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Possible theories for crime: Nature versus Nurture.

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2460 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Crime is a matter of popular interest and focus; it is everywhere you look from newspapers to cinemas. Criminal acts have the ability to repel and fascinate us at the same time. When violence occurs we want answers. One of the questions people often ask when hearing of a crime, whether it be burglary or murder, is why? What causes criminal behaviour? Unless we know what causes an act of violence it is hard to put it behind us.

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The search for the causes of crime continues to form the basis of most criminological studies. There are numerous explanations for crime; biological, economical, geographical, psychiatric, psychological, sociological. However, broadly speaking these causes generally fall into two basic schools of thought, nature and nurture, and while most of us will embrace notions from both sides, some criminologists tend to lean more in one direction than the other. Psychological theories of crime hold the view that individual differences in behaviour may make some people more predisposed to committing criminal acts. These differences may arise from personality characteristics, biological factors or social interactions.

As there are so many theories for criminal behaviour this paper will focus on the biological and environmental factors, which may account for the growing social problem of violent and antisocial conduct.

“It was an urge….a strong urge, and the longer I let it go the stronger it got, to where I was taking risks to go out and kill people-risks that normally, according to my little rules of operation, I wouldn’t take because they could lead to arrest.”

–Edmond Kemper (cited on http://www.crimelibrary.com)

Where does this urge come from? Do we all possess it and if so, what stops some people from committing crimes, whether it be murder, as in this case, or something less, whilst others cannot control this urge. It could be said that criminals have no control over their impulses, whereas we do; no matter how angry we get there is something that stops us from taking this anger out on other people. According to Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) all humans have natural drives and urges repressed in the unconscious. More importantly he also claims that all humans have criminal tendencies. It is through the process of socialisation that these tendencies are curbed by the development of inner controls that are learned through childhood experiences (Eysenck, 1977). Maybe the thing that stops us is the thought of the punishment we would receive if caught, or maybe it is morality or social programming. It may even be that we are afraid that if we commit a crime and are caught, we risk losing the social bonds that we have with other people, as they will then think less of us. Humans are knowledgeable people who understand a great deal about the conditions and consequences of what they do in every day life (Farrell, Bowling, 1999). Once convicted of a crime and in court, there is an increased emphasis upon the free will and moral responsibility of the offender for their actions.

However the conception of the offender being ‘genetically at risk’ has now emerged. 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).

However, the thought that criminal behaviour is due to genetics poses many questions. At a personal level, people wonder about how much actual choice they have over their lives. Accepting genetic causes for their traits can relieve guilt about behaviour they want to change, but cannot.

According to Gibbons (1968), the genetic theory indicates that inherited traits are specific in nature, i.e. so that a person inherits green eyes and blonde hair. However criminal behaviour is not specific, it covers a wide range of criminal activities from petty theft to mass murder. Also, many criminals engage in a range of these activities, not always one specific type of crime, therefore how can the genetic theory account for this variability? It could be suggested that criminals inherit general tendencies to break laws. However criminals do not break all laws, they obey to most. It is very difficult to demonstrate any feasible mechanism for the inheritance of criminality (Eysenck, 1977). A disorder such as Cystic Fibrosis is a disorder produced entirely by hereditary causes. The cause is known and understood and the presence of the disorder can be determined with accuracy. With this in mind, what kind of structure can be imagined to underlie the cause of crime?

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, i.e. it is a citizen’s duty to kill in war but outside of war it is a crime. People are able to understand the differences in situations like these. What some people do find difficult is the thought that a gene or chromosome may cause the difference between a criminal and a non-criminal (Eysenck, 1977).

In a study carried out by Bernhardt (1930) on two groups of siblings, group one had both parents as none criminal, but criminality was among the grandparents or other close relatives, and the second group had no criminal parents or other relations. He found twice as high a crime rate among siblings in group one, than in group two, and postulated that this difference must be endogenously caused, as both groups of children grew up in non criminal homes. As can be seen from this study, it is difficult to eliminate environmental factors. There is always the possibility of direct influence from grandparent to grandchild. It may also be assumed that grandchildren of criminal grandparents are exposed to less favourable environmental influences via the intermediate parental link. Plus, the probability that the environment the parents create for their children is much the same as the grandparents created for the parents, is very likely.

The biological side of criminal behaviour can be studied through mental patients. In a ten year follow up of criminality in Stockholm mental patients, Belfrage (1998) found new evidence for a relationship between mental disorder and crime. The study was carried out on 1056 mental patients with the diagnosis of schizophrenia, affective psychosis or paranoia. After they had been discharged from mental hospitals in 1986, they were followed up ten years later. It was found that of those who were forty years old or younger at the time of discharge, nearly 40% had a criminal record, compared to less than 10% of the general public. According to Soothill, Peelo and Taylor (2002), on a typical day, four mentally disordered offenders are admitted from the courts to Broadmoor hospital, Rampton hospital or Ashworth hospital on hospital orders. Also, about one offender a day is transferred after sentence from a prison service establishment to a hospital.

