That same question was asked back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the role of genetics in crime was widely accepted (Joseph, 2001). Prominent researchers believed that genes were fully responsible for criminal activity and that criminals could be identified by their physiological features. Along with this information and the idea of a eugenics movement during the same time period, it was not surprising to learn that acts of sterilization took place to rid society of �criminals, idiots, imbeciles, and rapists" (Joseph, 2001, p. 182). This period was therefore marked with inhumane treatment and the belief that genes were the sole reason behind criminal behavior.
Not long after the practices of controlled breeding, there was evidence to support the idea that the environment also played an important role in crime. Early family studies were conducted that showed a predisposition for criminal behavior as a result of inherited characteristics, but that an individual's characteristics and personality could still be modified by the environment (Joseph, 2001). Although these studies were void of high validity and reliability, it still raised the question of whether the environment can also influence individuals to act in a criminal manner. The debate between genetics and environment continues today with much more reliable research and data. Consequently, this paper will examine the various roles in which both genes and environmental factors influence criminal behavior.
Definition and Measurement of Criminal Behavior
With regards to determining the effects the environment plays in criminal behavior there are fewer resources available. Observational studies and reports submitted by parents are two sources, but not everyone agrees on the validity of information collected from these sources. Three additional sources that most researchers cite when gathering information about both genetic and environmental influences are twin, family, and adoption studies (Tehrani & Mednick, 2000).
Twin, Adoption, and Family Studies
Twin studies are conducted on the basis of comparing monozygotic (MZ) or identical twins and their rates of criminal behavior with the rates of criminal behavior of dizygotic (DZ) or fraternal twins. Ordinarily these studies are used to assess the roles of genetic and environmental influences. If the outcomes of these twin studies show that there is a higher concordance rate for MZ twins than for DZ twins in criminal behavior, then it can be assumed that there is a genetic influence (Tehrani & Mednick, 2000). A study conducted looked at thirty two MZ twins reared apart, who had been adopted by a non-relative a short time after birth. The results showed that for both childhood and adult antisocial behavior, there was a high degree of heritability involved (Joseph, 2001). This study was of particular importance because it examined the factor of separate environments. Another researcher studied eighty-five MZ and one hundred and forty-seven DZ pairs and found that there was a higher concordance rate for the MZ pairs. Ten years later after checking police records of these same twins, two other researchers concluded that there was a fifty-four percent heritability of liability to crime (Joseph, 2001). Around the same time of the study just mentioned, two researchers studied forty-nine MZ and eighty-nine DZ pairs, but found no difference in the concordance rates. They concluded therefore that in respect to common crime, hereditary factors are of little significance (Joseph, 2001). Many other twin studies have been conducted, but there is concern over the validity of those studies and their ability to separate out the nature and nurture aspects; therefore other sources of information should be examined.
Adoption studies are critical in examining the relationship that exists between adopted children and both their biological and adoptive parents because they assume to separate nature and nurture. Studies have been conducted that test for the criminal behavior of the adopted-away children, if their biological parents had also been involved with criminal activity. In Iowa, the first adoption study was conducted that looked at the genetics of criminal behavior. The researchers found that as compared to the control group, the adopted individuals, which were born to incarcerated female offenders, had a higher rate of criminal convictions as adults. Therefore this evidence supports the existence of a heritable component to antisocial or criminal behavior (Tehrani & Mednick, 2000). Another study in Sweden also showed that if a biological background existed for criminality, then there was an increased risk of criminal behavior in the adopted children. In Denmark, one of the largest studies of adopted children was conducted and found similar results to the previous studies. The defining feature of the Denmark study was that the researchers found a biological component for criminal acts against property, but not for violent crimes (Joseph, 2001). Children whose biological fathers had been convicted of property crimes were more likely to engage in similar behavior, when compared to those biological fathers who had been convicted of violent crimes. According to an article by Jay Joseph (2001), who studied all of the minor and major adoption studies, the majority of researchers have found and agreed upon the non-significance of genes in violent crime. This reestablishes the findings from the studies mentioned already in that there may be a genetic component to antisocial behavior or that genes influence criminal behavior, but specifically for property offenses.
Family studies are the third type of instrument used to assess the relationship between genetics and environmental influences on criminal or antisocial behavior. Research in this field has probably been the least accepted by psychologists and other scholars because of the degree of difficulty in separating out nature and nurture in the family environment. Children experience both the influence of their parents' genes and also the environment in which they are raised, so it is difficult to assign which behaviors were influenced by the two factors. Twin studies have this flaw, as stated earlier, but it is more prevalent in family studies. An additional concern with family studies is the inability to replicate the results, therefore leading to a small number of studies. Regardless of these drawbacks, one family study in particular should be acknowledged for its findings.
