* I would
like to express my appreciation for the editorial comments of Drs. C. Ray
Jeffery, Derral Cheatwood, and Kathleen Block.
DIANA H. FISHBEIN
University of Baltimore
For several decades, mainstream criminology has been dominated by
sociological and political perspectives. Although findings from these fields
must not be discarded or underplayed, considered alone, they do not offer a
complete assessment of the contributions to criminal behavior. Data currently
being generated from numerous behavioral sciences, such as behavioral
genetics, physiological psychology, psychopharmacology, and endocrinology,
indicate that biological factors play an equally significant role in the
development of antisocial behavior and should be considered accordingly.
Incorporation of the theoretical parameters and findings of these
behavioral sciences into a criminological framework would yield valuable
information regarding processes underlying antisocial behavior. Such a
multidisciplinary approach is likely to enhance capabilities to predict,
prevent, and manage antisocial behavior. Theoretical parameters,
methodological issues, selected research findings, potential applications, and
precautions are discussed.
and Herrnstein (1985) recently published a massive evaluation of the
implications of biological data for topics of interest to criminologists.
Their message is that insufficient consideration has been given to biological
and social interactions in criminological studies. Consistent observations
that a small percentage of offenders are responsible for a preponderance of
serious crime (Hamparin et al., 1978; Moffitt et al., 1989; Wolfgang, 1972)
suggest that particular forces produce antisocial behavior in particular
individuals. Further, much research shows that violent criminals have an early
history of crime and aggression (Loeber and Dishion, 1983; Moffitt et al.,
1989). The possibility that biological conditions may play a role in the
development of antisocial and criminal behavior is accentuated by these
reports and has spurred a search for biological markers in
"vulnerable" subgroups (Mednick et al., 1987).
the past, theories of the biological aspects of criminal behavior were marked
by a general lack of knowledge regarding the human brain and by serious
methodological shortcomings (see, e.g., Glueck and Glueck, 1956; Goddard,
1921; Hooten, 1939; Jacobs et al., 1965; Lombroso, 1918; Sheldon, 1949).
Indeed, "biological criminology" was eventually discredited because
its findings were largely unscientific, simplistic, and unicausal. Biological
factors were globally rejected due to the inability of theorists to posit a
rational explanation for the development of criminal behavior.
More recently, biological aspects of criminal behavior
have been investigated by numerous behavioral scientists employing a
multidisciplinary approach that promises to enhance substantially the rigor of
the findings. Scientists in such fields as genetics, biochemistry,
endocrinology, neuroscience, immunology, and psychophysiology have been
intensively studying aspects of human behavior that are relevant to the
criminologist and the criminal justice practitioner. Due to the highly
technical and field‑specific language of much of this research, findings
generated from these works are not usually included in the literature reviews
of criminologists. The relative lack of interdisciplinary communication has
resulted in a lack of awareness of data pertinent to the study of crime and criminal behavior. This paper is a small step
toward filling that gap.
The primary purpose of this paper is to present
an overview of biological perspectives on the study of crime. Once
acquainted with the parameters and findings of biological research,
criminologists may begin to incorporate reliable biological aspects of
criminal behavior into their theoretical and applied frameworks. Specific
findings in biology are presented for criminologists to consider. Although the
paper provides only an initial, condensed introduction to the vast amount of
work accomplished in the behavioral sciences, it may help develop a sound,
scientific, and pragmatic framework for future criminological research with a
Several critical issues must be addressed in order to
(1) establish the relevancy of biology to the study of crime, (2) develop
the groundwork for including biological data in criminological theories, (3)
design research projects using compatible measurement instruments, data sets,
and statistical techniques, and (4) determine the boundaries of practical
applications of biological findings. These four requirements for
multidisciplinary investigation in criminology are contingent on the
assumptions and paradigm of the researcher, which have yet to be set forth
adequately in the criminological literature. Pertinent issues include nature
versus nurture, free will versus determinism, identifying relevant behavioral
disorders and subject populations, assumptions and conceptual framework, and
finally, methodological considerations. The discussion of these issues that
follows may be opposed or modified by other criminologists with a biological
orientation. This discussion is not intended as the last word, but rather as
one of the first.
The first issue that must be addressed before the
parameters of biological research in criminology can be established is the
age‑old question of whether human behavior is a product of nature or
nurture. Theoreticians of the past generally espoused one or the other
viewpoint. Those who claim that nature contributes predominantly to an
individual's behavior have been affiliated in the past with conservative
political ideologies and were known as "hereditarians." In this
circle, behavior was primarily attributed to inherited predispositions, and
genetic influences were considered responsible for most of the variance in
complex human behaviors.
The argument that nurture is the impetus for behavior
was advocated by the "environmentalists," who were generally
associated with a liberal ideology. Watson's (1925) interpretation of John
Locke's tabula rasa (blank slate),
for example, maintained that humans are born without predispositions to behave
in any predetermined or predictable manner. Environmental inputs were
considered primarily responsible for the final behavioral product, and
manipulations of external inputs were thought to modify behavior.
These opposing views are reflected in past political
and social movements, such as radical
behaviorism and social Darwinism, many
of which have had devastating social and scientific consequences. The concept
of predatory ethics, couched in
the possibility of the state's punitive sanctioning of "unacceptable"
or merely predicted future behaviors, eventually contributed to a complete
rejection of biological perspectives by many scientists and their sponsors.
The threat of "control and oppression by science" was realized and
Few behavioral scientists today adhere to either of
these extreme views. A consensus has been emerging over the past 10 to 15
years that the "truth" lies somewhere in between--a "nature
plus nurture" perspective (see Plomin, 1989). Although the nurture
perspective has dominated fields such as criminology for the past few
decades, substantial biological findings can no longer be ignored. Several
studies on alcoholism, temperament, criminality, depression, and mental
illness have established a solid role for genetic and biological influences
(selected recent examples are detailed below). Even though behavioral
scientists have yet to determine precisely the separate, relative contributions
of biology and social learning to behavior, their findings are particularly
relevant to the criminologist, who should play an instrumental role in their
evaluation given the potential impact on policy.
Evidence for an interaction between nature and nurture comes from both animal and clinical studies, which demonstrates the strength and importance of the dynamic link between biological and acquired traits. One example of this interaction is that aggressive behavior in monkeys can be elicited by stimulating certain areas of the brain with implanted intracerebral electrodes (see
Carlson, 1977:442‑449). The final behavioral
result depends on the hierarchical structure of the monkey colony. Dominant
monkeys will exhibit aggressive behavior with electrical stimulation of the
brain in the presence of a submissive monkey. The same monkeys will suppress
aggressive behavior, on the other hand, if another dominant monkey is present.
An example of this interaction in humans is illustrated by recent reports
that gender differences in cognitive ability are decreasing (see Geary, 1989).
Cognition, however, is fundamentally influenced by neural processes that
operate during an individual's development (ontogeny). In an effort to
explain changing trends in a seemingly immutable biological process,
researchers are discovering that cultural and experiential conditions
directly influence the developing pattern of cognitive abilities. For example,
activity patterns (e.g., frequency of rough and tumble play) may alter
cognitive ability (e.g., spatial skills) by modifying processes of brain
These illustrations remind us that as evidence for a substantial genetic influence grows we must be
cautious not to replace environmental explanations with biological
deterministic views. Instead, a more accommodating, balanced approach will
carry more empirical weight.
WILL OR DETERMINISM?
The acceptance of biological explanations for human
behavior has been thought by many to preclude the possibility of free will.
This fundamental fear has resulted in a pervasive rejection of biological
contributions to behavior. Although some behavioral scientists are
deterministic in their views, attributing
behavior to everything from socioeconomic conditions to neurochemical
events, most individuals prefer to credit their own free will for their
behavior. A compromise reflecting a more accurate position on the forces
behind human behavior is widely accepted, however--the theory of
"conditional free will" (see Denno, 1988, for discussion of
"degree determinism," a related view).
In probabilistic or stochastic theories, numerous
causes or alternatives are presented to explain an effect. Each cause has a
certain probability of resulting in that outcome, in some cases a measurable
probability. Because it is rarely the case that an effect can be associated
with only one cause, some dynamic interaction of causes, working in concert,
is frequently responsible for the final result. In the assessment of human
behavior, a most complex phenomenon, it is particularly difficult to separate
those causes to assess their relative contributions.
In accordance with probability theory, social human
behavior is contingent on a countless number of possible decisions from among
which the individual may choose. Not all of those decisions are feasible,
however, nor are the resources available that are required to act on them.