However some criminologists regard biological evidence with alarm. Nelkin and Lindee (1995) believe that genetics, in relation to crime, deflects attention from the need for social reform, education and rehabilitation in tackling the violence in society. The study carried out by Komiya (1999) highlights the importance of environmental factors, such as families, schools and companies, concerned with the individual. This study was concerned with looking at the low crime rate in Japan in relation to the cultural background. It found that reasons for low crime rate were due to factors such as low unemployment, high educational standards, strict justice in relation to the control of firearms and drugs and the certainty of arrest, self-discipline and the high level of self-control. This latter is regarded as the strongest weapon for survival in Japan and they learn the value of self-control at a very early stage in life. It is the most important stage of socialization in Japan, whereas in Western countries a self of sense is most important. The socialization in Japan happens through/in families, schools and companies. In the family, children are under strict discipline. They learn to accept parental authority; therefore they are driven by parental expectations. There is lots of body contact i.e. bathing with parents. This is the opposite of Western families who encourage their children to have their own bedroom. In the school there are lots of regulations and children also have peers. The companies provide security i.e. lifetime employment, medical support, retirements benefits. For this, Japanese workers must accept strong informal social control by their company.

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As can be seen through this study Japan has a strong sense of security and an infinite number of repressive rules. These two elements act together to produce high levels of self-control, which acts as a strong force restraining people from committing crimes. The Japanese legal culture contributes to the prevention of crime by controlling the individual’s behaviour. This is the opposite to the Western worlds emphasis on the permissive nature of rules and the relative freedom of action. According to Komiya (1999) this suggests there is a trade off between low crime rates and a strong awareness of freedom. If individuals have a strong sense of responsibility, a society can lower its crime rate without undermining freedom.

It could be said that a person’s environment depends to a certain extent on his/her own choice (Horwitz, Christiansen, 1983). It could also be that some individuals within certain areas are drawn into crime (McGuire, Mason, O’Kane, 2000). A case in which the latter may apply is institutional upbringing. There seems to be a stigma attached to children raised in an institute; they are labelled as social deviants. However it must be remembered that children placed in these institutes, before being removed to the institute, are already in a rather threatened situation. Therefore it should be expected that these children would show increased delinquency rates. However once a person is stigmatised by a label, the response is often to fulfil the label given and commit further acts of deviance.

To take a quote from http://www.crimelibrary.com,

“I have several children who I’m turning into killers. Wait till they grow up”.

–David Berkowitz

This illustrates how much of an impact the environment in which a child grows up in has later on in life. Reading this quote would definitely worry criminologists who believe that the environment shapes a person and influences later life choices. Some parents believe that by being harsh on a child will toughen the child up. Instead, it often creates a lack of love between parent and child that can have disastrous effects later on in life. If a child does not bond with his/her carers there is no foundation for trusting others later in life (http://www.crimelibrary.com). Bowlby (1957) carried out a study on 44 thieves at a psychiatric clinic. He believed that a long separation from the mother during the first five years of a child’s life is a leading cause in the development of socially incapable, troublesome and delinquent personalities. Other studies claimed that the absence of the father might also create an equally dangerous risk (Horwitz, Christiansen, 1983). Andry (1955) found that the absence of the father was as equal a risk as the absence of the mother, and re-established the father as an equally important figure (Horwitz, Christiansen, 1983). Either way, both researchers found that parents are very important in the development of children.

A criminal can often be heard blaming his/her actions on a number of traditional explanations; childhood abuse, genetics, exposure to traumatic events and perceived social injustices to name a few. However the problem with this is that many people have been exposed to one or more of these traumas, yet they do not turn to crime. Maybe it is an interaction of a number of factors. Yet in the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, who had an apparently normal upbringing, environment does not seem able to explain the behaviour displayed. If there is a genetic explanation, it is difficult to explain, as we do not see entire families of, in this case, serial killers.

Another aspect of crime, which is of interest, is understanding how and why offenders stop committing offences. This is crucial for the development of effective crime prevention and criminal justice practises. Without a theory as to why people stop offending it is difficult to know which policies and practises are best needed to stop it. Some criminologists believe that by searching for the causes of criminality, the attention is taken away from the pressing task of crime management (McLaughlin, Muncie, Hughes, 2003).

This essay has only just begun to skim over the causes of criminal behaviour. As can be seen it would be difficult to credit one theory for the explanation of crime, 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). However if genetics were to be seen as the cause of criminality, this would pose future problems; it may lead to genetic screening for the interest of risk assessment. This could lead to genetic discrimination, which could then lead to loss of employment or denial of insurance or other benefits (Rose, 2000). If crime were due to genes, the individual would not be to blame yet they would be punished through the mentioned ways.

“There must be something in the child himself which the environment brings out in the form of delinquency”.

This quote by Aichorn (Gibbons, 1968) demonstrates the importance of both nature and nurture acting together. Certain aspects of each theory help us to understand the criminal’s behaviour, and it is through this interaction that we are able to further our knowledge on criminology.


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