Nature v. Nurture and Its Impact on Crime

Genetics influence criminal behavior as well as environmental factors

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Criminal or not? The answer may be in the DNA. A recently released research paper by criminologist J.C. Barnes, Ph.D., implies that your genes contribute to whether or not you end up committing crime.

His research into the influences of lifelong criminals, juvenile offenders, and others who did commit any crimes discovered that those with the strongest genetic influences on their behavior spent the most time in trouble.

"Contribute to the development of youth with structure and love."

A Florida State University professor, Dr. Barnes co-authored research with fellow university professors.

Barnes and his colleagues analyzed data from 4,000 people taking the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. The research was used to identify whether an individual fell into one of three categories—life-course persistent offenders, adolescence-limited offenders (drugs and alcohol, property crime), and abstainers (no deviant behavior).

These categories were derived by internationally recognized recommendations of global crime researcher Terrie E. Moffitt, Ph.D. who identified these as the three “pathways” found in a population. Dr. Moffitt received the 2007 Stockholm Prize in Criminology for her work in assessing the genealogy and psychology of crime.

Barnes initiated their research to test Moffitt’s assertions. He explains, “In her theory, she seems to highlight and suggest that genetic factors will play a larger role for the life-course persistent offender pathway as compared to the adolescence-limited pathway."

Their research supports her theories.

The team used what is called twin methodology to predict the extent to which genetics influenced a trait versus environmental factors and they uncovered interesting results.

"The overarching conclusions were that genetic influences in life-course persistent offending were larger than environmental influences," the trio explain. "For abstainers, it was roughly an equal split: genetic factors played a large role and so too did the environment. For adolescent-limited offenders, the environment appeared to be most important."

These findings demonstrate a unique balance influencing each underlying personality.

Barnes explains that there is no gene that actually causes someone to commit a crime, and that crime is a learned behavior. However, he cautions "...there are likely to be hundreds, if not thousands, of genes that will incrementally increase your likelihood of being involved in a crime even if it only ratchets that probability by 1 percent...It still is a genetic effect. And it's still important."

While their analysis did not unveil particular genes governing the differentiating behavior sets, Barnes hopes to identify more specific discoveries in the future.  

dailyRx contributing expert LuAnn Pierce, LCSW, is a therapist in a private practice. She explains that, no matter the split, both genetic and environmental factors influence our behavior. “Nature versus nurture,” she says.

LuAnn says that the only contest to these studies are unique situations where individuals overcome extreme adversity. “Someone with the genetic predisposition to become a criminal can often be 'saved' from that outcome if the environmental factors are positive,” she believes.

“We see this in adoption and foster care a lot, particularly in children who are placed in stable, loving homes with appropriate discipline at an early age. Those who overcome genetic and environmental factors are more rare.”

According to Pierce, what’s going on around a child can cause the adolescent to engage in antisocial behaviors. This happens in cases of abuse and neglect as well as in families whose children are “over-indulged and given 'things' rather than time, love, structure, guidance and discipline.”

Although on opposite ends of the spectrum, both extremes can produce similar outcomes and this problem is not unique to economic class. 

"Examining the Genetic Underpinnings to Moffitt's Developmental Taxonomy: A Behavior Genetic Analysis" was published in the journal Criminology.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 27, 2012
Last Updated:
January 30, 2012