Nature VS Nurture – Are Criminals Born or Made?
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Intro The search for causes of crime forms the basis of most criminological studies. There are numerous explanations for crime: psychological, evolutionary, genetical, sociological, economical and a mix of factors; and many have debated over the primary influence of criminal behaviour—whether criminals are born or made. Truth is, in the constitution of criminal behaviour, it is the amalgam of both nature and nurture.
And this paper will present how crime behaviours can be hereditary but are influenced by the society. Nature The first theory that will demonstrate that criminals are made is Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of crime (1961), which posits that all humans have natural basic biological needs and urges such as hunger and sex repressed in the unconscious called Id which is irrationally expressed to derive satisfaction. More importantly he also claims that all humans have criminal tendencies.
Typically, we can curb these urges and tendencies and express them appropriately according to social norms through socialisation (Eysenck, 1996); where we learn to develop conscious inner controls called SuperEgo—which is our moral conscience repressing the Id and Ego— which mediates the expression of Id. However, when faced with the lack of basic need, the unconscious Id is stimulated, and the improperly socialised child who has failed to acquire and develop the Ego and SuperEgo, will then direct antisocial impulses outwardly as harmful criminalistic tendencies (Freud, 1923).
Besides Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory, the Evolutionary theory also serves to explain for the nature of a criminal. Aggression in the animal kingdom helps animals to obtain food, compete for access to a mate, and protect territory. These forms of aggressive behaviours have been favoured by a process called natural selection because they facilitate the reproduction of genes in the aggressive animals, either directly or indirectly, by aiding survival so that an animal or its close kin can reproduce later (Quinsey, 2002).
According to Darwin’s evolutionary theory, we evolved from animals and aggressive tendencies humans have are considered adaptive (Darwin, 1859). In this sense extreme violence may be synonymous with melanism in the English pepper moth (Steward, 1977). Melanism, an extreme colouring variation was rare before the darkening of England’s trees by domestic soot pollution as it contrasts against the tree bark and alerts predators to prey on them but shot up during which as it became adaptive. Once the pollution was cleaned, the frequencies of melanism reversed yet again.
Similarly, although extreme violence is not currently adaptive, relatively small numbers of humans may be born with gene variations leading to inefficient aggression restraint that place them at high risk for extreme violent behaviours. Last but not least, there were researchers who believed that genes were fully responsible for criminal activity. There have been numerous studies carried out on twins to determine whether genetic influences play a part in criminal behaviour. Christiansen (1977) reported on the criminality of a total population of 3,586 twin pairs from Denmark.
He found that 52% of the twins were concordant for criminal behaviour for identical twin pairs, whilst 22% of the twins were concordant for fraternal twin pairs. These results suggest that identical twins carry some form of biological characteristic that increases their risk of becoming involved in criminal behaviour (McLaughlin, Muncie, Hughes, 2003). Adoption studies have also been conducted to test for the criminal behaviours 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 behaviour. 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. Another study in Sweden also showed that if a biological background existed for criminality, then there was an increased risk of criminal behaviours in the adopted children. These evidences support the existence of a heritable component to antisocial or criminal behavior (Tehrani & Mednick, 2000).
However, while the overstimulation of the Id and the failure to acquire and develop the the Ego and SuperEgo leads to criminal tendencies, while aggression may be out of adaptive values, and while genetic studies have pointed towards the influence of genes and criminal behaviour, these theories alone are insufficient to account for crime. Evolutionary theory does not explain or predict for the extreme degrees of aggression in individuals nor has the genetic theory proven for 100% heritability; which raises the need for us to examine the Nurture camp of crime theories as well.
Nurture Behavioural psychology posits that a person’s behaviour is learned and maintained by its consequences, or reward value (Bandura, 1973). Eysenck (1964) postulated that by way of classical conditioning—the learning process that occurs as a result of pairing a reliable stimulus with a response, operant conditioning— learning that occurs due to the manipulation of the possible consequences, and modelling of others’ behaviours through familial interactions, environmental experiences and the mass media, people learn moral preferences.
Based on behavioural psychology, Sutherland (1939), a prominent social learning theorist, then put forth the theory of Differential Association where criminal behaviours are learned through interaction with intimate personal groups in a process of communication. When criminal behaviours are learned, the learning includes techniques of committing the crime, and the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes.
The specific direction of motives and drives is learned from definitions of the legal codes as favourable or unfavourable and a person becomes delinquent when there is an excess of definitions favourable to violation of law over definitions unfavourable to violation of the law. Differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity. Another sociological theory in the Nurture camp of thought is the Social Reaction Theory. It could be said that a person’s environment depends to a certain extent on their own choice (Horwitz, Christiansen, 1983).
However, there are also some individuals within certain areas who are drawn into crime (McGuire, Mason, O’Kane, 2000). A case in which the latter apply is institutional upbringing. Be it by choice or not, when society brands a certain social group as social deviants, delinquency rates tend to be on the rise for them. This is because once a person is stigmatised by a label, the response is often to accept and fulfil the label given and commit further acts of deviance.
For example, when a child is disruptive during lessons, teachers may label a child as a troublemaker and suggest that he only have classes with other “troubled” students. This leads him to seek out other “outcasts” and reinforce his identity. Parents may accept this and further reinforce this stereotype. As such, stigmatism takes places and social deviance is not only accepted by the potential offender but also perpetrated by society’s reactions (Siegel & Welsh, 2008). Another theory explaining for the causation of crime is the General Strain Theory.
