Are Criminals Made, or are they Born?

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Nature versus nurture, or nature and nurture?

Submitted: September 25, 2014

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Submitted: September 25, 2014



The nature versus nurture controversy has been argued for many generations. When an individual believes criminals are born and not made, they are on the nature side of the controversy. While this may be true, some people believe that people do what they do because of how they were raised. There are various theories regarding this topic that will be talked about throughout this paper. Although, the majorities of people are one-sided and believe it is nature or nurture, it is actually a combination of both because our genes are important because they are inherited, but the environment can change and develop a person even more. When it comes to Psychology, you cannot think in black and white or extremes because there are many things that fall right in the middle.

The main issue with nature versus nurture is, when the researcher focuses on too much of one dynamic of the controversy; it is possible they are less educated on what they do not know and can become biased. For example, when an individual violates the rights of another and a professional feels the perpetrator is not liable because of genetics or how they are raised; this creates an excuse for that person and other people in society. The problem with this is that once someone in the helping profession blames a gene or a parent, the criminal will begin to create excuses for him or herself and say “oh it is because of this gene that I have, or it is because my dad was a criminal”. Even if it is the gene or learned behavior the individual still makes his or her own choices. Society should not create excuses for inexcusable acts. Psychology is not meant to blame genetics or environment; it is supposed to help prevent recidivism and hurtful behavior towards others. On this topic, my theoretical framework would be based off of studies and observation because genetics can play a role, but your environment can trigger violent behavior. I will use these studies as examples throughout my paper.

Some examples of traits that are genetic are height and eye color. Can behaviors or actions be genetic?  According to a Service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “humans are genetically complex, which makes it difficult for researchers to determine which gene is influencing the individual because there are so many.” (5). There are defective genes which cause Huntington’s disease and genes that are heritable and form Alzheimer’s disease. There have been many findings regarding which gene may be the cause of violent behavior, such as, the serotonin neurotransmitter. Serotonin is a type of neurotransmitter that is found in the central nervous system and the gastrointestinal tract. A lack of transmission with serotonin can cause serious mental health issues, such as, depression. Medications are available to stabilize this chemical within the brain, such as, Prozac. Just because a person lacks a chemical in their brain, it does not mean they are a criminal it just means they are sick and need help. According to the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, not everyone with mental illness is a criminal. There is a myth that psychiatric patients are more susceptible to criminal activity. Detained criminals with mental illness should not be considered more dangerous than the other inmates without mental illness, but detained inmates who do have mental illness are more susceptible to recidivism. Mental illness can be genetic, but can also be brought on by an unhealthy environment.

When talking about genetics and aggression; there are differences between male and female. Males are relatively more aggressive than females by nature. Some studies show males are more aggressive because they have higher testosterone levels. Also, their neurobiological of the corpus callosum is inherited, but is actually smaller than a females. The corpus callosum connects the right hemisphere to the left hemisphere of the brain. The larger the corpus callosum is, the easier it is for a person to work through the trauma. When the trauma is not in the process of healing, or they are not getting help, the past can cause criminal behavior because the person did not know what to do with the emotions besides repress them, which usually comes out in early adulthood and can cause many problems. Since more males are involved in criminal activity, their brains are set up differently than females. Studies show boys need more love and caretaking than girls, but this does not usually happen. When they do not receive enough interpersonal attention they will suffer prefrontal cortices, which help control impulses and empathy. They also have reduced serotonin levels, which helps people calm down, and they also have an increased corticosterone production which is the stress hormone. All of these factors can affect male’s behavior as a child and as an adult. Just because the studies focus more on the male’s criminal behavior, it does not mean they are letting the females off the hook. They can be just as violent, but the majority of females internalize unpleasant emotions, while, males externalize.

Something that does affect both males and females in society is Monoamine Oxidase inhibitors, (MAO) which is an enzyme responsible for metabolizing neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and norepinephrine. When the MAO platelets are elevated there is an increase in impulsivity and disruptive behavior, which results in some type of criminal activity. When hormones change or become disrupted, it can actually cause many problems. For example, a woman just has a baby, her hormones are all over the place and she gets really depressed and develops Postpartum Depression. Postpartum Depression can be extremely dangerous and deadly if it continues untreated. Now, the woman who is overwhelmed and does not know what to do with herself or the child; the unpleasant emotions, thoughts, and feelings can make her act out impulsively and really hurt the child or her herself. 

The neurotransmitters that we are born with are genetic, but our environment can fluctuate the neurons in the brain and so can drug intake. So, wouldn’t you think this means that it cannot just be nature or nurture it has to be both because we are born with innate features, but then our environment can change them?  According to Nichole Rafter, criminals are more likely to have glandular problems, while non-criminals are less likely to suffer with this disorder. When pituitary glands are underdeveloped, the criminal is more likely be a forger. When the same gland is overdeveloped, they are more likely to murder. With women, when they are menstruating, they are more likely to commit a crime at this time because all their hormones are changing (15).  When researchers look at the prefrontal part of the brain, they notice that if it is underdeveloped they are more likely to have an anti-social personality. Just because there is scientific evidence regarding criminal behavior relating to genetics it does not mean that it is all genetics it is both.

An example of genetics influencing the individual would be a mother is an alcoholic and drinks during pregnancy. She becomes the mother of twins, and they get adopted by two separate families. They are both in healthy environments, but one develops alcoholism. Was there a gene that was passed and made the child more vulnerable to this disease? Also, is there a specific gene that causes criminal behavior? There is not a specific gene that triggers criminal behavior that has been found or studied.

