Experts weigh in on judging Kavanaugh for alleged adolescent behavior: 'Most teens don't do that type of thing'

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Beth Greenfield
·Senior Editor
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Brett Kavanaugh, Supreme Court nominee, and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, are both now willing to testify. (Photo: Getty Images)
Brett Kavanaugh, Supreme Court nominee, and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, are both now willing to testify. (Photo: Getty Images)

The heat on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh increased on Monday, as Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused him of drunkenly sexually assaulting her more than three decades ago, took control of her own narrative by coming forward and offering to testify.

“I thought he might inadvertently kill me,” Ford, now a 51-year-old research psychologist in California, told the Washington Post on Sunday. “He was trying to attack me and remove my clothing.” She and Kavanaugh, as well as a third person allegedly in the room, Mark Judge, were all high school students in suburban Maryland, attending a party.

While Kavanaugh, 53, has “categorically and unequivocally” denied the accusations, saying, “I did not do this back in high school or at any time,” and Judge calls it “absolutely nuts,” Ford refers to the incident as an “attempted rape” and says she spent time dealing with the psychological fallout in therapy. She has already passed a lie-detector test regarding the alleged incident and has offered to testify about it publicly (something Kavanaugh, as of Monday afternoon, also agreed to do).

Still, as Washington insiders hash out the details and decide what to do, if anything, with the potentially damaging information, outsiders have not been shy about weighing in. Twitter has been especially alive with discussions about teens behaving badly and whether or not it’s fair to hold adults accountable for their decades-old, adolescent actions, no matter how egregious.

Conservative writer and professor Tom Nichols, meanwhile, tweeted, “We’ve now gone from ‘he did this terrible thing at 17’ to ‘he’s a man who treated a woman like that. Man, I hope all the people who are making this case had spotless lives at 17, because I sure as hell didn’t.” He deleted it after being called out for insensitivity but continued with this: “All of you arguing that what someone did at 17 is relevant when you’re 53 better to be [sic] ready *always* to die on that hill, because it’s going to be the new rule. Don’t complain later when the revolution eats its young.” He went on…

But what does such alleged sexually assaultive behavior say about a person’s adult character and inner moral compass — which are obviously important aspects to consider when it comes to making a SCOTUS appointment? And does such an incident deserve to be given full weight when the person in question, now in his 50s, was just 17 at the time?

Christine Blasey Ford, who has said she is willing to testify regarding her allegations against Brett Kavanaugh. (Photo: researchgate.net)
Christine Blasey Ford, who has said she is willing to testify regarding her allegations against Brett Kavanaugh. (Photo: researchgate.net)

Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University and an expert on adolescents, says no way.

“There are many reasons to be concerned about the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh for a position on the Supreme Court, but something he may have done as an intoxicated 17-year-old at a party with his classmates isn’t one of them,” Steinberg, author of Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence, wrote in a letter to the editor that he sent to Yahoo Lifestyle right after submitting it for consideration to the New York Times.

“Indeed, the very body on which Judge Kavanaugh would serve, if confirmed, has ruled repeatedly during the past 13 years that people under the age of 18 should not be held to the same standards of criminal responsibility as adults, because teenagers are impulsive, susceptible to peer influence, and still capable of change,” he continued. “Few of us would want to be judged in adulthood on the basis of isolated incidents in which we were involved (or accused of having been involved) as teenagers. I sure wouldn’t.”

Still, some research has shown that an individual’s personality is set for life way before adolescence — even as early as by first grade, according to one study out of the University of California, Riverside, which looked at personality traits including impulsiveness over a span of 40 years. Another, more recent study, found that that most people stay true to their intrinsic morals, good or bad, when it comes to day-to-day choices. “Using naturally observed, everyday behaviors and self-reports of moral decision-making, we demonstrate that one’s morality is stable,” said one of the lead authors, Kathryn Bollich of Washington University.

But things do get a bit trickier, as Steinberg notes, when talking about the moral compass of a still-developing teen.

“There are a number of things to consider. On one hand, the teen brain is not fully developed,” Connecticut-based psychologist Barbara Greenberg, who has an expertise in adolescents, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. The part that’s not fully developed — and won’t be until at least a person’s mid-20s — is the frontal cortex, Greenberg says, which helps a person regulate emotions, make good decisions, and control impulses. “And so, during your teens, you make bad decisions,” she says. “However, most teens do not go on to sexually assault another teen. … If a teen does something like yells at a parent, slams a door, or tries drugs, we can attribute it to the teen brain. But sexual assault? No. I think the teen bears responsibility. It’s an atypical behavior.”

She adds, “If somebody does something characterized by aggression and disrespect for humanity, that goes far beyond the teenage brain. Most teens don’t do that type of thing.”

In order to more fully assess the Kavanaugh incident, it’s important to look beyond that one night, and into behavior patterns, notes Greenberg. Echoing that is Darcia Narvaez, a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame who has written extensively on morality, including in her book, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom.

“I think a nice kid can be egged on to do things they wouldn’t normally do, whether by drinking alcohol or by peer pressure,” Narvaez tells Yahoo Lifestyle. But “I would be worried about a person behaving [as Kavanaugh is alleged]. There’s something not quite reassuring, and it casts some doubt on his character. … The behavior he allegedly did indicates an egregious sense of male privilege and superiority, and that would come from family and peer group culture. So that is worrisome for someone put into a position that will judge the benefits and burdens of living together as fellow citizens.”

But bottom line, Narvaez adds: “We need more information. One incident is not enough to determine a person’s character.”

Read more from Yahoo Lifestyle:

‘You’re a repulsive human’: Donald Trump Jr. receives harsh criticism after seemingly mocking Kavanaugh’s sexual assault accuser on Instagram
Donald Trump Jr. shared vacation photos, and people are wondering if he’s boycotting Nike
Kathy Griffin shares savage response to Donald Trump Jr. and his new girlfriend’s Instagram photo

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