The Most Violent People on Earth

Teenagers are the usual targets of efforts to prevent violence and delinquency. Science has discovered that human viciousness actually peaks in toddlers. Luckily, two-year-olds can't do much harm. But if you don't help the worst cases by then, you might never be able to help them at all

By Erin Anderssen, Anne McIlroy
Saturday, April 3, 2004 - Globe and Mail

There was a little boy named Maxim, who had brown eyes as big as loonies. And when he was good, he could name all the letters in the alphabet, and make spaghetti hair with Play-Doh, and sweetly sing the words to Peter Gabriel's love song, In Your Eyes.

But when he was bad, he was horrid. He slapped and screamed at his mom. He walloped a playmate with a plastic fire engine at the daycare centre, and spent long hours in the corner for pushing. Denied his wishes on the tiniest things, he would flip into such a rage that his face would turn bright purple and he would make himself vomit. "It is like he was choking himself," his young mother, Judith, says wearily.

But then her son is, after all, only 2½ , and according to groundbreaking Canadian research, that plops him smack in the middle of the angriest, most violent age of the human animal.

For decades, aggression was seen as a problem of hormones and testosterone in teenagers. A 2002 poll found that the majority of Canadians believe that humans are at their most violent as early teens — and that most resources should be spent on preventing aggression at that age.

But new discoveries are dismantling those assumptions. The "terrible 2s" are worse than we knew. Research is showing that for almost every little boy (or girl) such as Maxim, not even a rocky adolescence will come as close to the rapid-fire tantrums of the toddler years.

Researchers argue that society must stop excusing aggression in early childhood. Ignoring the problem could mean a child's path is set irrevocably toward delinquency, dropping out of school, and crime. Intervention, it seems, needs to come sooner than ever. If aggressive children don't learn to control their anger early, they might never learn at all.

The idea requires adults to face the worst of human nature in their own children — that bad things can come in small packages. It goes straight to the age-old debate about the origins of evil: Are human beings born pure, as Rousseau argued, and tainted by the world around them? Or do babies arrive bad, as St. Augustine wrote, and learn, for their own good, how to behave in society?

Richard Tremblay, an affable researcher at the University of Montreal who is considered one of the world leaders in aggression studies, sides with St. Augustine, whom he is fond of quoting. Dr. Tremblay has thousands of research subjects, many studied over decades, to back him up: Aggressive behaviour, except in the rarest circumstances, is not acquired from life experience. It is a remnant of our evolutionary struggle to survive, a force we learn, with time and careful teaching, to master. And as if by some ideal plan, human beings are at their worst when they are at their weakest.

On the day that conclusion struck him, Dr. Tremblay said, "I had the impression I was seeing the world in a completely different way." His work asks not what makes us violent, but what make us peaceable. Aggression stops being a problem of treating a deviant group of young adults and teenagers, but a universal behaviour to be shaped from infancy. "Physical aggression is not an illness one catches," Dr. Tremblay says, in an interview in the campus cafeteria. "It is a natural behaviour that one learns to control. But the learning is not perfect. Socialization is a thin veneer."

Which explains why, he says, it is so often the quiet, agreeable types who storm into their office building toting a rifle — the veneer having cracked in a sudden explosion. But never, in all the studies, including those replicated in New Zealand and the United States, did he find a passive child who grew up to be an aggressive adult; the raging adults were the raging children who never leashed their anger.

If humans gradually become less aggressive as they age, then video games and action movies do not suddenly turn 12-year-olds violent. "If humans had to wait for television to aggress," Dr. Tremblay observes wryly, "humanity would not exist."

And if aggression is a trait to be unlearned, a society that ostracizes its bullies with "zero tolerance," especially when young, only serves to breed more of them. What helps us unlearn it? Modern science is currently fine-tuning a complex — and often surprising — recipe of genes and environment, where the right neural connections are made in the brain at the optimal time, where fathers are encouraged to play-fight with their children (see sidebar) and parents, harking back to the days grandparents always talk about, are advised to teach manners with as much devotion as they teach math.