Choosing a course of action, therefore, is limited by preset boundaries, which
narrows the range of possibilities substantially. Decision‑limiting
factors include current circumstances and opportunities, learning
experiences, physiological abilities, and genetic predispositions. Each one of
these conditions collaborates internally (physically) and externally
(environmentally) to produce a final action. The behavioral result is thus
restricted to options available within these guidelines, yet it is
"indeterminable" and cannot be precisely predicted. Stable
individuals generally behave with some degree of expectability, however. In
other words, certain patterns of behavior are a common individual characteristic,
and some patterns are more probable than others in a given situation in a
The principle of conditional free will does not demand
a deterministic view of human behavior. Rather, it postulates that individuals
choose a course of action within a preset, yet to some degree changeable,
range of possibilities and that, assuming the conditions are suitable for
rational thought, we are accountable for our actions. Given
"rational" thought processes, calculation of risks versus the
benefits, and the ability to judge the realities that exist, the result is
likely to be an adaptive response, that is, the behavior will be beneficial
for the individual and the surrounding environment.
This theory of conditional free will predicts that if
one or more conditions to which the individual is exposed are disturbed or
irregular, the individual is more likely to choose a disturbed or irregular
course of action. Thus, the risk of such a response increases as a function of
the number of deleterious conditions. For example, a child with a learning
disability may function well in society. With the addition of family
instability, lack of appropriate educational programs, and a delinquent peer
group, however, the learning‑disabled child may be more prone to
maladaptive behavior, which may, in turn, result in actions society has
defined as criminal. The child's range of possible decisions has, in other
words, been altered.
BEHAVIORS AND POPULATIONS FOR STUDY
Definitional issues are hotly debated among
criminologists as a result of the growing recognition that not all
"illegal" behaviors are dysfunctional or maladaptive and not all
"legitimate" behaviors are moral, acceptable, or adaptive. In
attempting to develop a framework for including biological perspectives in
criminology, one must first identify behaviors of interest and appropriate
The term criminality includes behaviors that do not
necessarily offend all members of society, such as certain so‑called
victimless acts, and it excludes behaviors that may be antisocial or illegal
but that are not detected by the criminal justice system. Maladaptivity includes antisocial behaviors that are
costly to citizens and society overall. Such behaviors do not necessarily violate
legal norms or come to official attention, however. Individuals who display
maladaptive behavior do have a high probability of being labeled as delinquent
or criminal, but being so labeled is not a sufficient criterion to be
identified as maladaptive. For example, schizophrenics have abnormalities in
brain structure and function that cause them to behavior maladaptively [sic];
their behavior is poorly regulated, detrimental to their own well‑being,
and considered "deviant" by others. Nevertheless, they rarely
manifest criminal tendencies. In the same vein, individuals who have been
diagnosed as having antisocial personality disorder (American Psychiatric
Association, 1987), a condition associated with several aberrant physiological
traits (see Hare and Schalling, 1978; Howard, 1986; Yeudall et al., 1985), are
more likely to violate legal norms given conducive social circumstances.
Yet, there are numerous examples of individuals with antisocial personality
disorder who find legal, albeit not always ethical, avenues for channeling
their behavioral tendencies (e.g., some of those involved in competitive
sports, high‑risk activities, corporate life, and politics).
Criminal behavior is not exclusively maladaptive or dysfunctional behavior; thus, biological theories
are differentially relevant to various forms of criminality. Biological
findings in behavioral research are of particular interest for the study
and management of maladaptive behaviors, both criminal and undetected
behaviors that are detrimental to individuals so affected or their milieu.
This paper focuses on maladaptive behaviors that may place an individual at
risk for criminal stigmatization, in particular violent criminal behavior.
It is essential in this paper
to provide a conceptual framework for eventually relating and integrating
the concepts fundamental to criminology and behavioral biology. This task
requires a model describing the underlying assumptions about human behavior
generally, a theory of the etiological development of maladaptive behaviors
specifically, and practical implications for the criminal justice system. Most
important, this model of behavior must accommodate well‑established
theories in the social, psychological, and biological sciences. To this end,
this section discusses the importance of the learning process, firmly
entrenched in the theories of all three sciences, for the development of human
behavior generally and maladaptive behavior specifically.
Individuals are not inherently criminal, nor do they suddenly become
homicidal maniacs (except under unusual circumstances). Antisocial behavior
has many precursors.[i] Manifestations of a problem
are frequently observed in childhood when innate tendencies toward antisocial
behavior or other risk factors are compounded by suboptimal environmental and
social conditions (Denno, 1988; Lewis et al., 1979, 1985; Mednick et al.,
1984). These early seeds of maladaptive behavior are commonly ignored,
inappropriately treated, or not recognized as complications that warrant
intervention. In such cases, the severity of the condition and resultant
behaviors are well advanced by adolescence and adulthood. According to this
"developmental course" model of human behavior, criminal behavior is
virtually always secondary to an underlying problem(s), as illustrated in
One straightforward example of this process, which pervades the criminological
literature, is the link between IQ or learning disabilities and delinquent/criminal
Children with conduct disorders tend to have lower IQ scores than nondeviant
controls (Huesmann et al., 1984; Kellam et al., 1975; Lewis et al., 1981;
Robins, 1966). Several investigators (Huesmann et al., 1984; Kellam et al.,
1975; Olweus, 1979; Richman et al., 1982) have reported that an antecedent
factor(s) contributes to both difficulties independently. Probable
conditions that may antedate both low IQ and conduct disorder are parental
psychopathology, temperamental disturbances, neurological problems, genetic
susceptibilities, and disadvantageous environmental influences (Shonfeld et
al., 1988). With a learning‑disabled or conduct‑disordered
child, the existence of one or more of these deleterious conditions will
increase the likelihood of further adjustment problems. Over time, behavioral
difficulties become compounded and, to some extent, reinforced once the child
has established mechanisms to protect himself or herself and cope with his or
her liabilities. Thus, maladaptive behavior is a function of a cumulative,
Although low IQ or a learning disability is not inherently criminogenic,
in the absence of proper intervention the child may become frustrated attempting
to pursue mainstream goals without the skills to achieve them. Kandel et al.
(1988) demonstrated that juveniles with high IQ who were otherwise at high
risk for criminal involvement due to their family environments resisted
serious antisocial behavior. The researchers stated that their results could
be interpreted according to Hirschi's (1969) social control theory.
Specifically, students with a high IQ find school more rewarding and,
consequently, bond more strongly to the conventional social order. Parents and
school systems that are ill equipped to deal with a child suffering from a
learning disability, on the other hand, may indirectly contribute to
delinquency by removing the child from the classroom, thereby alienating him
or her from friends and inculcating the belief that the child is
"different," possibly even inadequate. Self‑esteem is likely
to decline dramatically, and the child may learn that there are rewards to be
gained from interacting with others who experience similar frustrations. Thus,
the child's behavior elicits a negative response from his or
her environment, which leads to further reactions from the child (see
Patterson et al., 1989). Consequently, the cycle of negatively interacting
forces continues and the risk of becoming delinquent and eventually criminal
Once the individual attracts
the attention of the criminal justice system, the problem is already
significantly compounded and difficult to treat, and the costs to society are
exorbitant. Evidence for the existence of a developmental phenomenon in
antisocial behavior highlights the dire need for early detection and
intervention. The earlier the intervention, the more favorable the outcome (Kadzin,
The learning process as it
contributes to behavior cannot be underestimated in this model because,
fundamentally, both biological and social behavior are learned. Biological
traits and proclivities are not stationary characteristics; they are
reinforced or, in some cases, altered through social learning processes. The
tendency toward shyness or introversion, for example, is thought to be a
stable biological and possibly heritable behavioral quality (see Kagan et
al., 1988; Plomin and Daniels, 1986). Kagan et al. (1988) found that children
who were extremely shy at the age of 1.5 to 2.5 years continued to be shy and
restrained at the age of 7. The children who had moderate levels of shyness,
however, did not necessarily retain that trait as they aged. Such
temperamental traits may be reinforced by external rewards or expectations or
may, on the other hand, be overcome by modeling. Thus, the actualization and
longevity of this trait depend on environmental experiences or stressors,
including hospitalization or family discord.
