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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 21.2 > The Gadfly

The Gadfly

How Accurate is the “Cycle of Abuse”?

MANY YEARS AGO, AS I WAS SITTING IN A courtroom waiting to testify as an expert witness in a case involving junk psychology, I observed a child custody case ahead of ours. A social worker was arguing that the mother in question should not be granted custody of her children, full or even shared. True, the mother had never hit or otherwise physically abused them; but, said the social worker with certainty, the mother had herself been abused as a child and it was virtually certain that she would in the future repeat the crimes of her parents. Psychologists have called this common idea the “cycle of abuse.” It seems to affirm our intuitions that abused children would grow up to become abusive parents themselves, given that all children imitate so much of what they observe at home. But new evidence shows that once again our intuitions have led us astray.

Most people take it for granted that the path from childhood to adulthood is a fairly straight one. We think of the embedded attitudes, habits, and values our parents taught us—some of which we are still trying to eradicate. Many people, as legions of memoirists remind us, carry with them the psychological scars of wounds they suffered at the hands of cruel, violent, alcoholic, unloving or neglectful parents. Longitudinal studies repeatedly find that children abused in these ways are more likely than other children to develop emotional problems, become violent or depressed, attempt suicide, commit crimes, drop out of school, and develop chronic stress-related illnesses. Adults imprisoned for violent acts and child abuse report high rates of their own victimization as children.

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UPLOADING YOUR BRAIN SPECIAL ISSUE: Uploading the Mind to a Computer Mind Uploading: An Argument for the Scientific and Technical Plausibility of Preserving Thoughts Indefinitely by Kenneth Hayworth; Uploading Your Mind Does Not Compute by Peter Kassan; Virtual Immortality: Why the Mind-Body Problem is Still a Problem by Robert Lawrence Kuhn SPECIAL SECTION: What Motivates Extremists? Once Upon a Time: Re-Thinking the Fight Against Extremists by Tina Dupuy; Dealing With Islamism: Trust, Costly Signaling and Forming Moral Teams by Peter Boghossian and James A. Lindsay; Apocalypse Soon?: How Emerging Technologies, Population Growth, and Global Warming Will Fuel Apocalyptic Terrorism in the Future by Phil Torres ARTICLES Paleoanthropology Wars: The Discovery of Homo naledi has Generated Considerable Controversy in this Scientific Discipline by Nathan H. Lents; Charlie Sheen’s HIV Goat Milk Doctor by Harriet Hall, M.D.; Massachusetts: Mass Hysteria Cover Up by Robert E. Bartholomew; Agony and Ecstasy: Were Saint Paul’s Christian Beliefs a Symptom of Epileptic Personality Disorder? by Harry White; In Defense of Anti-Science: Why the Anti-anti-science Movement Has Gone too Far by J. Howard Siegal; The Decline of Intelligent Design: The 10th Anniversary of the Dover Decision and the Demise of Intelligent Design by Donald Prothero COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Flu Shots Facts and Fallacies by Harriet Hall, M.D.;The Gadfly: How Accurate is the “Cycle of Abuse”? by Carol Tavris REVIEW “Sacred Cows: A Lighthearted Look at Belief and Tradition Around the World” by Seth Andrews reviewed by Donald Prothero JUNIOR SKEPTIC: Man-Eating Plants: The Cannibal Tree of Madagascar by Daniel Loxton.
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