The science says that there is no difference between the baby who snatches a toy from another child, and the burglar who fights you when you catch him stealing your television. "It is exactly the same behaviour," Dr. Tremblay suggests. "It is just done by a bigger gorilla."

At conferences, when he shows pictures of babies and toddlers pulling hair or throwing punches, the audience almost always chuckles — until they hear his research. One of his favourite lines: "If you put your four-month-old to bed one night, and went in in the morning and he was suddenly six feet tall and 200-plus pounds, you should just run away. Because he will really beat you up."

In his Montreal apartment one Tuesday afternoon, a young man named Steve yanks up his shirt to show the long, ugly scar where a knife sliced into his kidney, the sudden end to a fight on a city bus. He lifts his pant leg to reveal the puncture hole left behind by a bullet, a souvenir from a street fight when he was 15. Now, at 25, he works as a busboy at a nightclub from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and during the day, he writes violent rap lyrics and deals drugs. Steve cannot remember much about his early childhood, but the life he does recount is dismal. His problems with school began from the start; he always had trouble concentrating, and in Grade 1, for reasons he doesn't know or won't say, he was sent to see a psychologist, and forced to repeat the year.

"After that," he says, "it went badly." He recalls being sent to detention "all the time" from that first year on. He did not finish high school. At home, his parents split up when he was 12. His mother sent him to a youth home. "She told me I didn't obey," he says, with bitterness. "I wasn't that bad. But my mother got rid of me." He portrays himself as a victimized child, the "fat kid with glasses" who was picked on by classmates, though there is no sign of that little boy in the lean, rapper pose he strikes today. He says his first major fight was in retaliation for being picked on at 12. "It is true," he adds, "I was violent. I beat up one of the little guys. I couldn't stop."

Steve now accepts violence as a part of his nature. He has hit people with bats, he admits, but draws the line at knives, which "cause too much damage." He shrugs off questions about his future. He has a criminal record for stealing a car — a green Mustang when he was 18 — and has served a short stint in jail for, he says, drinking beer in public and not having money for the fine. He now has no contact with his mother or two siblings, and little with his father. He is expecting to be evicted from his apartment. "I have so much bad luck that happens to me all the time," he says. "I don't have time to think about the future."

Richard Tremblay knows stories like Steve's well, though it took him 40 years to figure out how far back to look. As a young psychologist in the 1960s, he started working with violent criminals, and then young offenders, but in both cases most of his attempts at rehabilitation failed. Discouraged, he began to wonder where the trouble started.

In Montreal in 1982, he launched his first long-term study, this time on kindergarten students. Ten years later, he had found the signs of an unexpected pattern: Almost every subject had been more physically aggressive at 6 than they were at 16. But was that where it began? Next, he turned to newborns. What Dr. Tremblay and his colleagues around the world have now demonstrated is that the ability to feel rage exists the moment human beings take their first breaths. A four-month-old infant can show anger. And as they gain more control over their arms and legs, their mothers report increasing incidents of kicking and biting: They can also act in anger.

By the second year, aggressive behaviour peaks in temper tantrums, with slapping and pushing; according to Dr. Tremblay's work, a typical two-year-old, playing with others over the course of an hour, will commit one act of physical aggression for every four social interactions. With teenagers, he says, researchers talk in terms of years or months or weeks between aggressive acts — never hours — though the incidents, obviously, are more severe. By their third birthdays, children have the motor skills to perform any of the acts of aggression an adult can. But at just that age, aggression begins to drop.

For almost everyone, it continues to drop for the rest of their lives. By Dr. Tremblay's calculation, only in about 5 per cent of men does the rate of aggression remain relatively stable into early adulthood. They are the most dangerous group to society.