Humans are equipped with the
innate biological capacity to learn as a product of their genetic blueprint,
which is physically expressed in the structure of the brain. When an
individual is exposed to a stimulus from the internal (biological) or
external (social) environment, permanent changes occur in the neural structure
and biochemical function of the brain. This process is referred to as
"memory," experiences coded and stored for retrieval in the form of
Bodily functions involved in
memory are multifaceted. Sensation and perception are activities of stimuli
reception. Attention and arousal prepare the individual to receive stimuli and
react to them selectively. Motivational processes operate so that the
individual attends to and later retrieves information. And motor systems
permit a response to a memory or experience. When stimuli are received and
remembered, all future behaviors are modified, and perception will be
subsequently altered. Thus, humans interrelate current experiences with
information previously learned, and the future response to an equivalent
stimulus may be different. The integrity of each of the above activities
determines whether the learning experience will result in accurately encoded
memories to produce an appropriate behavioral response.
The learning process of comparing new information with
memories to produce a response frequently results in "behavioral
conditioning." There is an innate foundation for learning in our
biological structure that sets contingencies for behavioral conditioning in
an individual, consistent with the premise of conditional free will.
Consequently, behavioral sequences are neither programmed nor innate; they are
acquired. The two forms of behavioral conditioning, classical and
instrumental, both directly involve biological mechanisms. Classical
conditioning refers to the response elicited by a neutral stimulus that has
been associated with the acquisition of a reward or the avoidance of harm; for
example, a white laboratory coat is associated with food and elicits
salivation or viewing drug paraphernalia elicits craving for a drug.
When an individual is instrumental in causing a
stimulus to occur, operant or instrumental conditioning is at work. The
stimulus being elicited either satiates a drive or permits one to avoid a
noxious result. For example, if we learn that stealing results in a reward,
the behavior will continue. On the other hand, if we are consistently punished
for such behavior, we are unlikely to repeat the action.
Thus, both forms of conditioning revolve around the same contingencies
(biological dictates to avoid pain and seek pleasure, known as hedonism),
which function to reinforce our behavior.
Certain behaviors are reinforced when the following
conditions exist: (1) the behavior and the stimulus occur together in time and
space (continuity), (2) repetition of
the association strengthens the conditioned response, (3) the result either
evokes pleasure or relieves pain, and (4) there is no interference, as in the
form of new experiences, to weaken or extinguish the response. The concept of
deterrence is founded on these principles.[iii]
In general, the criminal justice system relies on the association made between specific, in this case illegal, behaviors and the application of a painful or punitive sanction, which generally involves the removal of certain freedoms and exposure to unpleasant living conditions. The painful stimulus must be temporally associated with the behavior, consistently applied, and intense enough to prevent further such behaviors. According to the fourth condition listed above, the individual must not learn that the intrinsic reward properties of the behavior are greater or more consistent than the punishment. And finally, opportunities for preferred modes of behavior must be available. Due to the prevalence of low clearance rates, trial delays, inconsistently applied dispositions, legal loopholes, the learning of improper reward and punishment contingencies, and a lack of available legitimate opportunities, the criminal justice system and society at large have been unable to meet the criteria set above for deterrence and prevention.
The experience of a painful consequence being
associated with a behavior is encoded into memory, and when we calculate the
consequences of performing that behavior in the future we are deterred by the
possible negative response. The impetus for such behavioral change resides in
our nervous system. We feel anxiety when the threat of a negative repercussion
exists because of the learned association between the behavior and its likely
consequence. Subjective feelings of anxiety are a result of automatic
nervous system responses (a portion of the nervous system that regulates
functions not under our conscious control), such as increased heart rate,
blood pressure, and hormone release. Thus, the brain initiates a release of
hormones that stimulates a subjective feeling of stress whenever we
contemplate a behavior that we have been effectively conditioned to avoid.
Individuals with a properly functioning nervous system are quite effectively
conditioned to avoid stressful situations given the learned contingencies
discussed above. Most of us, for example, would experience psychological and
physical discomfort at the thought of picking a pocket or burglarizing a
convenience store. Thus, we make a rational choice based on a calculation of
costs and benefits and, in this case, deterrence is most likely achieved.
The learning and conditioning of behavior
occur differentially among individuals given their neurological status. For
example, psychopaths are relatively unemotional, impulsive, immature,
thrill‑seeking, and unconditionable" (Cleckley, 1964; Moffitt,
1983; Quay, 1965; Zuckerman,
They have also been characterized as having low levels of perceptible anxiety
and physiological responses during stressful events (Hare and Schalling, 1978;
House and Milligan, 1976; Syndulko et al., 1975; Venables, 1987; Yeudall et
al., 1985). Theoretically, psychopaths do not sufficiently experience the
discomfort of anxiety associated with a proscribed behavior because they have
a hypoaroused automatic nervous system, and thus, they are not easily
conditioned or deterred (Hare and Schalling, 1978; Lykken, 1957). They make a
rational choice based on the calculation that the benefits of the act (e.g.,
monetary gain) outweigh the costs (e.g., anxiety and detection).
Accordingly, one would expect that psychopaths encountered by the
criminal justice system would be resistant to most deterrence programs.
Rewards and punishments influence behavior directly
through brain mechanisms. Centers responsible for pain and pleasure are
located in a section of the brain known as the limbic system. Not
surprisingly, memories are encoded, stored,
and retrieved in this same system. Direct electrical stimulation of
certain areas within the limbic system (electrical stimulation of the brain,
ESB) is inherently reinforcing, even in the absence of a biological or social
drive (Olds and Milner, 1954). An animal quickly learns to perform for ESB due
to its drive‑inducing and intensely pleasurable effect. In humans, these
areas are naturally stimulated when a behavior results in increases in
specific neurotransmitters and peptides[iv]
responsible for either pleasure (i.e., dopamine) or the reduction of pain
(i.e., serotonin or beta‑endorphins). In large part, which chemicals are
released and in which areas depend on both biological and social learning
This pain and pleasure mechanism is simply illustrated
by the use of cocaine, which directly stimulates the release of dopamine in
structures of the limbic system responsible for pleasure (Wise,
1984:15‑33). The user quickly learns that cocaine is biologically
rewarding, and, along with other reinforcing social circumstances associated
with its use, he or she will be more likely to crave and reuse the drug. This
is an example of both classical and instrumental conditioning. Other, more
complicated, processes involving social learning or conditioning are also
involved in the activation of pain and pleasure centers in the limbic
Imbalances of the limbic system may alter the proper stimulation of pain and pleasure centers. In schizophrenia, for example, the individual has disturbances in the ability to associate behaviors with a pleasurable outcome and behavior seemingly lacks purpose. It is believed that damage to neural reward structures has occurred (Stein and Wise, 1973). There is also evidence that some psychopaths experience intense pleasure from thrill‑seeking or risk‑taking activities and have a high pain threshold (Blackburn, 1978). Behaviors that involve an element of danger are not only exciting to these individuals, but they may be addictive in the conventional sense; they produce feelings of euphoria, and the participant may experience discomfort when unable to engage in such activities (Quay, 1965). The possibility that psychopaths have a disturbance in pain and pleasure centers is consistent with studies presented above showing that they have low levels of anxiety and are relatively "unconditionable." There is a large literature on the proneness of these individuals to become involved in delinquent and criminal activities (see Wilson and Herrnstein, 1985), again due to biological traits that are reinforced through social learning.
In sum, social behavior is learned through the
principles of conditioning, which are founded on biological and genetic
dictates in accord with stimulus-response relationships. Social rewards
remain secondary to biological rewards; our desire for money is social, but it
is secondary to being a means for obtaining food and shelter. Thus, social
behavior satisfies biological needs and drives by providing adaptive
mechanisms for reproduction, mating, rearing, defense, and numerous other
biological functions. Even though these strategies are fundamentally
biological, how we behave to satisfy them relies heavily on learning.
AND METHODOLOGICAL ISSUES
Research findings from various behavioral sciences
that are relevant to the criminologist can be evaluated in the context of
the parameters described above. The next section discusses selected studies
that may have bearing on criminological research. A summary critique
accompanies discussion of the studies. As a prelude to the discussion, this
section examines some of the weaknesses common to such studies.
First, studies of incarcerated populations present
obvious problems regarding the generalizability of findings in that any
observed effect or correlation may be due to the effects of
institutionalization rather than to the variable(s) of interest. Many studies
that used institutionalized offenders as subjects did not attempt to measure
or control for prison conditions and influences. Also, prisoners are a
selective group, and thus their study does not include individuals outside
that population with the trait of interest.
Second, many forms of bias in selecting subjects are
evident in some studies. For example, several studies focus on criminal
offenders and ignore pervasive illegal behaviors in undetected samples.
There is a strong possibility that apprehended or incarcerated subjects differ
from those who avoid detection in terms of their characteristics and the
impact of criminal justice procedures.