When researching the environment effects that can trigger a person to do criminal acts; there is something called tabula rasa, Latin for “blank slate.” This is a Philosophy of Enlightment by a British philosopher John Locke. H

He focused on the fact that when children are born there are no emotions in the child, feelings, but their personality relies on pure experience. This would fall under the nurture category because it is saying that the child’s environment is what will mold them into who they are as an adult. Every child has a different temperament, meaning; two siblings could go through the same abuse and go in two separate life paths than the other.

If the child witnesses a lot of crime at a very young age, they could become more vulnerable to doing the same behavior. The Social Learning Theory by Alber Bandura states that when a child watches other people they learn from them and will start to act the same way. The Social Control Theory by Travis Hirschi states, that as an adult it is possible that certain life triggers, such as, losing a job can trigger the individual to act in a way they usually wouldn’t especially if they have a predisposition that is genetic. Both of the previous theories have been studied and experimented with multiple times.

There is something that society is not aware of; birth order has a lot to do with the child’s behavior and how they act as an adult. Middle Child Syndrome is what I am exactly talking about. William Cane has stated that “when there is a middle child they feel they were born too late or too soon” (ch. 4). This can cause a lot of conflict within the family. Studies have shown that the middle child is more susceptible to acting out and engaging in criminal behavior because they feel as though they are deprived the distinction between his or her other siblings.

Unfortunately, as we all know, there is a lack of physical activity in the school systems today. Programs are being cut left and right, meaning the county and state do not have the money to provide these services. Do extracurricular activities actually prevent current and future criminal behavior?  According to Jodi Burton, no it does not, it actually more of a chance for aggressive behavior and using that aggressive behavior outside of that particular sport or activity. So, it is actually the opposite of what the world things about involving their children in sports. Now, when it comes to clubs, such as, art, music, and poetry these hobbies become more of an outlet for the child and are more likely to use them as an adult and are less likely to be involved in criminal activity. No one ever probably thought that involving their children in sports as a child could become a risk factor as they become an adult.

Sociodemographics refers to the sex of the individual and the sex of the person has a lot to do with statistics regarding criminal behavior. Statistics do show that males have a higher rate of entering the criminal justice system and they also have a higher rate of recidivism. Women, who are older, divorced, unemployed, and who have incomes lower than men are more susceptible to criminal behavior. Men have higher rates of criminal behavior when intoxicated. There is also that subliminal message to men they have to be the powerful and strong ones and not show emotion. This can cause a lot of confusion for males, so perhaps, that is why more males enter the criminal justice system.

Even the people we who we hang around with can affect our behavior. If we are hanging around with people who belong to a violent gang, then we are more vulnerable to follow the crowd due to peer pressure.  Primarily young adults, teenagers, and kids are more likely to follow peer pressure because they want to belong somewhere, especially if their household has little direction and motivation to do well.

We all know smoking is not healthy for you or the child while in the womb, but I do not think we realize it does not only affect the physical health of the child, but also the behavioral aspect of the child. “When a mother smokes with the child in the womb it can have lifetime affects, including, antisocial  behavior”  (Gen 1). Many people believe when the child is in the womb, it is not considered environmental because he or she is not considered a child, but a fetus. My take on this is, when a caterpillar is not yet formed into a butterfly, is it not still considered a bug? Even if the fetus is not born he or she is human, so do what you can to take care of your body and the child’s.

As we all know, there are violent television shows and video games that promote such behavior. Why is violence promoted in our society? Is it boredom, or because everyone else is watching the same shows or playing the same games? Children, teenagers, and young adult’s frontal lobe in the brain are not fully developed. The frontal lobe helps control impulses and it also separates fantasy from reality. Given this evidence; why would any parent allow their children to be subjected to possible future violence when it can be prevented? I am not saying at all times the parent can control and monitor the child, because we all know they go over their friends house, and they become secretive, but it is important that everyone tries, so maybe we can prevent crime as of right now, and in the future.

I have talked about all of the possible causes of criminal behavior; but where are all of the preventions? Researchers and psychologists are always stating the issue, but never the resolution. The main problem with our justice and psychology system is that the people who are supposed to help, do not help until after the crime has occurred, unfortunately by then it is too late. Of course, with genetics you cannot really help that, but there are ways as a professional, you can prevent the individual from committing a crime. There are brain scans that can usually pick up any unusual brain activity, although it is not always accurate. Also, many doctors do not take a comprehensive history of the patient or their family. Maybe, if the professionals actually take the time to put the puzzle pieces together, they can implicate a prevention method in the future. Of course, all of this takes money, so if you have bad insurance you can be refused by someone who needs help for preventing them from further trouble in the future.

Now, for the environment, school systems need to be more aware of signs of child abuse, mental illness, and “abnormal” behavior. If there is child abuse, depending on the severity, remove the child, but to a safe home and not to an environment that is even worse. If child abuse can be prevented, maybe future crimes can be also. Unfortunately, when school systems feel a child may have some type of mental issue, they ignore it, but what does that do. Although, it is not necessarily the teacher’s job to notice these signs, but unfortunately, the teachers may be the closest person to the child, especially if there is neglect within the home. Other professionals need to pick up on this behavior also, such as, guidance counselors, or even hall monitors. When things go ignored, it just seems to get worse. Society needs to work as a whole for prevention; one person cannot do it all.

To sum it all up, nature and nurture both play a role in criminal behavior because a traumatic event can trigger a gene if they are more vulnerable to criminal behavior. Mental illness and child abuse alone do not cause criminal behavior, it is how the individual copes with these problems in their lives. If society worked as a whole, and not against one another, this world would not be so bad. There should not be a controversy, such as, nature versus nurture, it should be nature and nurture.


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