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Nature And Nurture Causes Of Criminal Behavior Criminology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 5479 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Determining the cause of criminal behavior in individuals has prompted an age old debate between nature and nurture. Is a person’s genetic makeup what makes him or her a criminal or is it the environment that he or she was raised that makes that determination? This thesis will examine the many studies conducted in order to shed light on the human potential of criminality and help understand the root of their evil. This paper will also examine the many criminological theories that have helped classify some of history’s most notorious violent offenders and examine the different functions that genetics and the environment play in the criminal behavior of individuals. This thesis will also attempt to understand how several theories suggest a combination of genetics and environment contribute to ones behavior, although some believe the way we are nurtured plays a much larger portion then the environment in forming decision making. Also covered in this thesis is how many communities are controlling crime rates by enhancing the structural appearances of its architecture. The paper will also cover law enforcements contributions and efforts in profiling specific high risk individuals. One of the topics not found in this thesis is drug and alcohol abuse as it relates to crime.

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Chapter 2: Criminological theory

History of criminological theory

Many explanations for the causation of crime can be made such as genetic abnormalities, individual psychological differences, or variations in patterns of socialization that may predispose people to crime (Jones, 2005). History is filled with criminological theories, for example an age old Roman theory based on ancient observations that more crimes are committed on nights where there is a full moon, roman scholars theorize that the presents of a full moon causes temporary insanity and that criminal behavior is not random, but caused by effects of lunar phases (Schmallenger, 2007).

Although there is an association between the phases of the moon and crime rates, the moons influence on human behavior has never fully been explained and is often more coincidence then anything else.

It is important to examine all forms of social institutions such as family, schools, and churches for their role in reducing or enhancing the likelihood of criminal activity among people after all, these social and learning settings are what help form the minds of children” (Schmallenger, 2007)

The first recordings of criminological studies date back to the mid 1700’s and are credited to Cesare Beccaria. Beccaria’s ideas of the classical theories of crime causation dominated criminological thought for much of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. His theories forced criminologist to look into the cause of crime unlike any other in history because it moved beyond superstition and theories involving lunar phases as explanations for deviant behavior.

In 1764 Beccaria published his essays on crimes and punishment which called for an abolishment to harsh physical punishment and an end to the death penalty. His claims were that the punishment should only be severe enough to deter the offenders from criminal behavior, because of this he is referred to as the father of the classical school of criminology. In order to more fully understand all the theories of criminology one must first break down the eight types of criminological theory.

The classical school

Popularized by Cesare Beccaria, the classical school of criminology finds, “that crime is caused by the individual exercise of free will.” “Human beings are fundamentally rational, and most human behavior is a result of free will coupled with rational choice.” Also that pain and pleasure are the two central determinants of human behavior and that crime erodes the bond between people and their society which makes crime immoral behavior. The classical school also says that crime prevention is possible though swift and certain punishment that offsets any gains to be had through criminal behavior (Schmallenger, 2009).

Biological Theories

The biological theories of crime causation are built of inherited or bodily characteristics of each individual and state that, “the basic determinants of human behavior, including criminal behavior, are genetically based and all human behavior is inherited from generation to generation.” Although just because a man is a killer does not mean his children will grow to be killers. “In the 1920’s and 1930’s biological theories of crime causation, especially those focusing on inherited mental degeneration, led to the eugenics movement, which mentally handicapped women, were sterilized to prevent them from bearing mentally handicapped children.” As history now knows, not all physical or mental handicaps are hereditary (Schmallenger, 2009).

Some physical factors have been shown to play a role in an individual’s inclination to criminality. Sarnoff Mednick found some basis for the claim that a person’s autonomic nervous system predisposes certain individuals toward criminal activity by limiting their ability to learn quickly. He claims that those with slow autonomic nervous systems are unable to understand antisocial behavior quickly enough to avoid punishment and stigmatization (Sarnoff & Shaham, 1979).

