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Genetic Explanations of Offending Behaviour

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Genetic Explanations of Offending Behaviour

Do genes make a person a criminal? There are genetic explanations for crime in psychology that state that criminals have a gene that predisposes them to commit crimes.

Johannes Lange (1930) studied 13 identical (monozygotic, MZ) and 17 non-identical (dizygotic, DZ) twins, one of whom had served time in prison. He found that 10 of the MZ twins but only 2 of the DZ twins had a twin who served time in prison.

More recently, Karl Christiansen (1977 twin study) studied 87 MZ and 147 DZ twins and found a concordance rate of the criminality of 33% for MZ twins but only 12% for DZ twins. This finding supports the view that criminality may have a genetic basis.First, let us clarify some essential terms before we get to the topic at hand.

Genetics

Genes consist of DNA strands. DNA provides ‘instructions’ for general physical characteristics of an organism (e.g., height) and specific physical features (e.g. neurotransmitter levels). These can affect psychological traits. Genes are inherited.

Genetic Explanations of Offending Behaviour Genes influencing physical features of organism StudySmarterDiagram showing how genes affect the physical features of an organism, YB - StudySmarter Originals

Neural explanation is any explanation of behaviour (and its disorders) in terms of (mal)functions of the brain and nervous system.

What are candidate genes?

Candidate genes are genes that scientists believe influence a particular behaviour or trait. The Tihonen et al. (2014) genetic analysis of nearly 900 offenders revealed abnormalities in two genes associated with a violent crime:

  • The MAOA gene controls dopamine and serotonin and links to aggressive behaviour.

  • CDH13 gene linked to substance abuse and attention deficit disorder.

People with a combination of both genes were 13 times more likely to have a history of violent behaviour.

Genetic explanations of offending behaviour, MAOA gene, CDH13, StudySmarterDiagram showing the effects of the MAOA gene and CDH13, StudySmarter Originals

Diathesis-stress model

Criminality is likely related to environmental factors (we have already seen how the diathesis-stress model is related to schizophrenia). A combination of genetics and a dysfunctional environment may cause criminality.

What are neural explanations of offending behaviour?

There is evidence of neural differences between the brains of criminals and non-criminals. Much of this research has looked at individuals with antisocial personality disorder (APD), a condition characteristic of many convicted criminals.

Prefrontal cortex

Adrian Raine reported several dozen brain imaging studies showing that individuals with APD have decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex (this regulates emotional behaviour). He also found an 11% reduction in grey matter volume in the prefrontal cortex of people with APD compared to controls.

Mirror neurons

Research shows that offenders with APD can show empathy less easily than other people. Keysers et al. (2011) found that criminals showed compassion only when prompted (by an image of someone feeling pain in a film). Such reaction is due to the activation of mirror neurons.APD criminals have a neural empathy ‘switch’ in the brain that can be turned on or off, whereas this switch is permanently on in other people.

Evaluation of genetic explanations of offending behaviour

Are there any problems with the genetic explanation of offending behaviour? Does the notion of a ‘criminal gene’ pose a dilemma? The following overview of the pros and cons might help us answer these questions.

Strengths

  • Support for genetics: Mednick et al. (1984) screened 13,000 Danish adoptees to see if they had at least one court conviction.
    • They found that the percentage of adoptees with prior convictions was 13.5% when neither the biological nor adoptive parents had previous convictions. When adoptive parents had convictions, 15% of adoptees had criminal records. When biological parents had convictions, it was 20%. When both biological and adoptive parents had convictions, it was 24.5%. These results suggest genetic factors may influence criminality (adoptive parents 15% vs biological parents 20%). However, we cannot rule out environmental factors, as adoptees were most likely to have convictions when both biological and adoptive parents had prior convictions.

Weaknesses

  • Twin studies: Early twin studies such as Lange’s decided whether they were MZ or DZ twins based on appearance rather than DNA testing, which reduces their validity. Twins are an unusual sample and may not represent the rest of the population. The fact that most twins grew up in the same environment is an important confounding variable, and their similarities may be due to environmental factors rather than genetic factors.
  • Adoption studies: It is difficult to distinguish between genetic and environmental factors because a) many adopted children are adopted late in life (and therefore are already under the environmental influence) and b) many adoptees continue to contact their biological parents.
  • Difficult distinction: It is difficult to distinguish between all the things that occur in families; crime, emotional instability, social disadvantage, mental illness, poverty, etc. (Katz et al., 2007). How do we know what causes what
  • Criminal gene: In our society, we punish criminals for morally wrong behaviour. But if criminals behave in specific ways because of their genes, could we argue that they are not acting out of free will? And if so, is it ethical to punish them?

