A woman comforts a distraught child after a school shooting in Atlanta.
A woman comforts a child after a school shooting in Atlanta. John Bazemore/AP

A new study suggests that stress experienced early in life damages the ability to assess risk, creating young adults with poor decision-making skills.

Punishment—or the threat of it—is generally considered an effective way to shape human behavior; it is, after all, the foundation of our criminal justice system. But what if there’s a subset of the population for whom this paradigm simply doesn’t apply? New research suggests that there is such a group: survivors of childhood trauma.

University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology professor Seth Pollak worked with over 50 people around the age of 20, and found that those who had experienced extreme stress as kids were hampered in their ability to make good decisions as adults. Simply put, childhood trauma—due to circumstances like neglect or exposure to violence—created young adults fundamentally unable to correctly consider risk and make healthy life decisions—and no threat of punishment was likely to be effective in changing this deficit. For cities where fears of juvenile violence have transfixed residents and flummoxed city leaders, Pollak’s results suggest that demands for stiffer sentences on youthful offenders are likely to be counterproductive.

The study’s participants were already known to Pollak: He had worked with them as eight-year-olds, when he measured their stress levels as part of a study on the effects of stress hormones on children’s development. The kids, from Madison and its environs, ranged from middle-class children who had experienced no trauma to kids who had dealt with extreme circumstances like abuse or a parent killed by gunfire. Extreme poverty tends to be associated with these traumatizing environments: Economic uncertainty puts parents under stress, which trickles down to children; food and housing insecurity can further exacerbate these stresses.

In revisiting the group, Pollak enlisted those who as children were at the ends of the trauma spectrum, either experiencing very little stress or copious amounts. The study had the now-adults engage in tasks such as gambling simulations, designed to assess their response to risk-taking, reward, and punishment. “We would give them clues as to outcomes,” said Pollak, “such as ‘When you see this shape, you’re at risk of losing $5.’” Pollak scanned the participants’ brain activity while they completed the activities.

The people who did not have stressful childhoods tended to pay attention to the clues and gamble wisely; those who had suffered severe trauma did not. They would, for instance, choose the shape that they had been warned against—and make the mistake again and again. They also took a great deal of time agonizing over decisions, and when they lost they became markedly upset.

The brain scans of this group showed less-than-usual brain activity during the period of decision making, and more-than-usual activity during the aftermath. “It makes sense,” said Pollak. “If you didn’t pay attention to the cues indicating that you’re about to lose, you’re more surprised and then upset when you do.”

The study also explored the subjects’ behavior in real life. They filled out a simple questionnaire about their propensity to drive without a seatbelt, avoid the doctor while ill, and other risky behaviors. The results mirrored the results of the games: The participants who made poor gambling decisions also made poor life decisions.

Pollak stressed that the findings aren’t related to intelligence or IQ. “It’s more like a learning disability,” he said. “The people were ignoring the signs that most people were taking as a warning. The information isn’t getting processed.”

Most of the participants who had experienced trauma as children were now facing problems like criminal records, joblessness, and obesity—though a few had succeeded. “We even found one person who was studying at an Ivy League university,” said Pollak. But the research showed that regardless of current circumstances and stress levels, it was the experience of childhood trauma that determined how well the participants assessed risk.

Though it’s well documented that children who experience high stress are at risk for behavioral problems, the neurobiological processes that contribute to this are poorly understood. Pollak’s experiment addressed this by suggesting that altered brain activation leads to poor judgment in decision making. “Something about the stress of early childhood is changing the brain systems that allow us to attend to information that might signal potential risk or loss,” he said.

The study’s findings also suggest that for cities, building more jails and ramping up punishments for juvenile offenders will do little to deter future crime. Research shows that the majority of youth involved in the criminal justice system—up to 90 percent—have experienced trauma. On these kids and young adults, the threat of inflicting further punishment won’t have its desired effect. “It’s like disciplining a child with something that’s not meaningful to them,” said Pollak. “But we still hold them responsible for making the same mistakes.”

Instead, Pollak suggested training programs that foster the development of the brain’s ability to make better decisions. “If we can teach people to do math, we can probably teach them to attend to things that might get them into trouble,” he said.

The research also points to a more effective way to decrease urban crime: limiting exposure to childhood trauma. Pollak noted the importance of social safety nets that shield children from stress, such as affordable housing, nutrition assistance, and health insurance. While these programs may seem costly, such expenses are dwarfed by the social costs of dealing with adults who who enter society and the workforce unable to attain education, hold down jobs, and maintain families and relationships. “This is powerful evidence that the problems of early life lead to other problems that don’t go away,” Pollak said.

One silver lining? Because his research focuses on the developing brain—which transcends ideology, economic class, racial or ethnic groupings, and other potentially politically charged elements—Pollak holds out hope that those across the political spectrum will pay attention to his findings. “There’s something about showing a biological effect in children that makes these policy issues nonpartisan,” he said.

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