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Is criminal behavior innate or shaped by environment

Published: 23, March 2015

The 'nature vs. nurture' debate is one of the oldest issues concerning
psychologists and the extent to which both factor influences personality is an
enigma that remains unresolved to this date. Many questions have been
raised and one such question is: 'Is criminal behavior is innate or is it shaped
by the environment' and this paper will attempt to throw some light on the
topic.

Crime and violence have existed in the society since the time of Abel and
Cane and people have been intrigued as to what makes a person turn out to
be a 'bad seed' and behave in violent ways and conduct unspeakable acts.
Such people, previously known as 'psychopaths', do not feel normal
emotions, willingly break rules, do not get socialized, and lack morality and a
human connection. However, labeling such people as criminals creates the
problem of stereotyping and might lead to misjudgment of the cause which
can often be psychological. Psychopathy is now labeled as the 'Antisocial
personality disorder' (APD) attributed to people who show 'a pervasive
pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others'. Such people
usually have a history of APD since childhood and are not shaped by
environmental factors as they grow older.

A lot of family, twin and adoption studies have been conducted to find the
basis for the nature vs. nurture debate in criminal behavior. To calculate the
effect of genes or environment antisocial behavior, a few family studies have
been carried out. A Dutch family was found to have a mutation in the
structure of the MAOa gene, which leads to low levels of 5-hydroxyindole-3-
acetic acid (5-HIAA) in cerebrospinal fluid, leading to impulsive and
aggressive behavior in the men of the family. This study showed the effect of
genes on criminal behavior, however, such studies lack a lot of credibility as
it is not possible to isolate either genes or environment to study the impact
on behavior and the results cannot be replicated.
Twin studies compare monozygotic (MZ) and dizygotic (DZ) twins and a
genetic influence can be assumed if criminal behavior is more in accord in
MZ twins than in DZ twins. A few studies have been conducted on MZ and DZ
twins reared apart and some have shown the influence of heritability while
others have negated it. Such studies, however, can lack validity and the
ability to filter out genetic or environmental influence.
Adoption studies are of vital importance as nature and nurture influences
have been separated as children are reared apart from their birth parents.
Research showed that adopted children born to offenders showed greater
antisocial and criminal tendencies. However, one research showed that
children born to parents convicted of property crimes were more prone to be
violent themselves than those of people convicted of violent crimes, an
interesting result indeed. Similarities of the children with genetic parents are
genetic influences while similarities with the adopted parents are
environmental influences. However, adoption studies can be complicated by
factors such as the difference in the socioeconomic status of the birth and
adoptive parents.
Cadoret, Cain and Crowe conducted adoption studies in Iowa by choosing a
variety of samples from different psychopathological disorders. The
dependant variable was the number of adolescent antisocial behaviors used,
the genetic variables were antisocial and alcoholic background as most
biological mothers had antisocial personalities and were convicted for some
crime, and the environmental variables were the adverse adoptive-home
conditions and the age at which the child was adopted. Sex factor was also
taken into account. The results have been discussed in the conclusion.
Biologically, it has been found that neurochemicals, such as monoamine
oxidase (MAO), epinephrine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine are
responsible for antisocial behavior. Low levels of MAO are shown to be
related to antisocial behavior, impulsivity and aggression and are also
related to norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine, which are all related
to the personality factor of psychosis. Dopamine is linked to emotionally
driven and predatory aggression and is involved with the Attention Deficit
Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) which is linked with violent crimes according
to one study. Another neurochemical, serotonin, has been found to play a
vital role in depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, conduct disorder (CD),
impulsivity and aggression. Such results can be used to validate the claim
that genes play a significant role in determining characteristics that can lead
to antisocial behavior. However, it is argued by some that a well defined
causation is not proved as it is not entirely certain if the low levels of such
chemicals trigger a violent response or if violence leads to the low levels.