Psychological Theories

Theories of the psychological school of crime causation make certain fundamental assumptions such as the individual’s personality being ones major motivational element and the source which drives and motivates ones and that crime results from inappropriately conditioned behavior or from abnormal and dysfunctional mental processes within the personality. Defective or abnormal mental processes may have a variety of causes such as a diseased mind and/or improper learning and conditioning often occurring in early childhood (Sandoff & Shaham, 1979)

According to Schmallenger, (2009) behavioral conditioning was used as a way to determine if the mental illness suffered by individuals was something that could be “untaught”. Schmallenger explains behavioral conditioning to be, “a psychological principal which finds that the frequency of any behavior, including criminal or deviant behavior, can be increased or decreased through reward or punishment.” Ivan Pavlov, is commonly known for his study of the behavioral conditioning of dogs, and proved how they could be taught based on reward and punishment. His research won him a Nobel Prize. Pavlov’s studies of behavioral psychologist suggest that, “criminal behavior, which may be inherently rewarded under many circumstances, tends to be more common in those who are able to avoid punishment when involved in rule-breaking behavior” (Scmellanger, 2007).

Sociological Theories

The sociological theories of crime are very diverse and a largely part of American’s study of crime causation, specifically at the famous Chicago school of sociology who have determined that criminality is a product of society’s impact on an individual. Society and the criminal aspect within that society are often seen as the clash of norms and values among various socialized groups. Although unlike genetics and physical and mental traits inherited by ancestors one has the choice in which environment he or she chooses to reside.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s the Chicago school of sociology determined the link between physical location and crime, modern perspective calls it crime prevention through environmental design. Many of these applications are being integrated more and more in into everyday life. According to the Chicago school of sociology, crime in society can be reduced by the actual layout of physical facilities like houses, buildings and parking ramps and garages. The design and layouts in society are one idea in the defensible space theory, developed in the 1980’s the defensible space theory considered how the impact of physical features on fear and victimization depends on other social and cultural features in the setting. An almost mirror image of the defensible space theory is called the broken windows theory, which states that physical deterioration and an increase in unprepared buildings leads to increased concerns for personal safety among area residents. The lack of repairs leads to increases in delinquency, vandalism and property crimes among local residents (Newman, 1996).

Social Process Theory

The social process theory approaches focus on the interaction between individuals and society by looking to institutional arrangements in the social world to explain crime. Most social process theories highlight the role of social learning and build on the premise that behavior, both “good” and “bad” are learned and suggest that “bad” behavior can be unlearned.

In 1939 Edwin Sutherland published his research on criminology and found what is now known to be differential association which explains crime to be a natural consequence of the interaction with criminal lifestyles. Sutherland suggests that children raised in crime-prone environments were often isolated and unable to experience the values that would otherwise lead to conformity (Orcutt, 1987).

Because the differential association theory is rather general it fails to explain why people have the associations they do and why some associations affect certain individuals more then other. Why, for example are most correctional officers unaffected by their constant association with offenders, while others take advantage of their positions to smuggle in contraband? For this theory to be completely tested would require that all the associations a person has ever had, be recorded and analyzed from the standpoint of the individual, which is clearly impossible (Conklin, 1989).

Conflict Theories

Conflict theories follow a similar definition of the conflict perspective which believes conflict is a fundamental aspect of social life and can never be fully resolved. The conflict

point of view says that formal agencies of social control, such as law enforcement, coerce the unempowered or disenfranchised to comply with rules established by those in power.

The conflict perspective can be described in terms of these four basic elements: Society is composed of diverse social groups, and diversity is based on distinctions that people believe to be significant, such as gender, sexual orientation, and social class. Conflict among groups is unavoidable because of differing interests and differing values which make conflict inherent in social life. The fundamental nature of group conflict centers on the exercise of political power. Political power is the key to the accumulation of wealth and other forms of power. Laws are the tools of power and further the interest of those powerful enough to make them. Laws allow those in control to gain what they define as legitimate access to scarce resources and to deny access to the politically disenfranchised (Michlowski, 1977).

