Researchers say a specific gene might make parents more likely to abuse their children during tough times, according to a study published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The DRD2 Taq1A gene, called the "orchid/dandelion gene" by researchers who study it, is a "sensitive" one, meaning that its effects are driven by the environment. The gene controls the release of dopamine, a hormone that regulates behavior in the brain and is often associated with cocaine and other drug use.
During good times, the roughly 50 percent of the population that have this gene is actually less likely to use "harsh parenting" tactics such as spanking, slapping, shouting and threatening their children. But during the recession, researchers noticed a general uptick in harsh parenting in 20 cities nationwide. Surprisingly, that increase was driven almost exclusively by parents who had this gene.
"In bad environments, people with this gene are more likely to do impulsive, aggressive things," says Irwin Garfinkel, a Columbia University researcher and co-author of the paper.
It's called the orchid/dandelion hypothesis because like orchids, people with the gene need a specific, positive environment to thrive, Garfinkel says. "Dandelions," on the other hand, are more stoic and were better able to handle adverse economic conditions without resorting to harsh parenting. Though "dandelions" did still use harsh parenting techniques, the rate at which they did so did not increase or decrease during the recession.
The orchic/dandelion hypothesis is not a new one: Researchers have previously suggested that the gene may be involved in causing despair, fear and aggression, but could also be related to feelings of resilience and empathy.
"The same gene that makes you look vulnerable in a bad situation makes you do better in a good environment. In a good environment, an orchid flourishes and is beautiful," he says. "But some of us, we're dandelions -- we might not thrive, but we can survive in all environments."
The idea that a recession can lead to increased child abuse is a controversial topic. A study released in April by economists at the National Bureau of Economic Research notes that "although a huge literature spanning several disciplines documents an association between poverty and child abuse, researchers have not found persuasive evidence that economic downturn increases abuse, despite their impacts on family income." The researchers' analysis found that recession was not "strongly related" to increases in child abuse, but that "male layoffs increase rates of abuse whereas female layoffs reduce rates of abuse."
Another study, released last year, found that hospitals in recession-hit areas had an increase in patients admitted for serious cases of child abuse.
Garfinkel's study looked only at mothers enrolled in the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a national study of nearly 5,000 children born in 20 cities between 1998 and 2000. Three-fourths of the mothers enrolled in the study were unmarried at the time of their child's birth, one fourth were married. Rates of "harsh parenting" were measured via interviews when children were 1, 3, 5 and 9 years old.
In Garfinkel's study, a 10 percent increase in the unemployment rate was associated with a 16 percent increase in maternal harsh parenting.
"Orchids" were more likely to abuse their children even if they did not lose their job or otherwise experience hardship from the recession. The general climate and fear of losing a job was enough to spur the negative environment that may have led to harsh parenting, Garfinkel says.
"It was the general economic conditions. If you remember the papers back in 2008, newspapers said we were on the way to a great depression and policy makers were scared," he says. "It was during that period that harsh parenting increased the most."
Even though unemployment was still on the rise in 2009, the fears of plummeting into a true economic crisis had abated, and harsh parenting rates slowed down. Though unemployment was still increasing, its rate had slowed, which gave people hope. Garfinkel says that when people are "in a bad situation for a long time, they adjust to it."
Garfinkel's discovery raises the question of what parents and psychological health professionals should do with this information. A saliva test can easily determine whether a person has the orchid gene, but that targeting the gene is, at this time, technologically impossible and morally questionable, he says.
"I think parents will wonder if they have the sensitive gene. If you have it, and you have a spouse, I think people need to take care to relax and watch one another's behavior," he says. "But if this was only a bad gene, it would have died out. We have some evidence that there must be some advantage to having this gene."