Disorders - such as ADHD, Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) and CD -


which can result in violent adult behavior, are usually found to exist since
childhood. ADHD is hyperactivity and the inability to focus which leads to
antisocial behavior as such children cannot reflect upon and learn from
previous mistakes. Children with ODD are argumentative, irritable and
noncompliant. They become worse over time, indulging in lying, cheating,
vandalism and aggressiveness. As ADHD or ODD worsen, they are often
likely to be diagnosed with CD which is a violation of norms. All these
disorders can result in the antisocial personality disorder (APD) as such
children emerge into adulthood and acquire the personality traits of
aggressiveness and impulsivity, two heritable traits that are associated with
criminal behavior as they can predict antisocial behavior and delinquency.

Physiologically, there exists an abnormality in the central nervous system of


such people which make them unable to feel emotional arousal - such as
empathy, fear, guilty or anxiety - or react to the threat of punishment. This
lack of physiological arousal is what differentiates a person with APD from
others. In addition, people with APD also have lesser gray matter and an
impaired frontal-lobe functioning, the area responsible for planning and
impulse control, leading to impulsivity. Brain damage can also lead to the
impairment of the frontal-lobes. It was also once believed that men with an
extra Y chromosome were more prone to violent behavior but the argument
was not proved.
Even though most of the above mentioned results show genetics to be a
factor, it is important to examine the role of the environment, i.e. family and
peers, in nurturing such behavior. Not all recent studies have supported the
earlier findings of genetic influences. It is shown that families can influence
the hyperactivity of kids with ADHD. Upbringing, communication, care,
financial status, disciplinary techniques, family structure and bonds,
education, etc are some of the factors that vary from family to family and
can have a positive or a negative impact on the child. Moreover, abused or
neglected children have a fifty percent greater risk of indulging in crime.
Physically abused boys, who have a deficient gene too, have been proven to
indulge in more violent crimes. Moreover, age also determines the impact of
heritability or environment and kids are more likely to be influenced by their
environment as they cannot choose their own surroundings and are more
likely to be molded according to it. Adults, however, have a choice and their
personality traits can only be positively or negatively reinforced by the
surroundings they choose to reside in.
Social learning theory also indicates that children observe the behavior of
those around them, such as parents and siblings and if they see aggressive
behavior around them to be a norm, they will more likely act similarly,
although this is in contrast to the genetic theory. Aggressive families usually
lack in disciplinary techniques and monitoring which reinforces a child's
behavior and is essential in leading to antisocial behavior.
Peer groups are also vital in producing antisocial behavior. When young
children behave in an antisocial manner, they are more likely to be shunned
by their peers which results in the further reinforcement of such behavior as
these kids are then unable to develop peer relationships. They are also
forced into the midst of other such antisocial children and are pushed
towards crime as they get reinforcement from their group. This is also in
accord to the belief that genes influence the type of interactions humans
have.
Eysenck came up the PEN Model which is based on psychoticism,
extraversion, and neuroticism. In his model, 'Psychoticism is associated with
the traits of aggressive, impersonal, impulsive, cold, antisocial, and un-
empathetic. Extraversion is correlated with the traits of sociable, lively,
active, sensation-seeking, carefree, dominant, and assertive. Finally,
neuroticism is associated with anxious, depressed, low self-esteem,
irrational, moody, emotional, and tense'. He believes psychoticism is the
difference between criminals and non-criminals, extraversion is a better
predictor for younger people and neuroticism for older. It has been shown
that low arousal levels in the brain, such as lack of interest, sleepiness etc,
are related to criminal behavior and extravert people hunt for more
simulation in high risk activities to increase their arousal. However, adding
on to his model, the belief that there is an interaction between genes and
the environment is supported by the general arousal theory of criminality
which implies that there is interaction between the factors and also an
interaction between the environment and genes to create such an individual.