Brunner, Nelen, Breakefield, Ropers, and van Oost (1993) conducted a study utilizing a large Dutch family. In their study they found a point mutation in the structural gene for monoamine oxidase A (MAOA), a neurochemical in the brain, which they associated with aggressive criminal behavior among a number of males in that family (Alper, 1995). These males were reported to have selective MAOA deficiency, which can lead to decreased concentrations of 5-hydroxyindole-3-acetic acid (5-HIAA) in cerebrospinal fluid. Evidence suggests that low concentrations of 5-HIAA can be associated with impulsive aggression. These results have not been confirmed in any additional family studies, which lead to a need for more studies to determine if other families share similar results (Brunner et al., 1993). However, this one family study does seem to suggest that genetics play an important role in antisocial or criminal behavior.
Neurochemicals in Criminal and Anti-Social Behavior
Monoamine oxidase (MAO) is an enzyme that has been shown to be related to antisocial behavior. Specifically, low MAO activity results in disinhibition which can lead to impulsivity and aggression (Elliot, 2000). The Brunner et al. study is the only one to report findings of a relationship between a point mutation in the structural gene for MAOA and aggression, which makes the findings rare. However, there has been other evidence that points to the conclusion that deficiencies in MAOA activity may be more common and as a result may predispose individuals to antisocial or aggressive behavior (Brunner et al., 1993). MAO is associated with many of the neurochemicals that already have a link to antisocial or criminal behavior. Norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine are metabolized by both MAOA and MAOB (Elliot, 2000). While, according to Eysenck (1996), MAO is related to norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine, which are all related to the personality factor of psychosis.
Serotonin is a neurochemical that plays an important role in the personality traits of depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder (Larsen & Buss, 2005). It is also involved with brain development and a disorder in this system could lead to an increase in aggressiveness and impulsivity (Morley & Hall, 2003). As Lowenstein (2003) states, �studies point to serotonin as one of the most important central neuro-transmitters underlying the modulation of impulsive aggression" (p.72). Low levels of serotonin have been found to be associated with impulsive behavior and emotional aggression. In addition, children who suffer from conduct disorder (which will be discussed later), have also been shown to have low blood serotonin (Elliot, 2000). Needless to say, there is a great deal of evidence that shows serotonin is related to aggression, which can be further associated with antisocial or criminal behavior.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that is associated with pleasure and is also one of the neurotransmitters that is chiefly associated with aggression. Activation of both affective (emotionally driven) and predatory aggression is accomplished by dopamine (Elliot, 2000). Genes in the dopaminergic pathway have also been found to be involved with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) (Morley & Hall, 2003). In one study cited by Morley and Hall (2003), a relationship was found between the genes in the dopaminergic pathway, impulsivity, ADHD, and violent offenders. Obviously, from this list of neurochemicals it seems plausible that there is a genetic component to antisocial or criminal behavior.
Personality Disorders and Traits
ODD is characterized by argumentativeness, noncompliance, and irritability, which can be found in early childhood (Holmes et al., 2001). When a child with ODD grows older, the characteristics of their behavior also change and more often for the worse. They start to lie and steal, engage in vandalism, substance abuse, and show aggression towards peers (Holmes et al., 2001). Frequently ODD is the first disorder that is identified in children and if sustained can lead to the diagnosis of CD (Morley & Hall, 2003). It is important to note however that not all children who are diagnosed with ODD will develop CD.
ADHD is associated with hyperactivity-impulsivity and the inability to keep attention focused on one thing (Morley & Hall, 2003). Holmes et al. (2001) state that, �impulse control dysfunction and the presence of hyperactivity and inattention are the most highly related predisposing factors for presentation of antisocial behavior" (p.184). They also point to the fact that children diagnosed with ADHD have the inability to analyze and anticipate consequences or learn from their past behavior. Children with this disorder are at risk of developing ODD and CD, unless the child is only diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), in which case their chances of developing ODD or CD are limited. The future for some children is made worse when ADHD and CD are co-occurring because they will be more likely to continue their antisocial tendencies into adulthood (Holmes et al., 2001).
Conduct Disorder is characterized with an individual's violation of societal rules and norms (Morley & Hall, 2003). As the tendencies or behaviors of those children who are diagnosed with ODD or ADHD worsen and become more prevalent, the next logical diagnosis is CD. What is even more significant is the fact that ODD, ADHD, and CD are risk factors for developing Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD). This disorder can only be diagnosed when an individual is over the age of eighteen and at which point an individual shows persistent disregard for the rights of others (Morley & Hall, 2003). ASPD has been shown to be associated with an increased risk of criminal activity. Therefore, it is of great importance that these early childhood disorders are correctly diagnosed and effectively treated to prevent future problems.