In the 1960’s and 1970’s people became more aware of the political “death grip” and rule over society and began forming new ideas on the cause of criminality. Radical criminology was formed, and placed the blame of criminality and deviant behavior squarely on officially sanctioned cultural and economic arrangements. Radical criminology believes the distribution of wealth and power in society was held to be the primary cause of criminal behavior. Poverty and discrimination were seen to lead to frustration and pent-up hostilities which were expressed through murder, rape, theft, and other crimes. Radical criminology recognizes that the struggle to control resources is central to society and found that the law is a tool of the powerful. Radical criminology focused on capitalism and the evils capitalism was believed to entail and many of these ideas were based on writings and ideas of Karl Marx. According to Marx, the labors of the lower classes are always exploited by the “owners” of society. The poor were trained to believe that capitalism was in their best interest and the working class suffered under the consequences of a “false class consciousness” perpetuated by the powerful. Marx also believed that when the exploited realized their exploitations would they rebel and change society for the better (Chambliss, 1971).

Emergent Perspectives

With the basis of criminological theory explained in the previous seven theories, one can now look at the final, most recently developed theory categorized as emergent perspectives. In the developing field of criminology it is clear that women have been virtually invisible in criminological analysis and most criminality has been restricted to men only and many criminological studies assume women are like men, which is simply not true (Gibbons, 1994). Contemporary feminist thinking in criminology was been emphasized by writers like Kathleen Daly and Meda Chesney-Lind. These two writers emphasize the need for “gender aware” criminology and stress the usefulness of applying feminist thinking to criminological analysis. Feminist criminology suggests that theories of crime causation and prevention must include women and that more research on gender-related issues in the field is badly needed.

Although many aspects of this theory are true according to the F.B.I’s 2004 Uniform Crime Report, men are more likely to be arrested for serious offenses such as murder, rape, robbery, and burglary and that woman are more likely to be arrested for crimes such as property crimes, larceny, fraud, drug offenses, and embezzlement.



Murder/non-negligent manslaughter









Aggravated assault









Motor vehicle theft






(FBI, UCR index, 2004)

A vast majority of criminals and criminality can be classified by one or more of the criminological theories discussed in chapter one. As society and individual needs and wants change, so do the needs to understand them as the future of criminology will continue to grow.

Chapter 3: Criminal behavior

Criminal or Deviant?

In order to better understand criminal and deviant behavior one must learn how these behaviors are defined. Although separated by a very thin line, criminal behavior and deviant behavior are two very different forms of human behavior. Crime is defined as conduct in violation of the criminal laws of a state, the federal government, or a local jurisdiction for which there is no legal justification (Schmellanger, 2007). Depending on which law is broken determines the person’s punishment. However, deviant behavior, which is defined as a violation of social norms defining proper behavior under a certain set of circumstances, does not necessarily warrant punishment at all. Speeding is an example of criminal behavior which is often “downplayed” by our society and thought of more as deviant then criminal. In many cases people get behind the wheel of a car while under the influence of alcohol and in many social settings this behavior is expectable to certain groups, however, criminal and deviant.

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Deviance in Society

According to French writer Emile Durkheim, by defining what is deviant, we become aware of what is not deviant and therefore become aware of the standards we share as a member of society. This statement by Durkheim explains that it is not society’s goal to completely eliminate deviance, but instead to keep it within an expectable limit after all deviant behavior is not necessarily criminal and can be tolerated to a certain degree.

In a controversial 1993 article, “defining deviance down,” former New York senator Daniel Moynihan argued that the levels of deviance in American society are beyond the point of which we can not take notice. As a result we have been “redefining deviance so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized,” and also quietly raising the “normal” level so that behavior seen as abnormal is becoming more socially acceptable. Moynihan also points out that after the St. Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929, in which seven gangsters were murdered, the nation was outraged. Today, violent gang murders are so common there is hardly a reaction. Moynihan also sees the under reporting of crime to be a form of “normalizing” and that we as a society are becoming used to a society that is not good for us.