Third, the use of control subjects is frequently
neglected or inappropriate controls are examined. Unmatched controls or
subjects with psychopathology (e.g., schizophrenics) are used all too often
as comparison subjects.
Fourth, widely divergent conceptual and methodological
principles are, at times, applied across studies, which makes it difficult to
compare and replicate findings. Concepts such as psychopathy, antisocial
personality, aggression, criminal behavior, and so on, are inconsistently
defined and measured. Also, biological parameters are not uniformly
identified, for example, electroencephalographic studies employ different
measures of brain activity. Measurement instruments differ among studies and
interpretations of findings are variable.
Fifth, several points of caution are particularly
relevant to interpretation of studies of psychopathic subjects. The widespread use of self‑report and retrospective data is
problematic generally, but additional problems arise when these data
sources are used to examine offenders, a population notorious for falsifying
records. Psychopaths, who are depicted as crafty deceivers, offer especially
data. Yet, self‑report measures are frequently used to
select and categorize subjects. Not all criminals are psychopaths and vice
versa. Moreover, psychological, behavioral, and physiological traits characterizing
psychopathy occur along a continuum; psychopathy is not a binary phenomenon.
Thus, both personality traits and actual behaviors must be carefully assessed
before assigning subjects to groups. Last, the terminology used to describe
individuals exhibiting psychopathic behavior is often inexact, confusing, and
inconsistent (Blackburn, 1988). The literature suggests that psychopaths are
not a homogeneous group (Eysenck, 1977; Hare and Schalling, 1978; Raine,
1988). At least two types of psychopaths have been identified that may be
more or less prone to criminal activity: primary psychopaths, who are
relatively unemotional, and secondary psychopaths, who have high levels
of trait anxiety (Blackburn, 1986; Lykken, 1957). It is to be expected
that psychopathy with
and without anxiety will be characterized by quite distinct
physiological generators and measurable features. Accordingly, reports of
psychobiological differences between psychopaths and "normals" have
disagreed depending on the definitions and selection criteria used (Devonshire
et al., 1988).
Finally, of immediate importance, the majority of
so‑called multidisciplinary studies have examined only a few variables
in isolation, without accounting for interactive effects between biological
and socioenvironmental conditions. A truly collaborative research project,
examining an extensive data set and incorporating the sophisticated
methodological and statistical techniques of sociologists, would hold the
promise of yielding more informative results regarding the nature of
bio‑socio‑environmental influences on antisocial behavior. (See
Mednick et al., 1987, for detailed critiques of biological approaches to the
study of criminal behavior.)
The discussion that follows concentrates on the
biological aspects of this multifaceted relationship because the
criminological literature has dealt almost exclusively with sociological and
legal issues to the neglect of other interacting conditions. A variety of
disciplines have examined maladaptive and psychopathological behaviors, and at
least one example from each topical area (e.g., genetics and biology) is
STUDIES OF THE BIOLOGY OF
Human instinctual drives (e.g., eating, reproduction,
and defensive behavior) ensure our survival and are essentially stable over
time. The mechanisms for acting on these drives, however, especially the
brain, continuously evolve to enhance our survival capabilities and have
improved substantially. With the advent of human consciousness, psychological
forces and cultural values interact and sometimes compete with biological
drives dictated by evolutionary trends (Thiessen, 1976). Thus, human
behavior is a product of the profound and complex interaction of biological
and social conditions. Due to the intricacy of this interaction and the
elusiveness of evolutionary directions, the nature and outcome of this process
are difficult to identify and to study.
Most behaviors have some adaptive significance (i.e.,
they reflect an attempt to adapt to environmental conditions) and, thus, can
be studied in an evolutionary context. Aggression is one form of behavior that
has been extensively studied with respect to its adaptive significance. For
environmental conditions have been associated with a display of
extreme, overt aggression because they are perceived
as threats to survival. The administration of an electrical shock or painful
stimulus, loud noises, extreme heat, ESB, starvation, crowding, and other
conditions elicit or exacerbate fighting behaviors in many primate species,
including humans (Carlson, 1977; Thiessen, 1976; Valzelli, 1981). Abnormal
environmental conditions characterize prisons and may contribute to the
incidence of overt aggressive behavior among inmates; they may also partially
explain the relationship between contacts with the criminal justice system
(e.g., amount of time incarcerated) and recidivism rates. Also, the prevalence
of abnormal environmental conditions has increased with the
ever‑increasing breakdown of the family structure, community
disorganization, disparity between public policy and biological needs,
crowding, learned helplessness, and other frequently cited characteristics
of U.S. urbanization (Archer and Gartner, 1984:98‑117; Larson,
1984:116‑141). Investigation of how these deleterious conditions
exacerbate maladaptive behavioral mechanisms may eventually lead to
socioenvironmental programs to enhance, rather than detract from, adaptive
Unfortunately, aggression has been inconsistently defined, and most studies of its evolution and adaptive significance have examined nonhuman animals, probably because of the complexity of human social systems that contribute to the manifestation of aggressive behavior. Due to space limitations and the relative lack of well‑supported research in this area, a discussion of evolutionary dictates and aggressive behavior is not included here. The interested reader may refer to Thiessen (1976) and Valzelli (1981) for such discussion.
Research on the genetic components of human behavior
suffers in general from numerous methodological and interpretive flaws (Blehar
et al., 1988; Clerget‑Darpoux et al., 1986; DeFries and Plomin, 1978;
Ghodsian‑Carpey and Baker, 1987). It is difficult to isolate genetic
factors from ontogenetic (developmental) events, cultural influences, early
experiences, and housing conditions. As a result, most studies of human
behavior have examined the transmission of socioenvironmental factors that can
be more empirically observed and manipulated.
Genetic studies of criminal behavior specifically have
been even more severely criticized (Mednick et al., 1987; Plomin et al., 1990;
Rowe and Osgood, 1984; Walters and
White, 1989; Wilson and Herrnstein, 1985). This research suffers from a high
level of abstraction because "criminal behavior" is a legalistic
label, not descriptive of actual behavior. This weakness is not unique to
genetic research, however. Criminal behavior, as a single phenomenon, is far
too variable and subject to individual and cultural judgments to be defined
for reliable and valid investigation. Instead, research should be predicated
on disaggregated behaviors that are reflective of actual acts that can be
consistently and accurately measured and examined. Accordingly, genetic
studies that focus on criminal behavior per se may be inherently flawed; as
criminal behavior is heterogeneous, genetic effects may be more directly associated
with particular traits that place individuals at risk for criminal labeling.
Mednick et al. (1984) took a first step toward this goal by differentiating
violent from property offenders. Concepts such as violent behavior, depression,
alcoholism, and psychopathy more aptly reflect an actual behavioral pattern to
which specific criteria for their identification can be applied (Plomin et
al., 1990). Researchers need only agree on the criteria and measuring
As a rule, what is inherited is not a behavior; rather,
it is the way in which an individual responds to the environment. It provides
an orientation, predisposition, or tendency to behave in a certain fashion.
Also, genetic influences on human behavior are polygenic‑no single gene
effect can be identified for most behaviors.
Intellectual deficits, which are closely tied to
delinquent and criminal lifestyles (Hirschi and Hindelang, 1977), are
understood to be largely heritable (Bouchard and McGue, 1981; Cattell, 1982).
Temperamental traits and personality types, possible precursors of
maladaptive or criminal behavior, have also been shown to have heritable
components in humans, for example, extraversion, depression, alcoholism,
dominance, neuroticism, mania, impulsivity, hyperactivity, conduct disorder,
sensation seeking, and hyperemotionality (Biederman et al., 1986; Cadoret et
al., 1985; DeFries and Plomin, 1978; Ghodsian‑Carpey and Baker, 1987;
Plomin et al., 1990; Rushton et al.,1986). Individuals with such personality
dispositions, compared with those without, have an increased familial
incidence of similar behavioral problems and show differences, along with
their family members, in certain biochemical, neuropsychological, and
physiological parameters (Biederman et al., 1986; Cadoret et al., 1975;
DeFries and Plomin, 1978; Hare and Schalling, 1978; Plomin et al., 1990;
Rushton et al., 1986; Tarter et al., 1985; Zuckerman, 1983). The behavioral
outcome is contingent on various stressors in the environment, life
experiences, and current opportunities. A withdrawn and shy child, for
instance, can alter his or her introverted temperament through the
self‑awareness and training required to become a more, outgoing adult,
given the availability of necessary personal and external resources.
