With consideration for the age-old adage, “nurture versus nature,” a recent study suggests that the single common characteristic shared by repeat offenders may be isolated to the structure and composition of the brain itself, suggesting “nature” may trump “nurture” as the key to identifying a future career criminal.
According to the Ministry of Justice in England and Wales, a 2006 study showed that although criminal behavior may arise in adolescence, most who may have stolen a candy bar or picked a fight on the schoolyard go on to become well-balanced, law-abiding adults. The study suggested that only about 10% continue along a path of criminality, but it is unclear if this non-conformity to social rules could be the product of a broken home, a deprived lifestyle, misguided role models, or a biological anomaly that presents itself as a striking difference in the makeup of the brain.
“These findings,” suggests Professor Essi Viding, “underscore prior research that really highlights that there are different types of young offenders—they should not all be treated the same.” Terrie Moffit, a professor at Duke University, and part of the research team behind the study, upon evaluating biological differences in brain structure, concluded that it is within the brain itself that we may be able to trace the origin behind “persistent, anti-social behavior.” She goes on to conclude that the data show the subjects who have been identified with a differing composition of grey matter may be “operating under some handicap at that level of the brain.”
The research panel studied 672 people from age 7 until 26, then upon reaching age 45, became the subject of brain-scan imaging in an effort to evaluate differences in the thickness of grey matter within the regions of the brain that control emotion, motivation, and behavior. It found 441 of the subjects showed negligible criminal tendencies throughout their life, 151 showed slight anti-social behavior, and 80 subjects displayed criminal tendencies throughout adolescence and on into adulthood. The study did take into account some environmental (nurturing) differences, such as socio-economic status and IQ, then determined that this “career criminal” subgroup displayed a smaller surface within specific regions of the brain, and a thinner grey matter in social cognition areas. Within this “repeat offender” group, there was a higher documented history of mental health challenges, drug use, and violence.
The “chicken and the egg” quandary persists in that it is possible that the data suggest nurture may actually shape nature. The study itself did not seem to account for alternate factors that might include childhood deprivation such as deficiency in adolescent nutrition, exposure to second-hand smoke, alcohol abuse, stress, anxiety, drug use, pollution, and other environmental factors that may play a part in altering the development of the brain at an early age.
Furthermore, the study may not reflect a true cross-section of the world populace and certainly not that of the United States. Ninety percent of the subjects studied were white, and 100% of the subjects were from the somewhat isolated country of New Zealand, a far cry from the diverse and complex environments of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, London, or Tokyo.
Too often it seems, research findings are consistent with a pre-determined hypothesis therefore suggesting that criminal behavior, in this case, can be attributed to one specific biological factor, which may then be isolated for social engineering. Unfortunately, researchers often develop a hypothesis based upon their own pre-conceived notion and one in which complex society challenges may be reduced to a single common denominator. It becomes a dangerous and slippery slope to suggest that criminality originates only with a brain composition abnormality. By ignoring all other factors that may equally contribute to criminality, society may wish to use brain scan technology to begin to identify specific children as future criminals. The question then remains — do the findings prove the hypothesis, or was the hypothesis designed to prove the findings?
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