Another critical aspect that must be examined regarding antisocial or criminal behavior is the personality characteristics of individuals. Two of the most cited personality traits that can be shown to have an association with antisocial or criminal behavior are impulsivity and aggression (Morley & Hall, 2003). According to the article written by Holmes et al. (2001), antisocial behavior between the ages of nine and fifteen can be correlated strongly with impulsivity and that aggression in early childhood can predict antisocial acts and delinquency. One statistic shows that between seventy and ninety percent of violent offenders had been highly aggressive as young children (Holmes et al., 2001). These personality traits have, in some research, been shown to be heritable.
The family environment is critical to the upbringing of a child and if problems exist then the child is most likely to suffer the consequences. We have seen the problems associated with a child who is diagnosed with ADHD and how that can influence antisocial or criminal behavior. In relation to that, some researchers have claimed that it is the family environment that influences the hyperactivity of children (Schmitz, 2003). The researchers in this article specifically identify family risk factors as poverty, education, parenting practices, and family structure. Prior research on the relationship between family environment and child behavior characterizes a child's well being with a positive and caring parent-child relationship, a stimulating home environment, and consistent disciplinary techniques (Schmitz, 2003). Families with poor communication and weak family bonds have been shown to have a correlation with children's development of aggressive/criminal behavior (Garnefski & Okma, 1996). Therefore it seems obvious to conclude that those families who are less financially sound, perhaps have more children, and who are unable to consistently punish their children will have a greater likelihood of promoting an environment that will influence antisocial or delinquent behavior. Another indicator of future antisocial or criminal behavior is that of abuse or neglect in childhood. A statistic shows that children are at a fifty percent greater risk of engaging in criminal acts, if they were neglected or abused (Holmes et al., 2001). This has been one of the most popular arguments as to why children develop antisocial or delinquent behaviors.
One additional research finding in the debate between genetic and environmental influences on antisocial or criminal behavior has to deal with the age of the individual. Research seems consistent in recognizing that heritability influences adult behavior more than environmental influences, but that for children and adolescents the environment is the most significant factor influencing their behavior (Rhee & Waldman, 2002). As an adult, we have the ability to choose the environment in which to live and this will either positively or negatively reinforce our personality traits, such as aggressiveness. However, children and adolescents are limited to the extent of choosing an environment, which accounts for the greater influence of environmental factors in childhood behaviors.
Another significant factor in the development of antisocial or delinquent behavior in adolescence is peer groups. Garnefski and Okma (1996) state that there is a correlation between the involvement in an antisocial or delinquent peer group and problem behavior. One of the primary causes as to why this occurs can be traced back to aggressive behavior in young children. When children are in preschool and show aggressive tendencies towards their peers, they will likely be deemed as an outcast. This creates poor peer relationships and relegates those children to be with others who share similar behaviors. A relationship like this would most likely continue into adolescence and maybe even further into adulthood. The similar tendencies of these individuals create an environment in which they influence one another and push the problem towards criminal or violent behavior (Holmes et al., 2001).
Social learning theory has been cited as way to explain how the environment can influence a child's behavior. Using this theory to explain the aggressive or antisocial behavior of a child means that a child observes aggressive behavior between parents, siblings, or both. As a result, the children believes that this aggressive behavior is normal and can therefore use it themselves because they do not see the harm in acting similar to their parents (Miles & Carey, 1997). As stated earlier, interaction between family members and disciplinary techniques are influential in creating antisocial behavior. Using the social learning theory these two factors are also critical in the development of aggression. Children who are raised in an aggressive family environment would most likely be susceptible to experiencing a lack of parental monitoring, permissiveness or inconsistency in punishment, parental rejection and aggression. The exposure to such high levels of aggression and other environmental factors greatly influences and reinforces a child's behavior. A significant point that should be known however is the fact that other research has supported the notion that genetics do influence levels of aggression, which stands in opposition to the social learning theory (Miles & Carey, 1997).
