger people and up in older populations and the links between this and lead.

This led me to thinking about how a lot of the problems of the last 30 years are commonly attributed to many of the same characteristics that are often associated with criminality such as selfishness and a short term orientation. Since behavior is highly associated with social context, it stands to reason that these traits would be expressed differently in people with higher socioeconomic status then the low status people that are often incarcerated for crimes.

If this association does exist it would help to explain how our society shifted away from the more communal values of the 1950s and 60s when business and government were both moving towards a more inclusive vision that engaged diverse stakeholders* to the time since the 1980s when ideas such as shareholder capitalism began to take hold and dominate public discourse. Today the upper reaches of business and government are dominated by people who are in the age groups that are being associated with higher crime and incarceration rates. If there is an association between lead and criminality in people of low socioeconomic status it would hold to reason that there is a similar influence on people of higher status, perhaps helping to explain some of the extremely short term thinking that has become common on issues like the environment and inequality among people of high status.

*limited of course by holdovers of earlier inegalitarian social relationships and the prejudices of the time, but these were times of progress rather than regress


  1. But since these higher ups don't get incarcerated...

  2. Lead-to-criminality is an interesting hypothesis but it's at the "more research needed" stage. Kevin Drum went on a tear about this a few years ago and is now utterly convinced on the slimmest evidence. This annoys me.

    1. Definitely at the more research is needed stage. It has better evidence for it then the much more widely publicized abortion crime link from Freakonomics however so I don't mind Drum trying to publicize it. If I hadn't been thinking about this because of a class noting differences in ethics reporting with a similar time frame I wouldn't have posted this further. It does match well with some cultural shifts at about the same time that otherwise lack a plausible cause.

      On the other hand, while the population studies look strongly convincing when the issue is looked at with cohort studies or other methods results become insignificant which casts doubt on the hypothesis. Still, no one has a better explanation that fits the available data.