Numerous studies have attempted to estimate the genetic contribution to
the development of criminality, delinquency, aggression, and antisocial
behavior. Each has used one of three methods designed to assess the relative
contributions of environment and heredity to various aspects of human
behavior: family, twin, and adoption studies. Overall, many of these behavioral
genetic studies suffer from one or more of the methodological weaknesses
discussed earlier. Genetic research designs and selected seminal studies are
briefly described below. (Only a few researchers have comprehensively and
critically reviewed the bulk of these studies; see Mednick et al., 1987;
Plomin et al., 1990; Walters and White, 1989; Wilson and Herrnstein, 1985.)
The family study seeks to identify genetic influences on behavioral
traits by evaluating similarities among family members.
Cross‑generational linkages have been reported for personality and
behavioral attributes related to criminal behavior, including temper
outbursts (Mattes and Fink, 1987), sociopathy (Cloninger et al., 1975, 1978;
Guze et al., 1967), delinquency (Robins et al., 1975; Rowe, 1986),
hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder (Cantwell, 1979), conduct
disorder, aggression, violence, and psychopathy (Bach‑y‑Rita et
al., 1971; Stewart et al., 1980; Stewart And DeBlois, 1983; Stewart and Leone,
1978; Twito and Stewart, 1982).
Despite conclusions from many of these studies that genetic effects are
largely responsible for criminal behavior, this method of study does not
directly assess genetic contributions. Environmental influences on measures of
behavior may be common to parents and offspring, and thus, large environmental
correlations among relatives cannot be accounted for. Diet, environmental
toxins, neighborhood conditions, and television ‑viewing habits are only
a few examples of environmental factors that similarly influence family
members. Family studies also suffer from many of the weaknesses listed above.
At this point, one may only conclude that the incidence of criminal and
related behaviors appears to have a familial basis. The relative influences of
genetics and environmental conditions cannot, however, be estimated.
The classic twin design involves the testing of
identical (monozygotic or MZ) and fraternal (dizygotic or DZ) twins. MZ twins
share genetic material from the biologic parents and are thus considered
genetically identical. DZ twins are approximately 50% genetically alike, as
are regular siblings. The extent to which MZ resemblances with respect to a
characteristic are greater than DZ resemblances provides evidence for a
genetic influence on the variable. To the extent that there is still some
degree of DZ resemblance after genetic influences have been accounted for,
there is evidence for the influence of common family environment on the
variable. For example, if a sample of MZ twins is 60% similar for IQ and a
matched sample of DZ twins is 25% similar for IQ, one can conclude that IQ is
largely a function of heredity.
Christiansen (1977b) reviewed nine twin studies on
criminal behavior, including his own exemplary study (Christiansen, 1977a).
Overall, the studies provide evidence for a genetics‑environment
interaction (see discussion in Wilson and Herrnstein, 1985). Dalgard and
Kringler's (1976) findings were the exception. Although they found a trend,
they did not find statistical significance for differences between MZ and DZ
criminality. More current twin studies have found significant genetic effects
for both self‑report and official rates of delinquent or criminal
behavior (Rowe, 1983; Rowe and Osgood, 1984) and personality or temperamental
traits related to criminal behavior, for example, aggression (Ghodsian‑Carpey
and Baker, 1987; Rowe, 1986; Rushton et al., 1986; Tellegen et al., 1988). Two
additional studies did not find significant MZ‑DZ differences in
concordance rates for childhood aggression (Owen and Sines, 1970; Plomin et
al., 1981). Plomin et al. (1990) examined numerous twin studies of
criminal/delinquent behavior and aggression and noted that the results were
highly inconsistent, possibly because no uniform measure of
self‑reported aggression and its constructs has been applied.
Twin studies commonly suffer from a number of unique
methodological weaknesses (Plomin et al., 1980). First, MZ twins are selected
more frequently due to their visibility, and study group sizes thus become
disproportionate. Second, sampling techniques may favor the selection of MZ
pairs that are similar in relevant behavioral traits, which biases the
results. Third, MZ twins tend to share
more similar environments than do DZ twins because of their similar appearance
(DZ twins look no more alike than regular siblings). Because environmental
assessments are not commonly conducted, such similarities cannot be estimated
to determine their relative influence. In favor of the validity of the twin
method, however, is evidence that physical and environmental similarities
among MZ twins do not bias studies of personality (see DeFries and Plomin,
1978:480; Plomin and Daniels, 1987). Fourth, only recently have researchers
employed biochemical tests to verify the zygosity of the twins. The bulk of
genetic studies were performed prior to the ready availability of such tests,
and thus, the genetic influence may have been underestimated. Fifth,
measurement errors may further increase the tendency to underestimate genetic
influences. On the other side of the coin, the twin method can only examine
the level of genetic contribution over and above environmental influence.
Thus, there is contamination from an unknown amount of environmental
contribution and the influence of heredity may be overestimated.
No definitive conclusions can be drawn from twin
studies of aggressiveness or criminal behavior because no consistent pattern
of genetic influence emerges. Nevertheless, twin studies of criminal and
related behaviors fairly consistently provide some intriguing evidence for a
genetic effect, and genetic influences warrant continued, but more rigorous,
Adoption studies examine individuals who were raised from infancy by
nonrelated adoptive parents rather than biological relatives. To the extent
that subjects resemble the biological relatives and not the nonbiologic
relatives, heredity is thought to play a contributory role. The adoption study
method promises to provide unambiguous evidence for the relative contribution
of heredity as a cause for behavioral traits and for
genetics‑environment interactions. Nevertheless, the method has some
weaknesses (see Walters and White, 1989, for examples). First, due to
difficulties in locating subjects, sample sizes tend to be small, which
reduces the power of the results. Second, selection bias may be introduced in
the adoption process because assignment to adoptive parents may not be random
with respect to biological parent characteristics. Third, a primary criticism
of a majority of adoption studies on criminality is the inadequacy and
inconsistency of the methods used to operationalize and measure the dependent
variable (see Plomin et al., 1990; Walters and White, 1989). Fourth,
researchers should ensure that the duration and type of biological parenting
similar among all subjects to avoid contamination. Ideally, infants should
have been adopted within a few weeks of birth so that the age of adoption does
not relate to subsequent criminal behavior (see Mednick, et al., 1984).
Several adoption studies indicate noteworthy genetic
effects on criminal or delinquent behavior and related psychopathology (i.e.,
For the most part, these studies suggest that biological relatives of criminal or antisocial
probands have a greater history of criminal convictions or antisocial
behavior than the biological relatives of noncriminal control adoptees. In
general, family environment, including such indices as social class, rearing
styles, and parental attitudes, played a smaller role than did purported
Bohman et al. (1982) further argue that genetic
influences on criminality may differ from those who are also alcoholic.
Specifically, when the biological parents are both criminal and
alcoholic, crimes of adoptees tend to be more violent. There is no direct
evidence, however, that criminality/antisocial personality and alcoholism
are genetically linked to the same antecedent conditions. Nevertheless, the
link between the two behaviors has been widely documented (see Cadoret et al.,
Adoption studies highlight the importance of
gene‑environment interactional models (Rowe and Osgood, 1984). Mednick
et al. (1984) proposed that having a criminal adoptive parent most profoundly
affects those with a genetic propensity for criminality. In other words, those
who inherited certain antisocial personality and temperamental traits are
more likely to manifest criminal behaviors in the presence of deleterious
environmental conditions (e.g., criminal parents). Even though these
conditions interact to produce antisocial behavior, many researchers attest
that environmental and genetic factors differentially influence behavior and
that their relative contributions may be measurable (see Plomin et al., 1990).[vii]
Genetic foundations for behavioral disorders are manifested in a
phenotype, which is the resulting, visible expression of a genetic trait.
For example, one may have the genetic blueprint (or genotype) for brown and
blue eyes, but the final, observable eye color (the phenotype) is brown.
Although researchers can rarely trace a behavioral disorder to a specific
gene, they can more aptly measure the manifestation of a genetic blueprint in
nervous system features. Other biological traits associated with behavioral
problems are not directly genetic in origin; they may be due to mutations in a
genetic constitution, biochemical exposures, or a deleterious social
environment. All of these conditions, from the genetic to the environmentally
precipitated, exert their influence on the nervous system and, thus, can be
measured and manipulated. The following correlates of behavioral disorders
illustrate selected ways in which genetic and environmental factors impact on
the nervous system to alter behavior.
A number of biochemical differences have been found between controls
and individuals with psychopathy, antisocial personality, violent behavior,
conduct disorder, and other behaviors associated with criminal behavior.