Strain theorists believe that crime is a function of the conflict between people’s goals and the means they can use to obtain them. Although social and economic goals are common to people in all economic strata, the ability to obtain these goals is class dependent, thus crime is narrowed down as a direct result of frustration among the lower socioeconomic classes (O Grady, 2007). However, this does not explain for the consistent criminal rate in the community despite attempts to increase aspirations and standards of living.
As such, Agnew (1992) proposed the General Strain Theory where multiple sources of strain such as the failure to achieve goals, disjunction of expectations and achievements removal of positive stimuli such as the loss of a loved one and presentation of negative stimuli such as punishment or bully, interact with an individual’s emotional traits and responses to produce criminality in attempt to reduce strain. And perhaps one of the more interesting social perspective of crime causation is centering the social construction of crime.
Mcguire (2000) points out, there are no acts that can be called crime—crime is not a distinct type of behaviour. What is criminal in one country may not be criminal in another country; the purchasing of marijuana is legal in Amsterdam whilst illegal in many other countries. Also, what is a crime at one time may not be a crime at another time, just like how stalkers could not be prosecuted until stalking was made an offence in some jurisdictions.
While social constructionism as an explanation for crime may be weak without knowing by whom it was constructed and for what ends it served, elite social constructionism however, wields great power and the knowledge produced, disseminated and advocated by social groups of some status affects the law and the convicted. For example, during the early twentieth century, the medical profession is highly esteemed and under their influence, the knowledge of the effects of drugs and its misuse became a key guide in the formation of laws to do with substance abuse.
In light that the very definition of crime is socially constructed and not up to the perpetrators at all, there is a very real sense in which criminals are made. And just as how stating that criminals are born without choice is difficult to accept, positing that criminals are made does not explain for why people who live in a shared or similar environment does not act out criminal behaviours. Given that both camps lack in the ability to fully account for criminal behaviour, researchers have then formulated theories of the interplay of nature and nurture to explain crime causation.
Interplay of Nature and Nurture The first of such theory is the Rational Choice Theory which posits that crime is a function of a decision-making process in which the potential offender examines his options, consequences and benefits. When the benefits of the crime is attractive and is a sufficient motivator, the offender then plans the crime by consciously picking the type of crime, location of the crime and target of the crime, and executes the crime with awareness that it is wrong and control to choose otherwise.
To the potential offender, there are two types of crimes: offender-specific where the offender evaluates their resources, skills, motives, needs and fears and commits a crime when they can and offense-specific where offenders react selectively to characteristics of a particular criminal act such as the methodology and opportunity to escape. These push and pull factors of a crime and the offender is what makes a criminal—it is not just a personal innate choice but also dependent on the conceptualisation of an opportunity presented by the environment (Beccaria, 1963).
Following which, there is the Contemporary Trait Theory. Contemporary trait theorists today recognise that no single biological or psychological attribute is thought to adequately explain all criminality. Rather, each offender is considered unique, physically and mentally; consequently, there must be different explanations for each person’s behaviours. Some may have inherited criminal tendencies, others may be suffering from nervous system (neurological) problems, and still others may have a blood chemistry disorder that heightens their antisocial activity.
Criminologists who focus on the individual see many explanations for crime, because, in fact, there are many differences among criminal offenders. Ultimately, Contemporary Trait Theory postulates that crime-producing interactions involve both personal traits—such as intelligence, personality, and chemical and genetic makeup—and environmental factors, such as family life, educational attainment, economic factors and neighbourhood conditions.
Physical or mental traits are, therefore, but one part of a large pool of environmental, social, and personal factors that account for criminality. Some people may have a predisposition toward aggression, but environmental stimuli can either suppress or trigger antisocial acts (Siegel, 2011). And last but not least, a theory that demonstrates the interplay of Nature and Nurture factors is Eysenck’s Biosocial Theory of Crime (Eysenck, 1996).
Eysenck believes that genetic factors contribute enormously to human behaviour but they have their effects under the influence of environmental or social factors (Howitt, 2011). Under the genetic and biological branch, he created a personality model based on three factors known as psychoticism, extraversion, and neuroticism (PEN) that could be used as predictors of criminal behaviour; these factors and the personality traits associated with them are found to be heritable (Miles & Carey, 1997).
Research has shown that just like PEN, criminality is strongly correlated with low arousal levels in the brain leading to their active seeking out of stimulation to increase their arousal—proper stimulation includes high-risk activities associated with antisocial behaviours, which consists of sexual promiscuity, substance abuse, and crime. However, not all with higher levels of PEN or lower brain arousal levels act out their need for stimulation; Eysenck’s argument is that only when there is a failure of socialisation through rewards and punishment,
that these genetic factors are expressed. Conclusion This essay has only just begun to skim over the causes of criminal behaviour. As it can be seen it would be difficult to credit one theory for the explanation of crime, but what we do know and can confirm, is that there is a continual interaction between both genetic an environmental factors; they are functionally interdependent. No one study carried out can be said to provide conclusive evidence for either genetic factors or environmental factors (Horwitz, Christiansen, 1983).
Thus my position as to whether criminals are born or made, is that criminal tendencies may be innate and inherited, but the determination of crime in itself is social and so are the influences guarding the choice to express these tendencies, hence it is only right to say that criminals are both born and made. And if we were to really examine the specifics, in fact, I would posit that the environmental factors take a higher weightage in crime causation, simply due to the fact that crime in itself is socially constructed.