Chapter 4: Nurture

Role of Genetics

In the argument of nature versus nurture, nurture is the role a person does not have control over, that is, as long as that person is the one being nurtured. People are raised the way their parents or guardians see fit and as one grows older and has children, they choose to raise them the way they see fit and so on. So what factors in a child’s life causes them to grow into violent criminals? Is it an absent father? An overbearing or abusive mother? No two cases are identical, but many have very similar circumstances. Take, for example two of the counties most notorious serial murderers Edward Gein and Edmund Kemper, both born to emotionally abusive mothers, Gein’s father passed away when he was very young and Kemper’s father left when he was also very young. Gein’s mother died in 1944 at there home in Plainfield Wisconsin and Gein enshrined her body in her own bed until she completely decomposed, Kemper murdered his mother in order to continue an already lengthy killing spree. Both murdered primarily women and many criminal psychologists believe this had to do with their hatred for their own mothers (Lane & Gregg, 1995).

Though individuals do not have a choice in the constructing of our genetic codes, it is known that many of ones personality traits are passed from parents and grandparents. However, in some cases human genetics can, for many different reasons, become defected or flawed in the developmental stages. These defects can range from deformed limbs to learning disabilities to more serious neurological disorders such as psychosis, psychopathology and antisocial disorder.

Many studies of the human brain have concluded that neurochemicals are responsible for the activation of behavioral patterns and tendencies in specific areas of the brain (Elliot, 2000).

One of many neurochemicals in the human brain, known as Monoamine Oxidase (MAO) is an enzyme that has been shown to be related to antisocial behavior specifically, low levels of MAO activity can lead to aggression and impulsivity, two main factors in diagnosing antisocial behavior (Elliot, 2000).

Serotonin is another neurochemical that plays an important role in personality traits and low levels are known to lead to depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, it is also involved with brain development and a disorder involving a lack of serotonin could lead to an increase in aggressiveness, impulsivity and mood changes.Like serotonin, “dopamine is an important neurotransmitter in the brain that is associated with pleasure and is mostly responsible for aggression in the occurrence of low levels.” These three neurochemical deficiencies are found in violent adult criminals, but date back to their childhoods. Often one can see the correlation between violent criminal behavior and the pleasures associated with crimes (Larsen & Buss, 2005).

Take for example the case of Leonard Lake and Charles Ng of San Francisco. What started as a routine shoplifting arrest, ended up exposing horrific tales of torture, murder, and sex slavery. The police arrested Lake as Ng managed to escape capture. At the Police Station Lake took a small capsule from his pocket and ingested it and immediately fell to the floor dead of cyanide poisoning. A search of Lake and Ng’s California property found a sound proof bunker containing blood stained mattress’s fixed with shackles and bindings, all lay out in front of a video camera mounted on a tripod. In the camera a video tape containing the rape, torture, and murder of two women and the admittance of Leonard Lake that what he has fantasized about for many years has finally come true, an in disposable sex slave for his own personal pleasure. Criminal psychiatrist Dr. Michael Stone believes Lake got as much pleasure from torturing his victims as he did sexually abusing them. In total Lake and Ng were responsible for the deaths of 25 men, women and child, Ng is on California’s death row.

Childhood Disorders linked to crime

Although the debate of the cause of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and attention deficit disorder(ADD) lingers, many children with these disorders grow to lead normal lives as productive adults, however many do not. These are only two of a wide range of disorders that, in some cases, can be linked to much more serious personality traits.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Conduct Disorder (CD), and Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) are three of the most prominent disorders in children that have been shown to have a relationship to adult behavior. ODD is characterized by argumentativeness, noncompliance, and irritability which can be found in early childhood and can often change and grow worse as the children get older.

