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Psychological research indicating criminals are different from non criminals

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2592 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Discuss the extent to which psychological research convincingly indicates that criminals are different from non-criminals.

The causation of criminality is a prominent concern for our entire society. As a collective society we have what could be described as a vested interest in determining causation. Collectively, as a society we endeavour to live within societial norms and expectations, believing it to be for the common good, we are in possession of a social conscience. But how does the majority of society arrive at such a point? From a societal point of view, we develop our social conscience through the process of socialisation, from primary sources such as our families, secondary, such as schools, a school of thought endorsed by social learning theorists, whereby our behaviour is determined by our environment, we conform to the expectations of our surrounding, by conforming we are participants of the group to which we belong, As a group we believe that how we live is the right and those who do not conform are somehow living beyond the realm of society; That their behaviour is wrong and we who abide by the expected norms are right. But what of the individual within society? What of the individual who develops socially and psychologically to a point that is at odds with societal norms? Can socialisation adequately explain such an occurrence. Indeed what of the individual who arrives at a point whereby they adapt and behave according to society rules and regulations? Is it possible to say one is right and the other is wrong when considering individuality? Social rules and expectations are applied collectively at an individual level. As a society we define laws and regulations and in doing so we define what is deviant, we establish a difference between those who abide and those who do not. These individuals who do not abide by society’s rules and regulations are considered abnormal, and those of us who conform and follow are normal. Criminality in this context is considered an abnormality.

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The idea that criminals are different from non criminals is for some an accepted ‘fact’. Early criminology research was based on the belief that the criminal was a separate being from the ‘normal’ law abiding individual, that criminals where born, as opposed to being made. Cesare Lombroso (1835 – 1909) an Italian physicist with positivist leanings, hypothesised that criminals where in fact a throwback to earlier stages of the evolutionary process, he described individuals afflicted with this condition as ‘atavistic’, claiming that criminals where in possession of physical features which indicated their criminality, such as smaller brains, heavy fleshy jaws, abnormal and asymmetrical skulls. However Lombroso was criticised for studying only convicted criminals and making no comparative research with a control group of non-criminals, it was also suggested that perhaps he was confusing the line between criminality and psychopathology. Whilst these apparent findings hold little stead in modern theories concerning causal factors of criminality, Lombroso’s contribution is important as the forerunner for scientific investigation of criminals and their ‘criminality’ as well as moving away from the idea of humans functioning solely as social beings and drawing attention to human behaviour at the level of the individual.

An area of importance to this belief of criminality as a consequence of biological factors is genetics research. Psychologists in Britain during the 1960’s purported to have discovered a specific cause of criminality in chromosome abnormalities. Normally, Women are in possession of two X chromosomes while men will have one X and one Y, however research in this area found a high level of convicted criminals had a XYY chromosome, a condition commonly known as XYY syndrome(Sandberg et al 1961). However a subsequent review of these findings by Owen (1972) found that people from all walks of life had this so called abnormality and did not engage in criminal behaviours, it was also found that criminals with this abnormality engaged more so in sexual offences than other offences. Further research conducted in 1976 by Witkin et al did however discover findings which go some way to supporting the hypothesis of the chromosome abnormalities as a causation for criminality; the results of a study of 12 men with the condition found that these men where more likely to engage in criminal behaviours. But the fact remains that members of the general public with this condition do not commit crime and also on the flip side there is a majority proportion of offenders who do not have this condition.

The exploration of genetics as a predisposing factor of criminality has three main areas of investigation; family, twin and adoption studies. Family studies are employed based on the idea that family members share the same gene pool and in turn inherit similar characteristics. Osborn and West (1979) conducted research which looked at the sons of men with criminal convictions as well as the sons of men with no criminal convictions, it was found that 40% of the sons of criminals were criminals as opposed to only 13% for the sons of non criminals. However these findings are not definitive in their attempt to establish a genetic predisposition to criminality considering that the children grew up with their fathers, in the same environment, the sons of criminals who themselves engaged in criminality may in fact simply be acting out learned behaviours. However one must also consider why 13% of the sons of non criminals engage in criminality at all, if criminality was determined by genes surely the rate of criminality in this control group would in fact be zero. While research using family studies has found some significant information indicating that criminality may run in families, it is difficult to ascertain whether the tendency towards criminality is a genetic, environmental or indeed cultural transmission.

Twin studies compare monozygotic (MZ) and dizygotic (DZ) twins, the reasoning being that if MZ twins, who share 100% of the same genes, show a high rate of concordance in behaviours or traits, as opposed to FZ twins ,who only share 50% of the same genes, then one could deduce that genetic factors have influenced this outcome. In the case of criminality it could be assumed that there is a genetic basis to criminal behaviour. Mednick and Volavka in 1980 reviewed research conducted using twin studies during the period of 1929 to 1961 and found that approximately 60% of MZ had a high concordance of criminal behaviours as opposed to only 30% of FZ twins.)(Sage dictionary of criminology). In 1977 a study was carried out in Denmark on 3586 twins which found a rate of 52% concordance for MZ twins in comparison to only 22 % for FZ twins (Christiansens as cited in sage dictionary of criminology). However, research and findings using the classical twin study method has met with many criticisms, such as the fact that twins tend to grow up in the same environment and that people tend to treat identical twins in a similar manner to each other due to their physical similarities.

