Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi A husband and wife research team has discovered that, even though some people start life with greater potential to be violent than the ordinary run of human beings, this potential will not manifest itself if they are well brought up.

Isn’t that a revelation? But wait till you hear the reward they got for their trouble: one million dollars from a Swiss charity, the Jacobs Foundation. That’s right, a million bucks for telling us that people can overcome their defects. If only ordinary mums and dads, who do most of the heavy lifting in this area, could get their hands on some of that loot.

What parents might not have guessed is the odds some of them seem to be up against. According to the researchers, neuropsychologists Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi, certain genes are linked to an increased tendency for antisocial behavior. They established this by studying data from the Dunedin (New Zealand) cohort study of 1000 people born in 1972 and 1973, and from a family clan in Nijmegan, Netherlands, with a high percentage of members “who were prone to violence and exhibited lower-than-average intelligence,” according to the Klaus J. Jacobs Prize citation.

Moffitt and Caspi established that there is indeed a genotype that displays a higher tendency toward antisocial behavior, but that it does not manifest itself under favourable living conditions. Based on these findings, they concluded that personality is not determined by genetics or by environment, but rather by the interaction of genetics and environment. Thus, intervention programs that focus on improving the living environment have a good hance of success even in the case of children with “unfavorable” hereditary dispositions. But the focus of such programs should not be on the child alone but also on the parents and the social environment.

Well, whether or not there are genes for bad behaviour, focusing professional help on parents and the social environment seems very sensible But did we need a big research project to tell us that?

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet