In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Biosocial Theories of Victimization

  • Introduction
  • Evolutionary Theories of Violence and Victimization
  • Biosocial Predictors of Victimization
  • Biological Consequences of Victimization
  • Biological Moderators of Victimization on Maladaptive Behavior
  • Biology and Interventions Addressing Trauma
  • Translational Research and Resources

Criminology Biosocial Theories of Victimization
Jamie Vaske
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0226


Since the late 1990s, research has begun to explore how biology can fit within our understanding of victimization. Biology can be integrated into theories of victimization in a number of ways. First, biology can be used to explain the occurrence of victimization, both in terms of why people perpetrate abuse and who is most likely to be abused. This can be seen in the literature on evolutionary theories of victimization and biology as predictors of victimization. Second, research has come to show that victimization impacts biological functioning, all the way down to the genetic expression level. These biological consequences ultimately lead to changes in victims’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Yet not all victims have the same response, which leads to the emergence of the third body of literature, which shows that some individuals—those who are biologically “at risk”—may have more negative reactions to victimization than other individuals. Fourth, given that victimization can reshape some individuals’ biological and psychological functioning, a growing body of research examines whether biologically based interventions can reverse the neuropsychological consequences of trauma and abuse. Finally, much of this research has been made accessible to practitioners through translational resources, such as books and professional organizations.

Evolutionary Theories of Violence and Victimization

Evolutionary perspectives on violence and victimization frequently include explanations of both the perpetrators’ and the victims’ behavior. The dual explanatory power of these perspectives occurs because as perpetrators develop new means to successfully achieve their goal, victims develop adaptations in an attempt to minimize the probability or costs of victimization. Wilson and Daly 1993 is considered one of the seminal pieces in this area. The authors discuss the basic tenants of evolutionary theories of domestic violence, as well as the victim characteristics (i.e., reproductive age) that increase women’s probability of victimization. Thornhill and Palmer 2000 is another essential reading for evolutionary theories on violence and victimization. Ellis 1991 builds upon previous evolutionary theories of violence to discuss both the distal (evolutionary) and more proximate (social learning and neurohormonal) risk factors for the perpetration of sexual violence. McKibbin, et al. 2008 draws upon the work of Thornhill, Palmer, Wilson, and Daly to identify different subtypes of rapists, and to discuss the evolutionary underpinnings of the various subtypes. Volk, et al. 2012 extends previous evolutionary perspectives to propose an evolutionary theory to explain bullying. Finally, works such as Buss and Duntley 2008; Duntley and Shackelford 2008; and McKibbin, et al. 2008 provide brief discussions of adaptations to prevent the occurrence of victimization, while Buss and Duntley 2011 provides a more in-depth explanation of these adaptations.

  • Buss, David M., and Joshua D. Duntley. 2008. Adaptations for exploitation. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice 12:53–62.

    DOI: 10.1037/1089-2699.12.1.53

    This article discusses both the evolutionary underpinnings of exploitation and the potential victims’ adaptations to prevent exploitation. It provides a nice explanation of victims’ evolutionary grounded protective efforts for a wide range of behaviors, including violent, property, and sex crimes.

  • Buss, David M., and Joshua D. Duntley. 2011. The evolution of intimate partner violence. Aggression and Violent Behavior 16:411–419.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.avb.2011.04.015

    A thorough review of the evolutionary grounded contexts that may increase the probability of intimate partner violence and the adaptations that victims may learn to prevent partner violence.

  • Duntley, Joshua, and Todd K. Shackelford. 2008. Victim adaptations. In Evolutionary forensic psychology: Darwinian foundations of crime and law. Edited by Joshua Duntley and Todd K. Shackelford, 201–229. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195325188.003.0011

    This book chapter provides a comprehensive overview of the adaptations for exploitative and harmful behaviors, as well as victims’ defensive adaptations that they may employ before, during, or after the exploitative or harmful event.

  • Ellis, Lee. 1991. A synthesized (biosocial) theory of rape. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 59:631–642.

    DOI: 10.1037/0022-006X.59.5.631

    This article integrates evolutionary, social learning, and neurohormonal theories to explain the perpetration of sexual violence. A good extension of traditional evolutionary perspectives of sexual violence to integrate some more current and proximate biological risk factors.

  • McKibbin, William F., Todd K. Shackelford, Aaron T. Goetz, and Valerie G. Starratt. 2008. Why do men rape? An evolutionary psychological perspective. Review of General Psychology 12:86–97.

    DOI: 10.1037/1089-2680.12.1.86

    This literature review identifies various subtypes of rapists and the evolutionary underpinnings of the subtypes, while also discussing the evolutionary adaptations that women have developed in order to minimize their risk of victimization. A good overview of the factors that increase and decrease the likelihood of victimization.

  • Thornhill, Randy, and Craig T. Palmer. 2000. A natural history of rape: Biological bases of sexual coercion. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

    Essential reading for the evolutionary perspective on the perpetration of sexual violence, female adaptations to sexual violence, and the socio-legal implications of the evolutionary perspective.

  • Volk, Anthony A., Joseph A. Camilleri, Andrew V. Dane, and Zopito A. Marini. 2012. Is adolescent bullying an evolutionary adaptation? Aggressive Behavior 38:222–238.

    DOI: 10.1002/ab.21418

    This article discusses how bullying may be an evolutionary adaptation, along with the evolutionary reasons why victims may bully others.

  • Wilson, Margo I., and Martin Daly. 1993. An evolutionary psychological perspective on male sexual proprietariness and violence against wives. Violence and Victims 8:271–294.

    An excellent overview of evolutionary theories of domestic violence and the factors that place women at risk for victimization, such as their age and reproductive value. This article is considered one of the essential readings for evolutionary perspectives on violence against women.

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