Understanding Eysenck's original model is critical to assessing the general arousal theory of criminality, which suggests an interaction between factors. Research has shown that criminality is strongly correlated with low arousal levels in the brain. Characteristics related to low arousal levels include lack of interest, sleepiness, lack of attention, and loss of vigilance. Eysenck (1996) believed that these characteristics were similar to the personality factor of extraversion. Individuals with low arousal levels and those who are extraverts need to seek out stimulation because they do not have enough already in their brains. Therefore, the premise of the general arousal theory of criminality is that individuals inherit a nervous system that is unresponsive to low levels of stimulation and as a consequence, these individuals have to seek out the proper stimulation to increase their arousal. Under this theory, the proper stimulation includes high-risk activities associated with antisocial behavior, which consists of sexual promiscuity, substance abuse, and crime (Miles & Carey, 1997). A significant fact that must be pointed out though is that not every individual with low arousal levels or those who are extraverts will seek those high risk activities just mentioned. It takes the right environment and personality to create an individual with antisocial or criminal tendencies and that is why this theory can be considered to take into account both factors of genetic and environmental influences.
Researchers, however, have certainly come far in their progression, to the point where there is a large consensus of the fact that genes do influence behavior to a certain extent. Although not as widely publicized, it is the belief of the author that these same researchers also believe that environmental factors account for what cannot be explained by genes. Therefore it seems obvious to reach the conclusion that an individual's antisocial or criminal behavior can be the result of both their genetic background and the environment in which they were raised.
One researcher has proposed a theory relating to sociopaths and their antisocial behavior. According to the theory, a primary sociopath is lacking in moral development and does not feel socially responsible for their actions. This type of sociopath is a product of the individual's personality, physiotype, and genotype. A secondary sociopath develops in response to his or her environment because of the disadvantages of social competition. Living in an urban residence, having a low socioeconomic status, or poor social skills can lead an individual to being unsuccessful in reaching their needs in a socially desirable way, which can turn into antisocial or criminal behavior. The first type of sociopath is dependent on their genetic makeup and personality, while certain factors of the second type can also be heritable. Notwithstanding, the second type has a greater dependence on environmental factors (Miles & Carey, 1997). Perhaps from this review of both genetic and environmental factors, it seems clear to support the idea of the secondary sociopath type. An individual can inherit certain genes and when combined with the right environmental factors can lead them to engage in antisocial or criminal behavior.
Although not mentioned extensively in the text of the paper, there is a great need to try and identify those individuals, especially children, who may become susceptible to certain disorders or personality traits that can lead into antisocial, delinquent, or criminal behavior. Society should not try to imitate the era of controlled breeding, but rather focus on the treatment and rehabilitation of those individuals in need. Certain educational, environment enrichment programs have been shown to have a lasting effect on children if given by a certain age (Raine, Mellingen, Liu, Venables, & Mednick, 2003). If more of these programs could be developed, society could help prevent the future antisocial or criminal behavior of children.
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The age old question of why crime exists is one that will never cease. While there are many theories that attempt to address and explain this phenomenon, two specific concepts stand out above the rest. They involve the belief that the social environment is the main reason why individuals commit crime, and, secondly, crime occurs and is fostered by biological traits that eventually lead to criminal behavior.
While both theories make outstanding arguments on why their concept is the best, the fact remains that a combination of both biological and social factors combined mold people into who they are and determines the mindset of one that chooses to engage in criminal behavior.
In order to truly understand how an environment can shape a mindset that has the potential to lead to deviant behavior, we must first identify what a social environment is. “Human social environments encompass the immediate physical surroundings, social relationships, and cultural milicus within which defined groups of people function and interact” (Barnett & Casper, 2001). An easierOne definition is molding behavior based on a set of morals, values and beliefs that are instilled in individuals during early childhood. These morals, values and beliefs form a system that facilitates decision making throughout the course of an individuals’ life.
Several criminal theorists have attempted to research and define the commonality between one’s social environment and how it ties into the commission of crime. “Recent studies show that during the last 5 years, 60 percent of the entire world’s city residents have, directly or indirectly, been a victim to violence, crime and felony. Thus, the increasing crime rate, violent or non-violent, is a serious threat for all the urban societies of the world” (Salehi, 2012). This proves that society has contributed to fostering a social environment that breeds criminal behavior. But there are other variables that need to be considered when attempting to identify what leads a person towards a lifestyle of deviant behavior.
One’s upbringing and social learning environment directly contribute to an individual’s specific criminogenic needs. Such needs are traits that lead to criminal behavior. In other words, our experiences growing up as a child have the capability to shape our view of the world, and have a direct impact on one’s ability to make rational decisions. What may appear to be a rational decision to one individual could be considered completely irrational by another.
One of the best examples of a criminogenic need that ties into the social learning environment would be criminal peers. Such peers are those individuals that tend to coerce or indirectly effect the decision making of another. “It is reasonable to suppose that adolescents can be influenced by peers who are not actually present during a delinquent event (including occasions when an offender acts alone) ( (Warr, 2002). Oftentimes, a young adult will elect to participate in delinquent behavior simply to “fit in” with their peers. If that involves engaging in criminal activity, then so be it.