Adoption studies was proposed as a more deterministic method of establishing genetic inheritiability of criminality(Mednick, Gabrielli and Hutchings(1987). This method is quite an important, critical method of exploring the effects of nature and nurture, the idea being that if there is a genetic basis for criminality then the adopted away child with a criminal biological parent would be more inclined to engage in criminal behaviours, research conducted by mednick et al in 1983 seemed to back up this hypothesis, the findings of a study of 14500 adopted children found that an adopted male child whose biological parent was a criminal was more likely to engage in criminal behaviour regardless of having grown up in an environment different to that of the biological parent. A review of data collected from over 14,000 adoptions between the years of 1924 to 1947 in Denmark found that some genetic transmission of criminality does exist, however these findings did not extend to all types of criminality, in particular violent crime, instead it was found to be operating at the level of crimes against property (Joseph, 2001). Research has also indicated that having a biological criminal mother predisposes adopted away sons to a 50% chance of engaging in crime in comparison to only 5% if the adopted child’s biological mother is not a criminal. (Crowe, 1974).

The findings of research into biological explanations of criminality does raise some interesting and insightful information, and the possibility that criminality is inherited through one’s genes has some validity, it may be that criminals are born with predisposed tendencies which at a biological level does make them different from non criminals, however one can argue where is the explanation for those born with such tendencies who do not engage in criminal behaviour? It could be that each individual differs at the level of personality, it could be that those who do not go on to offend may have a different personality type from those who do. There is some debate about whether personality is something we are born with, i.e. we inherit or if it is something that develops as we grow and mature.

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Personality differences or individual differences are thought to counter an affect on an individuals propensity towards criminality. It is thought that particular types of personalities are more inclined to engage in criminal behaviour. In relation to criminality Hans Eysenck’s personality theory posits three personality types; extroversion (E), Neuroticism (N) and Psychoticism (P) ,an element of Eysenck’s theory which was added at a later point, after further research (Mc LaughlinLaughlin & Muncie 2006). The three personality types can be considered as scales with the E scale ranging from High extrovert to low introvert, and the N scale ranging from high neuroticism to low stability. According to Eysenck each individual is capable of engaging in criminal behaviour, but whether one does engage in such behaviour is determined by the cortical and autonomic nervous systems we are born with. These genetic factors affect how an individual will respond to environmental conditioning (Mc Laughlin & Muncie 2006). Extroverts, according to Eysenck, are cortically under-aroused, and therefore engage in pleasure and excitement inducing behaviour to increase arousal levels, often displaying traits such as aggressiveness and impulsivity, both traits strongly correlated to criminality. Introverts on the other hand are cortically over aroused and in turn avoid situations and behaviours that over stimulate them. Introverts tend to be more passive and calm. Eysenck’s theory proposes that extroverts do not condition as effectively as introverts. Neuroticism is connected to the individuals Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), and those individuals who experience high neuroticism tend to be moody and anxious and those who are low on the scale tend to display calm and stable behaviour. Eysenck again links high neuroticism to conditioning, the precept being that the anxiety caused by high neuroticism limits conditioning effects on the individual. The third personality type psychoticism is defined to a lesser extent by Eysenck as traits possessed by the individual; high P traits consist of a lack of empathy or feelings for others, sensation seeking, toughmindedness and aggression. The findings of Eysencks research found that offenders scored high on P, and N, but displayed mixed results for E, Eysenck reaction to this was dvelop E into 2 subcategories of Sociability and Impulsiveness, subsequent research found that offenders scored higher on impulsiveness than sociability (Mc Laughlin & Muncie 2006). Impulsiveness has often been cited as a causal factor of criminality; in 2001 Lynam & Whiteside conceptualised the occurrence of Impulsivity in relation to criminality as a four factor model; Urgency, Lack of Premeditation, Lack of perseverance and sensation seeking. Eysneck defined impulsivity in terms of a causal factor as dysfunctional impulsivity Dysfunctional impulsivity propels the individual to engage in behaviours that are of no benefit to the individual. It is thought that dysfunctional impulsive individuals do not process information as effectively as functional impulsive individuals.

Cognitive processes are another area in which criminals are thought to differ from non criminals, The Cognitive Dysfunction theory posits that crime is a result of an error in the individuals thinking patterns. Kohlbergs Moral Development theory is also concerned with the cognitive abilities of the criminal, suggesting that the cognitive functions of the criminal are less developed than those of the non criminal. Kohlberg outlines three stages of development in relation to individual moral reasoning; Pre-conventional, Conventional and Post conventional, he believed that criminals tend to stagnate at the pre-conventional stage whereby individuals engage in basic thinking and acting on instinct.

All such theories wherein the causation of criminality is attributed to internal aspects and functioning of the individual raise questions and indeed does suggest compelling evidence that would appear to indicate that criminals are inherently different at a biological level to non criminals. But as individuals we interact as social beings, we are hugely influenced by our environment and any conclusions regarding the causal factors of criminality must consider such influences; Social learning theory posits that criminality is in fact a learned response. There is much research findings which support social learning, the most well known example being Albert Bandura’s ‘Bobo Doll’ experiment, wherein three groups of children where put into different experimental groups. Group one saw an adult play nicely with the doll, group two saw just the doll and group three saw an adult be aggressive to the doll. Afterwards the children where allowed to play with the doll, the group who saw the adult act aggressively to the doll replicated the behaviours while the other two groups played nicely (Ainsworth, P, B 200:83). Such a strong finding as this shows us the high impact one’s environment will have on behaviour and that biological factors alone simply cannot account for all criminality. To grow up in an environment where criminality prevails incites a different learned response to the idea of criminality. However there is certainly evidence to suggest that at a biological level criminals are indeed different from non criminals, but it is not and should not be considered a deterministic fact of criminality, many individuals with such predispositions as discussed do not go on to engage in criminal behaviours, indeed many individuals who grow up in a criminal environment do not go on to offend and some criminals do not have the genetic predisposition or indeed the environmental influence and yet they have engaged in criminality. Criminality, as with most phenomena’s in modern psychology must be considered as an interaction of such factors.

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