ADHD is closely related to hyperactivity-impulsivity and the inability to focus attention on anything for a set amount of time (Morley & Hall, 2003) Hyperactivity-impulsivity and inattention are the most highly related predisposing factors for antisocial behavior, a key behavioral trait found in many violent criminals. The future of some children is made worse when ADHD and CD are co-occurring because their antisocial tendencies are more likely to continue into adulthood, thus making violent crime more likely (Holmes, 2001).

Conduct Disorder is characterized as an individual’s violation of society’s rules and norms, very similar to the characteristics of deviant behavior. According to studies, antisocial behavior between the ages of nine and fifteen can be correlated strongly with impulsivity and that aggression in early childhood can produce antisocial acts and delinquency. One statistic shows that between seventy and ninety percent of violent offenders had been highly aggressive as young children which, some research has shown to be hereditary (Holmes, 2001).

Anti-social behavior and criminality

Many criminological studies have found that individuals engaging in criminal behavior or deviant behaviors often show traits of antisocial behavior. These studies have found two different ways to point out antisocial behavior the first being, “the commission of criminal or deviant acts and the second is more specific personality traits such as aggressiveness and impulsivity” (Morley & Hall, 2003). In order to compare individual’s genetic and environmental influences, three phase studies have been conducted involving twins, both fraternal and identical, families and adoptions.

One study conducted examined thirty two identical twins who had been adopted by non-relative families a short time after birth. The study showed a high rate of heritability of childhood and adult anti social behavior, this study proved to be valuable because it examined the outcome of separate environments (Joseph, 2001). Another study researched one hundred and forty seven pairs of fraternal twins and eighty five pairs of identical twins and found the identical twins had a higher heritable crime rate then the fraternal twins. Ten years later the study was conducted again based on police records of all sets of twins finding a fifty four percent heritability of liability to crime, concluding that fifty four percent of twins studied inherited criminality traits (Joseph, 2001).

The second phase of these studies focuses on the relationship of adopted children and the relationship between their biological parents and their adoptive parents.

One of the first studies of these relationship between genetics and criminal behavior was conducted in Iowa and found that adopted individuals, which were born to incarcerated female offenders, had a higher rate of criminal convictions as adults, and concluded the existence of the heritability of anti social and criminal behavior (Tehani & Mednick, 2000).

One of the largest studies of adopted children was conducted in Denmark and found very similar results to the Iowa study. The Danish study found that 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 major and minor adoption studies, there is no conclusive research that shows the genetic hereditability of violent crimes in children who have been adopted or those who reside with there biological parents.


The concept of psychopathology can be summarized in the words of Nolan D.C. Lewis, former director of the New York State psychiatric institute and hospital at Columbia University, that “the criminal, like other people, has lived a life of instinctive drives, of desires, of wishes, of feelings, but one in which his intellect has apparently functioned less effectually as a brake upon certain trends. His constitutional makeup deviates toward the abnormal leading him into conflicts with the laws of society and its cultural patterns” (Nolan, 1989). When people commit crime or act out of the social norm, society, for the most part, is excepting of certain behavior, but when these crimes become violent against other members of society, many find it easier to understand by blaming the crime on the offender’s mental health problems. It is often easy to think that people commit violent crimes because they are “crazy” however many mental illness’s can be linked to the way we were raised and the things one learns as a child.

