Harsh childhood environmental characteristics predict exploitation and retaliation in humans

Michael E. McCullough, Eric J. Pedersen, Jaclyn M. Schroder, Benjamin A. Tabak, Charles S. Carver

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


Across andwithin societies,people vary intheirpropensities towards exploitative and retaliatory defection in potentially cooperative interaction.We hypothesized that this variation reflects adaptive responses to variation in cues during childhood that life will be harsh, unstable and short-cues that probabilistically indicate that it is in one's fitness interests to exploit co-operators and to retaliate quickly against defectors. Here, we show that childhood exposure to family neglect, conflict and violence, and to neighbourhood crime, were positively associated for men (but not women) with exploitation of an interaction partner and retaliatory defection after that partner began to defect. The associations between childhood environment and both forms of defection for men appeared to be mediated by participants' endorsement of a 'code of honour'. These results suggest that individual differences in mutual benefit cooperation are not merely due to genetic noise, random developmental variation or the operation of domain-general cultural learning mechanisms, but rather, might reflect the adaptive calibration of social strategies to local social-ecological conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20122104
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1750
StatePublished - 2013


  • Childhood environment
  • Code of honour
  • Cooperation
  • Exploitation
  • Life history
  • Retaliation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Medicine(all)


Dive into the research topics of 'Harsh childhood environmental characteristics predict exploitation and retaliation in humans'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this