While Dr. Tremblay was beginning to unravel the social roots of aggression, geneticists were pinpointing its biological source. That work has focused on the frontal lobes, particularly the prefrontal cortex — the emotional circuitry of the brain that sits behind the forehead. This area is more highly evolved in humans than any other animal; without it, we wouldn't be much more than robots, reacting to stimulus by instinct, not thought. The link between aggression and frontal-lobe injury dates back to 1848, when an explosion fired an iron rod through the skull of Phineas Gage, a foreman for a railway crew in Vermont. According to record, he became a "fitful and irreverent" man, a dramatic change from his previous personality.

The same phenomenon has been observed since then in injured war veterans and the survivors of car accidents. One of the most controversial findings came from a British scientist named Adrian Raines, who used a brain scanner to study 41 accused murderers in California. Compared with a control group of non-criminals, he reported that their prefrontal cortexes used less fuel (sugar) and didn't work as well. He went so far as to suggest that science may some day be able to identify criminals by weaknesses in their brains — which caused an outcry in the scientific community.

Science is still working out how it all fits together. Many researchers believe that the prefrontal cortex evolved, in part, to give human beings a quick response to danger. When it is damaged, the message may get garbled. A person may not recognize obvious risks, a trait that can lead to the impulsive and socially awkward behaviour often noted in Dr. Tremblay's subjects. Or the person may see danger where none exists and overreact.

Seth Pollak, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, has discovered this phenomenon in young children victimized by abuse; when shown a series of faces representing different emotions, the brains of abused children reacted more strongly to angry expressions, and were more likely to see anger in fearful faces. Working with a research team at the University of Montreal, Dr. Pollak is about to replicate his study with teenagers. His work explores an important question: If violence results because the brain is misinterpreting social cues — the development that Dr. Tremblay's research says is so essential in childhood — then what helps the brain get it right?

It seems to begin in the womb. Dr. Tremblay and other researchers have found, for instance, a significant link between aggression and prenatal smoking, already known to cause lower birth weight in babies. In Quebec, one in four women smoke while they are pregnant. Dr. Tremblay's data have shown that among poor, young and uneducated mothers — those at the highest risk for aggressive children — smoking does not make a huge difference in reported levels of aggression. But among educated women who smoke, the study found that the chances of their child showing higher levels of aggression essentially doubled.

Nicotine, it is believed, prevents essential links from being made in the brain. "If you are affecting the brain at the start," Dr. Tremblay says, "it is almost impossible to control."

But not everything results from the quality of the prenatal environment: A hunt is also under way to pinpoint the genes that influence aggression. In a longitudinal study of 560 pairs of Quebec twins, Dr. Tremblay discovered that patterns of aggression among identical twins, who share DNA, were much more similar than between fraternal twins. Now that his first group of subjects are beginning to have children of their own, he has been able to show that aggression tends to track by generation; parents prone to aggression tend to produce babies with the same characteristics.

But this is where genetics meets environment. It is not that children born with a biological disposition for aggression are destined to be completely out of control — they just need more help developing stronger brakes for their accelerators, as Dr. Tremblay puts it. Most children get this naturally; they learn from their parents and peers that there is a social cost to hurting people. It can be a painful lesson — a child smacks another and gets smacked back. The research has shown that girls learn the fastest, a finding researchers credit to gender role and testosterone, and the biggest kids learn the slowest, likely because they win most fights.

But the lessons get confused when something breaks down in early socialization, when the brain is growing at its fastest rate. Parents who are overly punitive, or set the wrong example with their own impulsive behaviour, have more aggressive children. Children who are neglected are at a higher risk.

But neither biology nor sociology explain the whole picture. In a 2002 study, only children who both possessed an aggression-related gene and suffered abuse developed conduct problems. Neither the gene nor the environment alone was enough. Last October, the girls at the McMaster University Student Union Day Care began to turn on each other. Instead of the typical hitting and toy-grabbing that the experienced caregivers had come to expect from their junior toddlers group, a more subtle form of aggression developed.

Girls would exclude other playmates if they weren't wanted in their group, turning their back in a huddle and moving away, ignoring their victim, who would often burst into tears. Emma Miller, not yet 3, is already well practised in rolling her eyes with pointed disdain. When a little girl she didn't like tried to sit beside her, she would tell her bluntly, "I don't like you. Go away." Her mother, Jessie, was horrified: She still smarts at the childhood memories of being the shy kid mistreated by her peers. "It was hard to watch my daughter do it."

