High exposure to violence appears to damage a person’s ability to place trust in “good people,” according to a new study by psychologists from Yale University and the University of Oxford.
The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.
More than 80 percent of youth in urban areas experienced violence in their communities in the last year, and those experiences have a profound effect on their health, the researchers say.
“We know exposure to violence is related to negative life outcomes, from increased health and mental health problems to greater engagement in violent behavior, but there is very little research on understanding the underlying cognitive processes that might be affected by this life experience,” said Yale psychologist Dr. Arielle Baskin-Sommers, co-senior author of the paper.
The researchers evaluated 119 males incarcerated in Connecticut prisons, some of whom scored high on exposure to violence. In the study, participants learned about two strangers who faced a moral dilemma: the strangers had to decide whether to inflict painful electric shocks on another person in exchange for money.
While the “good” stranger mostly refused to shock another person for money, the “bad” stranger tended to maximize their profits despite the painful consequences for the other person. The participants were asked to predict the strangers’ choices, and later had to decide how much trust to place in the good versus the bad stranger.
The findings show that participants with higher exposure to violence were able to recognize that the good stranger made fewer harmful choices than the bad stranger. However, when deciding whom to trust, they trusted the good stranger less than participants who had a lower exposure to violence.
“In other words, exposure to violence disrupted the ability to place trust in the ‘right’ person,” said Jennifer Siegel, an Oxford doctoral student and first author of the paper. “We also saw that this disruption led to a greater number of disciplinary infractions within the prison setting.”
Co-senior author Dr. Molly Crockett from Yale said the findings suggest that exposure to violence changes the way people use information they’ve learned to make healthy social decisions.
“Social flourishing depends on learning who is likely to be helpful vs. harmful, and then using that information to decide who to befriend versus avoid,” she said. “Our research suggests exposure to violence impairs this crucial aspect of social functioning.”
Baskin-Sommers added, “The combination of exposure to violence and this specific cognitive disruption may leave certain individuals vulnerable to continually developing problematic social connections that limit their chances for psychosocial and economic stability.”
Source: Yale University