These groups have been discriminated on the basis of levels of certain
hormones, neurotransmitters, peptides, toxins, and metabolic processes (Brown
et al., 1979; Davis et al., 1983; Eichelman and Thoa, 1972; Mednick et al.,
1987; Rogeness et al., 1987; Roy et al., 1986; Valzelli, 1981; Virkkunen and
Current investigations of biochemical mechanisms of aggressiveness
focus on the study of central neurotransmitter systems. Observations from
animal and human studies, for example, indicate that serotonin, a
neurotransmitter, globally inhibits behavioral responses to emotional stimuli
and modulates aggression (Muhlbauer, 1985; Soubrie, 1986; van Praag et al.,
1987). Several indicators of lower levels of serotonin activity in individuals
characterized as violent or impulsive, in comparison with those who are not,
have been reported (Brown et al., 1979; Fishbein et al., 1989; Linnoila et
al., 1983; Virkkunen et al., 1987, 1989). These studies indicate that
serotonin functioning is altered in some types of human aggressiveness and
violent suicidal behavior. Thus, a decrease in serotonergic activity may
produce disinhibition in both brain mechanisms and behavior and result in
increased aggressiveness or impulsivity.
Findings of reduced serotonergic activity among individuals with
impulsivity and aggressivity are well supported by behavioral and personality
studies of animals and humans. Nevertheless, this research is relatively new
to the area of antisocial behavior and frequently suffers from theoretical and
methodological inadequacies (see Soubrie, 1986). First, categorizing
subjects according to their behavioral attributes has been inconsistent across
studies, and group assignment within studies is, in some cases, controversial.
Second, because aggression is not a unitary phenomenon it is important to
determine whether serotonergic activity levels are specific to types of
aggression or whether they globally regulate aggression. Third, psychopathy or
antisocial personality is frequently used to describe subjects without respect
to the presence of trait anxiety (see above), which is known to involve
serotonergic systems (Soubrie, 1986). This confusion may produce findings
that are inconsistent and lack functional significance (van Praag et al.,
1987). And fourth, serotonergic activity is all too often studied in isolation
of other interacting biological systems. Thus, these studies have not been
able to identify precisely the neural mechanisms for regulating aggression.
They do, nevertheless, bring us closer to identifying neurobiological
mechanisms for aggression, impulsivity, and antisocial behavior.
There is a noticeable absence of research on female
criminality in general, and reports that do exist are largely sociological or
anecdotal. Widom (1978) wrote that biological factors contributing to
individual differences in temperament, arousal, or vulnerability to stress
may be important in the etiology of female criminal behavior. Different
socioenvironmental influences may differentially interact with biological
sex differences to produce variations in male and female criminality (see,
e.g., L. Ellis and Ames, 1987).
There is evidence that high levels of the male sex
hormone testosterone may influence aggressive behavior in males (Kreuz and
Rose, 1971; Olweus et al., 1988; Reda et al., 1983; Schiavi et al., 1984),
although discrepant studies exist (Coe and Levine, 1983). It has been further
suggested that sex hormones may also contribute to antisocial behavior in
some women. The premenstrual period in particular has been associated with
elevated levels of aggressivity and irritability. This phase of the hormonal
cycle is marked by an imbalance in the estrogen‑progesterone ratio,
which may trigger both physical and psychological impairments in a subgroup of
women. Sharp changes in mood, depression, irritability,
aggression, difficulty in concentration, and substance abuse are only a
few behavioral disturbances that typify premenstruation in affected women (Haskett, 1987; Trunnell and Turner, 1988).
A significant number of females imprisoned for
aggressive criminal acts were found to have committed their crimes during
the premenstrual phase, and female offenders were found to be more irritable
and aggressive during this period (Cooke, 1945; Dalton, 1964, 1966; D. Ellis
and Austin, 1971; Morton et al., 1953; see D'Orban and Dalton, 1980, and Epps,
1962, for negative findings). Overall, most of these studies have been
criticized for serious methodological shortcomings (see Harry and Balcer,
1987). Nevertheless, there remains a general impression among investigators
and clinicians that a small number of women appear to be vulnerable to cyclical changes in hormonal
levels, which causes them to be more prone to increased levels of anxiety
and hostility during the premenstrual phase (Carroll and Steiner, 1987; Clare,
1985). Ginsburg and Carter (1987) provide a thorough discussion of the
controversy about premenstrual syndrome, including evidence for its existence,
its association with behavioral disorders, and the legal, social, and
biomedical implications. Because premenstrual syndrome is difficult to diagnose
and its etiology is still under investigation, an association between the
menstrual cycle and female criminal behavior is too remote and indirect to be
conclusive at this time.
Exposure to toxic trace elements is yet another factor
that has been shown to interfere with brain function and behavior. Chronic or
acute exposure to lead, for example, has a deleterious effect on brain
function by damaging organ systems, impairing intellectual development, and
subsequently interfering with the regulation of behavior. Sources of lead
include our diet and environment (e.g., paint chips and house dust), and
contamination among children may be serious and grossly underestimated
(Bryce‑Smith and Waldron, 1974; Moore and Fleischman, 1975). Resulting
impairments may be manifested as learning disabilities and cognitive deficits,
particularly in measures of school achievement, verbal and performance IQ,
and mental dullness (see Benignus et al., 1981; Lester and Fishbein, 1987;
Pihl and Parkes, 1977). Because of the high correlation among school failure,
learning disabilities, and delinquency, lead intoxication is a relevant
A growing body of research has further demonstrated
that lead intoxication is significantly associated with hyperactivity and
impulsivity (David et al., 1972; Needleman et al., 1979), putative precursors
to delinquency, and criminal behavior (Denno, 1988). Following chelation
(removal) of lead from the body, David et al. (1976) found behavioral
improvements among hyperactive children. Pihl et al. (1982) reported that
violent subjects had significantly elevated concentrations of lead compared
with nonviolent criminals. They further suggest that subtoxic levels of lead
have a potential effect on behavior and that lead detection can be an
important diagnostic procedure. Children who are at risk for exposure to lead
also tend to have poor diets, that is, diets low in calcium and iron, which
help to protect the body from lead's effects.
Many of these studies lack
proper control groups and double blind procedures, yet accumulating evidence
strongly suggests that, given other deleterious socioenvironmental
conditions, an individual exposed to lead is more likely to manifest
maladaptive behavior (see Rimland and Larson, 1983, for a review of studies).
ICA L CORRELATES
Psychophysiological variables, for example, heart
rate, blood pressure, attention and arousal levels, skin conductance, brain
waves, and hormone levels, are quantifiable indices of nervous system
function. These measurable conditions directly reflect emotional responses and
can be experimentally manipulated in human populations.
Studies of criminal behavior, aggression, and
psychopathy have repeatedly found psychophysiological evidence for mental
abnormality and central nervous system disturbances as putative markers for
criminal behavior. For example, psychopaths have been found to differ from
nonpsychopathic controls in several physiological parameters. These indices
include (a) electroencephalogram (EEG) differences, (b) cognitive and
neuropsychological impairment, and (c) electrodermal, cardiovascular, and
other nervous system measures.[viii]
In particular, psychopathic individuals have been
found to show relatively more slow wave activity in their spontaneous (that
is, when resting with no provocation) EEG compared with controls, which may be
related to differences in cognitive abilities (Hare, 1970; Howard, 1984;
Pincus and Tucker, 1974; Syndulko, 1978). Some investigators have suggested
that relatively high levels of EEG slowing in psychopathic subjects reflect a
maturational lag in brain function (Kiloh et al., 1972; Pontius and Ruttiger,
1976). Thus, EEG slowing among individuals who also demonstrate immature
behavior and an inability to learn from experience supports a maturational lag
hypothesis. It may be suggested that EEG slowing among some psychopaths is
consistent with findings of hypoaroused autonomic function (see above) and
other differences in psychophysiologic parameters. Their need for external
stimulation may be higher and more difficult to satisfy than in other populations
due to a lower level of internal stimulation.
Psychopharmacology is the study of the psychological
and behavioral aspects of drug effects on brain metabolism and activity.
Aggression, for example, can be elicited or extinguished by the administration
of a pharmacologic agent. In fact, the pharmacologic treatment of aggressive
and violent behavior has become increasingly popular and its efficacy in many
cases has been demonstrated (Kuperman and Stewart, 1987; Lion, 1974, 1979;
Yudofsky et al., 1987). Certain drugs, particularly many of the illicit
drugs, are reported to increase aggressive responses, for example,
amphetamines, cocaine, alcohol, and phencyclidine (PCP). The actual expression
of aggressive behavior depends on the dose, route of administration, genetic
factors, and type of aggression.