However, there is a possibility that if such an individual had been raised in a positive environment, there is a chance that the individual may elect to refrain from deviant behavior due to said environment. Unfortunately, there is also research that indicates the opposite as well. Those that have been raised under not so fortunate circumstances often exhibit criminal behavior later in life; however, statistically they have a lower probability to do so.
Other factors that can be directly linked to the social environment would include child abuse, domestic violence and exposure to emotional harm. “Research into the impact of childhood abuse and neglect on violent behavior of adults who became serial killers concluded that adults who had been physically, sexually, and emotionally abused as children were three times more likely than were non-abused adults to act violently as adults” (Silva, Leong, & Ferrari, 2004).
A lack of positive developmental traits is directly connected with behavior as children drift from adolescence on to adulthood. "When individuals with conduct disorder reach adulthood, symptoms of aggression, property destruction, deceitfulness, and rule violation, including violence against co-workers, partners, and children, may be exhibited in the workplace and the home, such that antisocial personality disorder may be considered" (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Criminogenic traits can and do contribute to a life of poor decisions, however, they don’t necessarily all exist based on one’s individual social environment. Biological factors are often the starting point for understanding criminal behavior.
“Many genes may affect brain functioning in ways that either increase or reduce the chances of individuals learning various complex behavior patterns” (Cullen, Agnew, & Wilcox, 2014). Many often question whether it is possible to determine a link between genetics and criminal behavior. There have been multiple research studies that have all come to the same conclusion. The simple answer is yes, genetics does play a role. Adrian Rane, a well-known bio-psychologist, once stated that “despite strong resistance in many quarters, there is now little scientific doubt that genes play a significant role in antisocial behavior.” At the moment of conception, genetics begin to play a factor in the development of traits that have the potential to lead an individual down the path of illegal behavior.
“Some genes are expressed or turned on (or not) because of physical, social, and cultural factors in the environment; and some genes—for example, those that influence difficult temperament, impulsivity, novelty seeking, and lack of empathy—predispose people to be exposed to environmental risks.” (Kaiser & Rasminsky, 2010) Once born, children learn from their parents and their environment. An example of this would include a child that has been raised in a home where aggression and violence is common. That child has a much higher probability to be impulsive, and may have difficulty expressing emotions in what would be considered a positive manner.
Addiction is also an excellent example of a genetic or biological trait that is passed on through generations and has been identified as hereditary. While it is possible for a child to be born with an addiction to illegal substances, many times, an individual is exposed to such a substance later in life and finds them self easily addicted. It is possible that they carried a gene that would predispose them to an addictive personality, and once exposed to a situation, they were easily led to criminal thinking and potentially deviant behavior. Genetic traits can also have a direct effect on their relationships as they enter adulthood.
Biological factors also play a role in early childhood development and can result in mental health related problems. If someone is predisposed to enjoying solidarity, and is raised in an environment that lacks positive reinforcement of social skills, the end result can be devastating. Silva, Leong, and Ferrari (2004) identified a link between serial homicidal behavior and ASD, also known as Autistic Spectrum Disorder.
This disorder can be identified as “Any person, talented or handicapped, whose social skills have been severely deficient since very early childhood, who started to talk late or whose communicative use of language is inadequate, and who perseverates and lacks cognitive and behavioral flexibility meets the diagnostic criteria for an autistic-spectrum disorder” (Rapin, 2002). This is just one explanation for why serial killings and mass murders occur.
While crime occurs for many reasons, researchers over the past several hundred years have made attempts to gain answers to identify the root cause of the criminal mindset. Some research leads us to believe social learning theory and environmental factors are the only contributing reasons for why an individual elects to exhibit criminal behavior.
On the other hand, just as many research projects have taken an even deeper look and claim that while social skills and the environment do play a major role, the fact remains that the environment is a doorway to unlocking genetic traits that are instilled in people from conception. While the social landscape is vital in raising a child with proper morals, values and a positive belief system, it is not the only contributing factor in the causation of criminal activity within an individual.
It is a combination of both biological factors in addition to our social environment that molds each of us into who are today.
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Kaiser, B., & Rasminsky, J. (2010, October 25). Biological Risk Factors for Challenging Behavior. Retrieved November 3, 2013, from Education.com: http://www.education.com/reference/article/biolgical-risk-factors-challenging/
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Salehi, E. (2012, April 6). Environmental factors and urban crime. Retrieved July 27, 2014, from Wordpress.com: http://numerons.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/6environmental-factors-and-urban-crime.pdf
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Warr, M. (2002). Companions in Crime. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.