If physical aggression makes human beings like other animals, then indirect or relational aggression, which requires a higher intelligence, sets us apart. Dr. Tremblay's work has shown that human beings tend to use indirect aggression, in contrast to kicking and punching, more as they get older (and smarter) and learn the social ropes.

And the female slant at the daycare is no coincidence: Boys may be more likely to kick and punch, but it is girls who lead the genders in the kind of backstabbing behaviour that fuels reality shows such as The Apprentice. The habit takes hold early — a national study has reported children regularly engaging in relational aggression at the age of 4 — around the same time that children are learning not to use their fists to get their way.

"Girls learn early that nice girls don't hit," says Tracy Vaillancourt, a McMaster researcher who collaborates with Dr. Tremblay. "But that doesn't mean girls don't use aggression. It just means that they are a bit more savvy when they use it. So it goes underground. And it's not easily detected by parents or teachers, but the peer group is very much aware of what is going on."

At Emma Miller's daycare, the caregivers interpreted the behaviour as the beginning of bullying, and began to instruct their charges about kindness, and intervening when children were mistreated. They started an empathy tree on which children could hang an ornament if they were observed doing something nice for someone else. By the New Year, the problem had improved.

These kinds of programs are catching on at preschools and kindergartens. Some Toronto classrooms have adopted a baby to foster nurturing. A Norwegian program has preschoolers giving each other back rubs because research suggests that affectionate touch deflects aggression. An English primary school offered anger-management training to its kindergarten students — then sent them into the playground to mediate disputes; since the program began, fighting reportedly has declined at the school and academic performance has improved. The program was the subject of some mockery in England, but these are approaches that Richard Tremblay applauds. They move beyond the old habit of excusing bad behaviour in young children because "they don't mean it," a suggestion he finds ludicrous. "If aggression required you to mean it," he says, "we could conclude that none existed in the animal kingdom."

If the proper control of aggression is the result of good socialization, then that work must start early. Dr. Tremblay has come to believe that society does worse by children with problems when it removes them from the group and lumps them together — away from the very examples that can teach them better behaviour. "It's like you start putting children in prison the minute you see that they are hard to control," he says. "Very rapidly, they imitate each other and delinquent gangs are created already by 5 and 6."

But at the core of his study is a reassuring message for the parents of young toddlers who are biting and punching with abandon: Having a strong accelerator — what Dr. Tremblay calls a "turbo motor" — isn't a negative on its own. In fact, it can fuel ambition and drive, creating leaders and star athletes. What counts is how children learn to use their motors, and apply their brakes. After all, it wasn't long ago that Canada had a prime minister with a turbo motor of his own. A few years back, when Dr. Tremblay was named to a Canadian research chair, he found himself at dinner with Jean Chrιtien. The politician regaled the gathering of scientists with stories of his scuffles when he was young and his infamous troubles in school. When it came time for each academic to explain their research, Dr. Tremblay says with a twinkle: "He was watching me with a lot of interest."

In his adult life, there have been occasional reminders of the teenaged Jean, who was renowned for his fast fists — most notoriously when he wrapped his hand around a protester's neck at a Flag Day ceremony in Hull in 1996. But the scrapper in Mr. Chrιtien is also credited with much of his success, and his ability to rise above the physical disadvantages of having been a small boy and deaf in one ear. With a supportive family and the strong guidance of a girlfriend named Aline, Mr. Chrιtien could chart a different path than a man like Steve, languishing without hope back in his Montreal apartment.

"Nature is extraordinary," Dr. Tremblay says. "When you are your worst, you are at your smallest. What humanity is all about is that we have 20 years to grow up and learn to live in society."

How well we learn that lesson is what separates the prime ministers from the drug dealers.

Erin Anderssen is The Globe and Mail's social trends reporter. Anne McIlroy is the paper's science reporter.