Revisiting a Criminological Classic: The Cycle of Violence

Published date01 August 2018
Date01 August 2018
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2018, Vol. 34(3) 266 –286
© The Author(s) 2018
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DOI: 10.1177/1043986218770003
Revisiting a Criminological
Classic: The Cycle
of Violence
Wesley Myers1, Kristin Lloyd1, Jillian J. Turanovic1,
and Travis C. Pratt2
There is a growing “replication crisis” in the social and behavioral sciences, where
original research across a wide array of substantive areas has failed to replicate when
conducted by others. This problem highlights the importance of carefully revisiting
original research—particularly studies that have exerted a significant influence over
the field. Accordingly, in the present study, we subject Widom’s classic work, “The
Cycle of Violence,” to a rigorous empirical reproduction and extension. We subjected
her original data to alternative analytic techniques and to different measurement
strategies and model specifications. Our results indicated that although we were
able to replicate her original results, the link between childhood physical abuse and
violence in adulthood failed to survive the robustness checks we conducted. Instead,
childhood neglect emerged as the most robust predictor of adult violence.
cycle of violence, replication, child abuse, neglect
Replications are the second-class citizens of science. As Merton (1957) observed long
ago, one of the core norms of science is to emphasize “new discoveries”—those that
have the capacity to move a body of knowledge forward in substantial ways. And
because of this norm, the incentive structure of scientific disciplines, along with how
we go about socializing new scholars, reflects a preference for the new and creates
pressure to find it (Franco, Malhotra, & Simonovits, 2014; Watson, 1968). So in an
1Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, USA
2University of Cincinnati, OH, USA
Corresponding Author:
Wesley Myers, College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Florida State University, 112 S. Copeland
Street, Tallahassee, FL 32306-1273, USA.
770003CCJXXX10.1177/1043986218770003Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeMyers et al.
Myers et al. 267
industry where innovation and originality are rewarded, there is little incentive to rep-
licate others’ work to see whether they got it right (McNeeley & Warner, 2015; Popper,
1959). Indeed, as the TV personality John Oliver (2016) noted, “there is no Nobel
Prize for fact checking.”
But there is now a growing concern that our attitude about this has gotten us in
trouble. Large-scale replication efforts in certain academic disciplines—psychology
and neuroscience in particular—are showing some rather clear and dismal results:
much of the original research fails to replicate when conducted by others (Nosek,
Spies, & Motyl, 2012; Open Science Collaboration, 2015; Pashler & Harris, 2012). In
our own field, some “classic studies”—such as the Minneapolis Domestic Violence
Experiment (Sherman & Berk, 1984) and the Stanford Prison Experiment (Haney,
Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973)—have failed to replicate in other contexts (Kulig, Pratt, &
Cullen, 2017; Sherman et al., 1991). Ioannidis (2005) was thus eerily prophetic when
he claimed over a decade ago that most published research is probably wrong. All of
this highlights the importance of carefully revisiting original research—particularly
studies that have exerted major influence within the field (Lowenkamp, Cullen, &
Pratt, 2003). One such study is Widom’s (1989) classic work on the cycle of violence,
published in Science—a study that has exerted a lasting influence in multiple aca-
demic disciplines, including criminology, developmental psychology, and social work
(Finkelhor, Turner, Shattuck, & Hamby, 2015; E. M. Wright & Fagan, 2013).
Accordingly, in the present study, we subject Widom’s (1989) work to a rigorous
empirical reproduction and extension.
In the process, we subject her original data to alternative analytic techniques, mea-
surement strategies, and model specifications. This is important because the develop-
ment of knowledge is not inevitable but is instead socially constructed according to the
decisions that scholars make about what to study, how to study it, and what their
empirical results mean (Cole, 1975; Kuhn, 1962; Unnever, Cullen, Mathers, McClure,
& Allison, 2009). There is, in essence, a “garden of forking paths” where scholars have
considerable “researcher degrees of freedom” (Simons, Holcombe, & Spellman, 2014)
to choose among a number of alternative ways of analyzing data, where what is ulti-
mately presented to the reader may only represent a small fraction of what was—or
could have been—examined (see also Gelman, 2016; Gelman & Loken, 2013). Our
broader purpose, therefore, is to shed light on how Widom’s (1989) findings on the
cycle of violence might have turned out differently had different methodological deci-
sions been made and had different results been presented.
The Cycle of Violence and Its Legacy
There is little doubt that Widom’s (1989) “cycle of violence” is a landmark study in the
social and behavioral sciences. Although, of course, she was not the first scholar to
study the effect of victimization on future offending (see, for example, Von Hentig,
1948; Wolfgang, 1958), her study was among the first to gather systematic longitudi-
nal data on the subject and to assess empirically the effect of early life experiences on
adult behavioral outcomes (Maxfield & Widom, 1996; Rivera & Widom, 1990;

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