Several biological mechanisms have been proposed as
explanations for alcohol‑induced aggression: (1) pathological
intoxication, sometimes involving psychomotor epilepsy or temporal lobe
disturbance (Bach‑y‑Rita et al., 1970; Maletsky, 1976; Marinacci,
1963); (2) hypoglycemic reactions (low blood sugar; Cohen, 1980; Coid, 1979;
Wallgren and Barry, 1970); and (3) alterations in neurotransmitter activity (Weingartner
et al., 1983). These explanations do not completely account for the
relationship, however, because most drinkers do not become aggressive.
Indications are that alcohol either changes the psychological state or the
psychological state has an effect on the behavioral outcome of alcohol
consumption. In the second scenario, alcohol would stimulate an existing
psychiatric condition or psychological predisposition to aggress or misbehave
(Pihl and Ross, 1987). Hence, alcohol does not appear to "cause"
aggression, but rather permits its expression under specific circumstances and biological conditions.
Chronic use of PCP, an illicit drug that is commonly used in
combination with marijuana, has been repeatedly associated with extreme
violence to self and others in individuals both with and without histories of
violent behavior (Aronow et al., 1980; Fauman and Fauman, 1980; Linder et al.,
1981; Schuckit and Morrissey, 1978; Seigal, 1978; Smith and Wesson, 1980). Violent
reactions appear, according to some anecdotal reports, to be an extension of
PCP toxic psychosis, which affects some users (Fauman and Fauman, 1980).
Because only a subpopulation of users manifest violent behavior and some
studies (e.g., Khajawall et al., 1982) did not find a relationship between PCP
use and violence, additional research is needed to (1) determine whether PCP
reliably elicits aggressive behavior among vulnerable users, (2) identify
underlying mechanisms in PCP‑induced aggression, and (3) determine the
nature of the vulnerability that causes certain individuals to be particularly
susceptible to that behavioral effect.
Investigators recognize that PCP effects result from a complex
interaction among physical, psychological, and sociocultural variables (Smith
and Wesson, 1980). PCP‑related aggression may be due to influences on
hormonal and neurotransmitter activity (Domino, 1978, 1980; Marrs‑Simon
et al., 1988). Also,
neuropsychological impairments have been observed that minimally reflect a
temporary organic brain syndrome (Cohen, 1977; Smith and Wesson, 1980).
Additional studies of PCP users indicate that specific factors in the user's
background, personality, and drug history are important determinants of the
drug‑related experience (Fauman and Fauman, 1980; McCardle and
Fishbein, 1989). As a whole, these observations suggest that the consequences
of PCP use, independent of the drug's purity and varying strengths, are
determined by a number of factors, including pharmacological, psychological,
"Vulnerability" studies suggest that certain personality
types may be more at risk for drug abuse than other types (Brook et al., 1985;
Deykin et al., 1986; Kellam et al., 1980; McCardle and Fishbein, 1989). This
does not mean, however, that these individuals will inevitably become drug
abusers due to a natural predisposition. More recent studies provide evidence
for the substantial contribution of family support systems in the final
determination of whether an individual with a vulnerable personality type
will, in fact, abuse drugs (Tarter et al., 1985:346‑347). The dynamic
interaction between natural and acquired traits in a given environment must
always be considered inseparable in the evaluation of such complex phenomenon
as human behavior.
IMPLICATIONS FOR CRIMINAL
In order to determine the relevance and significance of
biological perspectives for criminology, researchers must estimate the
incidence of biological disorders among maladaptive populations, identify
etiologic mechanisms, assess the dynamic interaction among biological and
socioenvironmental factors, and determine whether improvements in behavior
follow large‑scale therapeutic manipulations.
At this stage of scientific inquiry in the biological
sciences, researchers have yet to determine the significance of biological
disorders in criminal populations. Nor are they able to speak of a causal
link between biological abnormalities and specific behavioral disorders.
They are beginning to identify putative correlates or markers of antisocial
behavior using biological tests (e.g., EEG slowing, body lead burden,
neurotransmitter imbalance). Some of those correlations may prove to be
spurious, but at present, which ones cannot be identified. Seen in this
light, it would be premature to apply biological findings routinely to
criminal justice procedures. Demands for evaluation of causal relationships
are made in decisions regarding the granting of bail, release on personal
recognizance, competency, guilty pleas, sentencing options, probation and
parole, and proclivity to recidivate. Conclusions and prognoses regarding the
role of biological factors in an offender's behavior, however, are not
definitive at this time, regardless of the informational source.
To further establish the relevance of biology to
criminology, researchers must demonstrate the ability to predict antisocial
behavior reliably using a combination of biological and social variables. The
central question thus becomes, can more of the variance in the incidence of
antisocial behavior be explained with an integrated approach than with a
unidisciplinary perspective? Many mental health professionals and
researchers have reached a tentative consensus that predicting antisocial
behavior with social or legal variables is inherently unreliable (Cocozza and
Steadman, 1974; Gottfredson, 1986; Monahan, 1981; Wenk et al., 1972). Is it
possible that prediction studies incorporating biological measures into
sociological data bases will facilitate the isolation of significant
predictors of antisocial behavior and enhance explanatory power?
In the introduction of Brizer and Crowner's
recent text (1989) on the prediction of violence, Brizer aptly notes that
the actual study of predictive ability suffers from methodological
limitations, and thus, one cannot conclude that valid prediction is
impossible. Studies reviewed in their text indicate that the inclusion of
biological variables (e.g., integrity of central nervous system function) may,
indeed, enhance predictive ability if dispositional (temperament and other
features considered "innate") and situational factors are considered
as interacting forces. In a separate study illustrative of this approach,
Virkkunen et al. (1989) examined a selected set of behavioral and psychobiological
variables to identify predictors of recidivism in a sample of violent offenders and arsonists. Their results suggested that recidivism is
best predicted using a combination of behavioral and psychobiological
variables, rather than with behavioral variables alone.
Denno (1988) conducted a fairly comprehensive study of the effects of
numerous environmental and biological variables on criminal behavior, juvenile
delinquency, and disciplinary problems. The model was able to predict 25% of
future adult criminality among males and 19% of future adult criminality
among females. Denno drew the following conclusions:
and environmental variables exert strong and independent influences on juvenile crime ... [and] crime appears to be directly
related to familial instability and, most important, a lack of behavioral
control associated with neurological and central nervous system disorders (p.
She cautions, however, that behavior should be
predicted in terms of a series of probabilities of expected behavior, not in
terms of cause and effect. Perhaps an approach that neither neglects nor
places undue emphasis on socioenvironmental or biological features of behavior
provides considerable promise as the direction of future research into
practical problems in criminology.
The final stage of scientific inquiry requires that researchers be able
to manipulate and control antisocial behavior, in this context with biological
variables. Reliable behavioral changes attributable to biological treatments
have yet to be demonstrated in this field, however. Biological intervention
studies and programs render mixed and controvertible results, which indicate
that the biology of antisocial behavior is under preliminary stages of investigation and
requires further study before it can be applied to criminal justice practices.
One particularly visible example of the controversial application of
biological data is the pharmacologic treatment of sex offenders. Antiandrogen
agents (e.g., Depo‑Provera), which compete with male hormones believed
to be responsible for sexual deviance, are administered in some clinics to
suppress sex drive and, consequently, sex offending. Some research indicates
that this approach has been moderately successful (Berlin, 1983; Berlin and
Meinecke, 1981; Bradford, 1983; Cordoba and Chapel, 1983; Murray, 1987;
Spodak et al., 1978). Others, however, criticize the approach because of
(1) the equivocal findings that provide empirical support, (2) the fact
that the behaviors resurface when the drug is discontinued, (3) its strictly
experimental nature, (4) the issue of forced compliance, and (5) evidence that
only nonviolent sex offenders respond to antiandrogen treatment (see Demsky,
1984). Such biological management techniques require further scientific
support and, even more important, time for the legal system to become
acquainted with their premises in order to establish appropriate guidelines.