The psychopath, also called sociopath, has been historically viewed as cruel with no regard for the feelings or thoughts of his or her victim. In many instances the thoughts and feelings of the victim are completely disregarded by the offender, the way the offender’s thoughts and feelings had been in his or her childhood. Psychopaths often chose victims which they find easy to control or manipulate, such as women victims, young children or even sick or handicapped victims. Such a correlation can be seen in the case of serial murderer Ted Bundy, a very intelligent man; Bundy used his humor and wit to lure unsuspecting women to their death. At the time of his arrest many people thought him an unlikely suspect due to his charm and good looks and the fact that most sex murderer’s exhibit marked emotional repression and sexual inadequacies. From February 1st, 1974 to February 9th 1978, Bundy murdered 19 young women, which the police know about. Another case of a psychopath exercising his need for dominance over his victims is that of John Wayne Gacy. Gacy lured teenaged boys to his home in Illinois with the promise of employment with Gacy’s construction company. Gacy would invite the boys in and drug them, once unconscious Gacy would perform homosexual acts on the teenagers, strangle them and bury the bodies in a crawl space beneath his house. After a police investigation twenty eight bodies were unearthed from shallow graves in the crawl space and Gacy confessed to dumping five more bodies, in the Des Plaine river near his home, Gacy’s victim count was thirty three (Lane & Gregg, 1995)

In these two cases it is easy to see the need for control and manipulation over the victims in order to satisfy either sexual needs or otherwise. Often sociopaths can not simply stop after one victim without major psychological help, in many cases especially those of serial murder, one often sees high body counts as well as lengthy periods from the beginning of their spree to the time they are caught. Psychotic offenders have often been classified as schizophrenic or paranoid schizophrenic. Schizophrenics are characterized by disordered thinking, in which their logical thought process differs from the typical person. Paranoid schizophrenics often suffer from hallucinations and delusions and can often be disassociated with their surroundings including relationships with family and friends. The suffering of hallucinations and delusions are mostly seen in the most extreme forms of schizophrenia as one author writes, “schizophrenia is not a clearly defined disease; its characteristics are more of an alteration of thinking and feelings in which one can classify schizophrenia as a disorganization of the personality (Abrahamsen, 1999).

In one example following the Vietnam war several instances were reported were, American soldiers had killed family members and friends, believing they were Vietcong soldiers.

Chapter 5: Nature

Environmental influences

Research shows that genes play a role in the development of criminal behavior, but what about the environment? This chapter will discuss influences such as family and peers and will also take an in depth look into the social learning theory as it relates to the influence of ones surroundings.

Earlier in chapter 3 ADHD was shown to have a relationship to antisocial behavior, one of the most prominent disorders present in most criminal behavior. New research shows that ADHD can directly be related to a child’s family life and the environment in ones home (Schmitz, 2003). Many of the risk factors researchers have narrowed down as the most influential environments are poverty, education parenting practices, and family structure. Prior research on the relationships of family environment and child behavior have shown correlations with each other and suggest that parents who instill positive communication and consistent discipline greatly deter criminal behavior in their children, opposed to families with poor communication and weak family bonds in which children are shown, in most cases, to develop aggressiveness and criminal traits (Garnefski & Okma, 1996). Another indicator of future antisocial and criminal behavior can be seen in the abuse and/or neglect of a child during childhood. Statistics have shown that children who are abused and/or neglected are at a fifty percent greater risk then those not abused or neglected, to engage in criminal and/or delinquent behavior (Holmes, 2001).

In the debate of genetic and environmental influences on criminal behavior, some research has shown that the age of the individual has more impact on his or her future criminal behavior than previously thought. Research has shown that heritability influences adult behavior more then environmental influences, but for children and adolescents the environment plays a much more significant role in ones behavior (Rhee & Waldman, 2002). As an adult one has the ability to choose his or her own environment which can positively or negatively reinforce ones personality traits including criminal and antisocial behavior. However children are limited in choosing their environments which can account for a greater influence of environmental factors in a child’s behavior.

Peers groups and their Influence

As children become adolescents and the need for social acceptance grows, it is easy for one to see how peer groups can be a powerful influence in ones behaviors. Peer groups can play a significant factor in the development of antisocial and delinquent behavior in adolescents. According to Garnefski and Okma (1996) “there is a direct correlation between a youths involvement in an antisocial or delinquent peer group and problem behavior”. When young school children show aggression towa


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