Genetic Explanations of Offending Behaviour - Key takeaways

  • DNA provides ‘instructions’ for general physical characteristics of an organism (e.g., height) and specific physical features (e.g., neurotransmitter levels). These can affect psychological traits.

  • Genetic explanations for crime suggest that offenders have a gene that predisposes them to commit crimes.

  • Candidate genes are genes that scientists believe influence a particular behaviour or trait. For aggression, these are the MAOA gene and the CDH13 gene.

  • Genes alone do not cause aggression; environmental factors also play a role.

  • Neural factors such as the prefrontal cortex and mirror neurons have also been linked to aggression.

Frequently Asked Questions about Genetic Explanations of Offending Behaviour

The idea behind biological explanations of offending behaviour is that crime is an innate tendency that is genetically determined or due to brain structure.

Genes determine specific physical features (e.g. neurotransmitter levels), which can affect psychological traits. 


Candidate genes are genes that scientists believe influence a particular behaviour or trait. The Tihonen et al. (2014) genetic analysis of nearly 900 offenders revealed abnormalities in two genes associated with a violent crime:


  • The MAOA gene controls dopamine and serotonin and links to aggressive behaviour.

  • CDH13 gene linked to substance abuse and attention deficit disorder.


People with a combination of both genes were 13 times more likely to have a history of violent behaviour.

Genes alone do not lead to criminality. Criminality is likely related to environmental factors as well. A combination of genetics and a dysfunctional environment may cause criminality.

There is evidence of neural differences between the brains of criminals and non-criminals. Much of this research has looked at individuals with antisocial personality disorder (APD), a condition characteristic of many convicted criminals.

The four theories of crime are classical, biological, interactionist, sociologist

Final Genetic Explanations of Offending Behaviour Quiz

Question

Whose earlier work on the biological foundations of criminality does this research draw on?

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Answer

This research draws from Lombroso’s work on the biological foundations of criminality.

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Question

What do genes consist of?

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Answer

Genes consist of strands of DNA.

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Question

Our DNA provides ‘instructions’ for two kinds of physical features of an organism, which can then influence psychological features. What are the two kinds of features?


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Answer

DNA provides instructions for the general physical features of an organism (e.g., height) and specific physical features (e.g., neurotransmitter levels).

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Question

What is a neural explanation?

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Answer

Neural explanation is any explanation of behaviour (and its disorders) in terms of (mal)functions of the brain and nervous system.

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Question

What was Lombroso’s theory of crime called?

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Answer

Altruistic form.

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Question

What is a genetic explanation for crime?


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Answer

Offenders have a gene that predisposes them to commit crimes.

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Question

In 1930, Johannes Lange studied 13 MZ and 17 DZ twins, where one twin had spent time in prison. He found that 10 of the MZ (compared to 2 of the DZ) twins had a co-twin who had also been in prison. Does this research support the idea of genetic explanations of criminality?

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Answer

Yes, Lange’s findings support genetic explanations as it shows that twins who share lots of the same genes are more likely to be similar in regard to criminality.

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Question

How could we criticise the results of Lange’s twin study?


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Answer

Most twins are raised in the same environment is a significant confounding variable, and their similarities could be due to environmental factors rather than genetic ones.

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Question

Tihonen et al. (2014) found two genes on which abnormalities were linked to criminal behaviour. What were the two genes?

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Answer

The MAOA gene (controls dopamine and serotonin and has been linked to aggressive behaviour), and the CDH13 gene (linked to substance abuse and attention deficit disorder).

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Question

What did the Tihonen et al. (2014) research find about these two genes? 

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Answer

People with only the MAOA gene were 13 times more likely to have a history of violent behaviour.

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Question

Much research into neural explanations of criminal behaviour has found that a particular disorder characterises people prone to criminal behaviour. What is this disorder called?

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Answer

Antisocial personality disorder.

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Question

How could we relate the diathesis-stress model to the study of genetic explanations of criminal behaviour?

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Answer

A combination of genetic predisposition and being raised in a dysfunctional environment causes criminality.

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Question

Which psychologists studied Danish adoptees in 1984? What do their findings suggest? 

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Answer

The Mednick et al. study showed that though genetic factors may influence criminality, we cannot deny environmental factors.

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Question

There are problems with adoptive studies, including the difficulty differentiating between environmental and biological factors. Which of the following factors influence this? 

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Answer

Many adopted children are late adoptees (therefore already under the environmental influence).

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Question

What problem related to free will could the idea of genetic explanations of criminal behaviour cause?

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Answer

If offenders have a genetic disposition to behave criminally, it might be that they are not acting out of free will when they commit a crime. Thus, it would not be fair to punish them.

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