It is perhaps unreasonable to expect dramatic
behavioral improvements following a biological treatment, even when a
disorder has been properly diagnosed. One of the central tenets of this
paper is that behavior is a result of a dynamic interaction among many diverse
social and biological conditions. The appropriate administration of a
medication or other treatment may certainly be warranted for some
individuals with identifiable pathology. However, this approach undermines
the proposal that multiple factors are responsible for behavior. One cannot
manipulate biological variables and expect behavior to change without
attending to other interacting contributions. Once an individual has entered
the criminal justice system, behavioral problems are substantially compounded
and the treatment of only one condition does not yield adequate therapeutic
Findings of biological involvement in antisocial
behavior have, in a few studies (e.g., Lewis et al., 1979, 1981, 1985, 1986,
1988), disclosed measurable abnormalities, but in a number of studies,
measurements do not reach pathologic levels. In other words, many studies
show group differences between violent and nonviolent subjects, but the
biological values do not necessarily exceed normal limits and would not alarm
a practicing physician. Findings of this type do not have intrinsic clinical
significance, and they indicate that individual intervention programs should
not be globally implemented based on current information.
Nevertheless, at the very least, the inclusion of
biological measures holds promise of explaining individual variation within a
social context. Why is it, for example, that not all children exposed to child
abuse become violent as adults? Research into individual differences may be
interpreted to suggest that whether child abuse contributes to violent
behavior partially depends on the presence of brain damage or other central
nervous system disorder (Lewis et al., 1979). Perhaps abused children without
concomitant or resultant brain damage would be less aggressive and more in
control of their impulses. Research yet to be conducted may also show that
individuals with biological "disadvantages" respond with more
violent or criminal behavior in a criminogenic environment than those
equipped with biological "insulators," for example, high
intelligence or adequate serotonergic activity.
Statistically significant findings generated to date
show biological involvement in antisocial behavior only with respect to
populations. Thus, society is closer to enacting prevention programs aimed at
populations who are at risk for exposure to biological and socioenvironmental
hazards that are known to increase the incidence of behavioral problems.
Factors that may prove to be important contributors to relevant behavioral
disorders (e.g., toxic element concentrations, child abuse/neglect, poor
prenatal care, neurological impairments, substance abuse, and learning
disabilities) could subsequently be manipulated on a wide scale to prevent the
onset of behavioral or forensic disorders in the general population. Early
detection programs could be implemented
by school systems, and parents could be educated to recognize signs of an
impairment. Screening clinics, regulating environmental toxins, school
programs, prenatal care facilities, and public educational programs are only a
few of the preventative measures possible. The number of "risk" factors
could, in essence, be reduced or minimized.
excellent example of this strategy was suggested by Moffitt et al. (1989) in
their review of minor physical anomalies (MPAs), that is, observable minor
malformations that result from a disturbance in fetal development. MPAs
are thought to be indicators of other hidden anomalies, such as central nervous
system impairment, that may result from some perinatal trauma (e.g., illness,
poor diet, drug use, stress). Further, a relatively large number of MPAs have
been observed among hyperactive and criminally violent populations.
Obviously, there is no acceptable mode of individual remediation in such
cases, particulary because of the remote association of MPAs with
behavior. These consistent observations, however, emphasize the need for a
global effort to provide proper prenatal care. Consequently, society can
hope to reduce the incidence of developmental deficits related to the onset of
behavioral disorders by recognizing their possible influence.
How biological variables interact with social and psychological factors
to produce human behavior generally and antisocial behavior specifically is
unknown. The bulk of biological studies, both those described herein and
others not included, have examined only a few isolated variables and have
generally failed to evaluate dynamic interrelationships among biological and
socioenvironmental conditions (see Denno, 1988, and Wilson and Herrnstein,
1985, for detailed critiques). In order to evaluate the relative significance
of biological contributions to antisocial behavior, sophisticated, statistical
techniques (i.e., structural equation models) must be applied to
multivariate designs that use rigorous measurement instruments. Studies of
biological influence would benefit greatly from adopting the methodological
and statistical techniques of sociologists to increase the rigor and
relevance of the findings.
Caution against the premature application of biological findings is
clearly called for. The weaknesses in design, sampling techniques, and
statistical procedures delineated above preclude drawing definitive
conclusions, and results are frequently contested and unreliable. Policies and
programs based on equivocal and controversial findings waste time and money
and potentially compromise individual rights and community safety. A number of
legal, ethical, and political obstacles to the acceptance and application of
biological and medical information by the criminal justice system are covered
extensively elsewhere (Fishbein and Thatcher, in press; Jeffery, 1985; Marsh
and Katz, 1985). At the very least, care must be taken not to stigmatize or
otherwise traumatize individuals or groups that are, as yet, innocent of a
criminal or civil violation. As researchers, we must avoid applying labels to
behaviors we do not understand. In the event that biological measures are
shown to be reliable and valid predictors of behavior and mental status,
several serious civil rights and constitutional issues related to early
identification and intervention in the absence of a proven violation of law
would demand careful consideration. In cases in which a conviction is upheld,
for example, forced compliance with a "therapeutic regimen" might
result from findings that a biological abnormality played a role in an
individual's antisocial behavior. One must recognize the numerous legal and
ethical concerns generated by such a strategy. To avoid these transgressions,
a collaborative, multidisciplinary approach might be forged strictly to
identify the underlying sources of antisocial behaviors and minimize their
occurrence in the population.
Overall, evidence to suggest that biological
conditions have a profound impact on the adaptive, cognitive, and emotional
abilities of the individual is compelling. Investigation of the discriminants
for behavioral dysfunctions indicates that the impact of these factors is
substantial. When a biological disadvantage is present due to genetic
influences or when a physical trauma occurs during developmental stages of
childhood, the resultant deficit may be compounded over time and drastically
interfere with behavioral functions throughout life. Such conditions appear to
place an individual at high risk for persistent problematic behavior.
Disturbances associated with poor environmental and social conditions
coupled with impaired brain function may eventually be amenable to
intervention. The unfortunate reality for those who come into contact with the
courts by virtue of their dysfunction, however, is that the underlying
causes of their disorder are inaccurately evaluated or simply unattended. The
capability to identify and predict the factors responsible for maladaptivity
may eventually enable society to employ innovative methods of early
detection, prevention, remediation, and evaluation.
Criminal justice policies must be based on
well‑founded theories and findings that survive scientific scrutiny.
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value than trial‑and‑error approaches in preventing or minimizing
the onset of criminal behavior. Although biological techniques in the
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Diana Fishbein has a doctorate in psychobiological criminology from Florida State University and is a faculty member of the Criminal Justice Department, University of Baltimore. She received a fellowship from the National Institute of Health to conduct research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and has since been on the staff of the Addiction Research Center, National Institute on Drug Abuse.
[i] Antisocial children have a high incidence of adjustment problems, for example, low academic achievement, temper tantrums, conduct disorders, and negative attitudes (see Patterson et al., 1989, for a summary review).
[ii] See Critchley (168), Hirschi and Hindelang (1977), McGee et al. (1986), McManus et al. (1985), Perlmutter (1987), Poremba (1975), Robins (1966), Shonfeld et al. (1988), Wolff et al. (1982).
[iii] Moffitt (1983) provides an excellent overview of the learning process in the suppression of punished behaviors as dictated by external and internal contingencies, e.g., cognitive abilities of the individual. Although Moffitt appropriately cautions against the uncritical application of the experimental model of punishment (procedures to manipulate behavior in a laboratory setting) to the process of punishing juvenile offenders, she discusses how the data may be used in constructing more effective deterrence programs.
[iv] Neurotransmitters and neuropeptides are chemical messengers in the brain that enable braincells to communicate with each other and other structures.
[v] See Gove and Wilmoth, in press, for a discussion of neurological processes that reinforce behavior. The authors suggest that risky and dangerous criminal behaviors stimulate neurological systems that act as positive reinforcers for continuing those forms of dangerous or criminal behaviors. A learning theory of behavior based on biological reward systems is presented.
[vi] For the former see
Cloninger et al. (1982), Crowe (1972), Hutchings and Mednick (1975), Mednick
et al. (1984), Sigvardsson et al. (1982); for the later see Cadoret (1978),
Cadoret et al. (1985), Crowe (1974), Schulsinger (1985).
[vii] Plomin and Daniels (1987) provide convincing evidence that genetic influences may explain within‑family resemblances and that environmental influences more aptly explain within‑family differences.
[viii] For (a), see Hill and
Watterson (1942), Howard (1984), Mednick et al. (1981), Syndulko et al.
(1975), Volavka (1987), Yeudall et al. (1985); for (b), see Bryant et al.
(1984), Hurwitz et al. (1972), Jutai and Hare (1983), Lewis et al. (1985, 1986, 1988), Pontius and Yudowitz (1980), Raine and Venables (1987), Sutker and Allain (1987); and for (c), see Allen et al. (1971), Hare (1978), House and Milligan (1976), Lykken (1957), Mednick et al. (1982), Waid et al. (1979).