Although research studies have generally lacked the ability to be able to


isolate the effects of genes or environment on the shaping of a person's
personality, both sides of the nature vs. nurture argument hold a lot of merit.
There are people known as primary sociopaths who lack morals and the
ability to feel responsible as a result of their genotype. Secondary
sociopaths, however, are a consequence of the environment they are raised
in and even though there is some degree of heritability, there is a greater
environmental role. Coming to a conclusion, it is generally agreed upon that
genes do in fact have a lot to do in influencing behavior, and factors in the
environment account for what cannot be explained by the genes. As a result,
personality is shaped by the interaction of both factors and it was found out
that a certain combination of environmental factors with genetics essentially
plays a vital role. Inherited genes when combined with the right
environmental conditions can result in a catastrophic birth of a criminal.
According to Joseph Alper, however, research on these issues is too basic to
be decisive and of much help in treating disorders. It is however, the role of
the society, for its own good and out of moral obligation, to make sure
children with such personality traits are treated and rehabilitated, rather
than shunned out and stigmatized.

A crime as defined in the New Expanded Webster s Dictionary is a breach of law, divine or human. Given this definition a criminal is
a person who perpetrates actively breaking the law whether be positive law or natural law. The criminal code of Canada is
prescriptive in the actions of the individuals in the society and the formation of the criminal code of Canada comes from the social
norms and standards of society. Any person who violates these social norms and standards codified in the criminal code of Canada
is labeled as a criminal. The causation of individuals becoming a criminal is predominantly attributed to environmental factors that
the individual has been exposed to rather then the genetic disposition of the individual.

Clearly, environmental factors contribute largely to a person's nongenetic behavior, due to the mass amounts of risk
factors that exist in society. Ronald L. Akers, director of the Centre for Studies in Criminology and law at the University of Florida
completed a survey of delinquency prediction models and found that these risk factors are the most closely associated with
delinquency:

+ Drug Use

+ Family Dysfunction
+ Childhood Behavior Problems

+ Deviant Peers

+ Poor School Performance

+ Inconsistent Parental Supervision and Discipline

+ Separation From Parents

+ Poverty

In the United States in 1996 it was found that over 33% of all jail inmates reported some physical or mental disability and
25% of jail inmates said they had been treated at some time for mental or emotional problem. To dismiss the fact that there are
criminals that have innate genetic disposition to commit crimes is simply ludicrous but given the statistic above over 66% of all jail
inmates have no physical or mental disability or either it is not reported and the other statistic that 75% of jail inmates have
needed or have not been treated for mental or emotional problem these statistics display that environmental factors are a more
predominant factor to the causation of criminal behavior. For further evidence on the stance that environmental factors are the
predominant causation of criminal behavior one can look at the relationship between economic activity and criminal offences. In
1994, Canada s economic activity in terms of (Figure 1.1) GDP was 767,506 (millions) and number of total offences 2 840 725
(Figure 1.2) that year but in 1998, Canada s economic activity in terms of GDP was 895,704 (millions) and the number of total
offences 2 561 155. This shows that economic activity is negatively correlated to the number of total offences in Canada but also
that when economy is prosperous the number of total offences decreases and that over 4 years the number of total offences
dropped 279 570 or 9.8%. This is conclusive evidence that over just 4 years the number of total offences in Canada dropped 9.8%
and that this is primarily attributed to the environmental and economic conditions of the society. Another ideal example of the
concept that criminal behavior occurs by environmental factors is to look at the African American community and criminal behavior
in the United States. In the United States the African American community is around 34 million or 13.4% of the total population of
the United States yet African American males occupy 40% of male prisons. At first glance one can make the brash decision that
African American males are genetically prone to criminal behavior but that is not the case. The primary causes for this high rate of
criminal behavior is due to the family structure of African American households and poverty. In 1997, the number of poor African
Americans was 9.7 million about 28.5% of the total number of African Americans in the United States. In 1997, there was 11 369
000 African American children under the age of 18 and 5 888 000 of those children live in a single parent home with their mother
this means that 51.7% of African American children under the age of 18 are living with there mothers. The total of African
American children under the age of 18 living in single parent homes is a staggering 6 469 000 or 56.9%. The fact that 28.5% of
African Americans in the United States are poor and that 56.9% of African American children under the age of 18 live are in single
parent homes illustrates that poverty and the lack of dual parental role in young African American male s life can be detrimental to
his success in later life. Criminal behavior as shown is predominantly effected by environmental factors rather then the genetic
disposition of the criminal element.