Predispostion to Criminality

Published 15 Feb 2017

Many people today attempt to find and provide a definite link between the criminal and the reasons crime is committed. On all places along the political spectrum, it is difficult to find someone that does not have an opinion on why criminals commit crime. Those individuals that identify themselves with the far right tend toward describing crime as an act within the full control of the criminal committing the crime. They view crime as a personal choice made with a freedom of will that we all possess. The difference between one who commits a crime and one who does not is choice and nothing more. Therefore, many on the right argue, criminals should be removed from society both to protect society’s innocent, law-abiding citizens, and to punish the criminal for the unlawful act he or she has committed. (Reasons, 1974)

Contrasted to this, those on the far left tend to describe crime as more a social problem than an actual choice. In this scenario, the criminal is more a product of his or her environment. Due to such factors as the criminals’ economic background, social background; whether or not the person is an addict of some kind, or if they grew up in terrible familial situation, or with such new technologies as genetics, those on the left attempt to describe the criminal as less free to choose whether or not to commit crimes. They tend to portray the criminal as almost incapable of choosing whether or not to break the law and argue that instead of locking them up and throwing away the key, the best solution to controlling crime is to attempt to rehabilitate the criminal and make him or her a reliable citizen who can once again, and in a lawful way, contribute to the betterment of society. (Reasons, 1974)

Somewhere between these two extremes, as between all extremes, lies the truth. This paper will explore, with a special emphasis on the question of a negative familial background in predisposing an individual to crime, the relationship between the criminal as an individual and the criminal’s behavior and attempt to explain what factor or group of factors may make a previously law-abiding citizen to choose to commit a crime for gain rather than going about life in a lawful way.

Among many of the reasons given by apologists for criminal behavior is that the criminal is a product of his environment. This statement has many explanations behind it, but one that ranks at the top of these is the criminals’ family circumstance. For an adequate explanation of criminal behavior, it must be decided what responsibility the criminal’s family must take for the behavior of their kin. (Bonger, 1969)

As a child is growing up within the confines of a family, there is certain to be taught to the child certain moral principles. These principles may take the form of direct teachings, such as the person beliefs of the family or the family’s religious affiliation. But they may also be principles the child picks up through the observation of the behavior of the authority figures in the family. It cannot be overstated that if a family expects to raise a child with a strong sense of morality and proper behavior, those with the responsibility of passing on these behaviors must practice what they preach. It is sure to induce an immeasurable amount of confusion upon a child who time and again watches his mother or father act in ways contrary to the behavioral ideals they continuously attempt to bestow upon their child. This begs the question of whether or not a criminal has grown up in a family in which the duty of moral responsibility to society has in some way be ill-defined.

There was time not so long ago that criminologists were virtually united in the belief that family experiences account could account for a predisposition to crime in most criminals. This idea was backed by a study published in 1950 by Sheldon and Glueck which maintained that a negative family environment, along with other characteristics such as temperament and body-type, could explain why delinquency appeared in some individuals rather than others. The ten year study of delinquent boys from the Boston area explained that if all other factors, i.e., age, race, neighborhood and intelligence, were kept constant, besides the constitutional characteristics which separated the boys, the only other factor which remained similar among them was “a family environment in which one or both parents were indifferent or hostile to the child and followed lax or erratic disciplinary practices.” (Wilson, 1985)

The term “criminal personality” is sometimes used among certain individuals to describe people who have committed multiple crimes. Although criminologists have long ago abandoned such a concept, agenda-driven organizations and individuals use the term to degrade people who have been convicted of crimes and to push their objectives on a public who sometimes believes that many people are just born bad. Nevertheless, there has been research that has concluded that the majority of criminal offenders do share certain personality traits with one another that set them apart from the general public.

One of the traits the separates habitual offenders from non-offenders and occasional offenders is that they are more impulsive. Most criminals are less inclined to wait and work for self gratification and instead are determined to experience gratification immediately. The other trait is that they are generally less socialized. Many people growing up are taught to respect other people’s property and to use manners and be polite. They are taught that if they do not act this way, they may hurt other people and this would be a bad thing. Habitual criminals however seem to be lacking this personality trait and instead act without the feelings of other people in mind. They are more inclined to not care about the feelings of others, making it possible to ignore the feelings of their victims. (Wilson, 1985)

Given that much of our personality is developed not just from our friends and experiences in life, but from our parents and the way they raise us, it seems only logical that parents would in some way have shaped the criminal to be what he is. There may be some sort of genetic or otherwise predetermined disposition toward crime within an individual that the family, through its methods of rearing a child, could moderate or exacerbate. The interaction that may make a child more or less impulsive, or more or less incapable of caring about others feelings, by the parent, involves three processes. The first is the development of attachment. By attachment it is meant the desire by the parents to impress upon the child the importance of the acceptance and approval of others. The second is time horizon. This is meant as the shaping of the child’s ability to understand that the actions which he or she performs in the present will more than likely have consequences for which the child, if he or she performs the action, would then be held responsible. And the third process is the development of conscience. The development of conscience is the development within the child of an internal resistance to the performance of certain actions which, because of the consequence of the actions, would cause within the child certain feelings of anxiety. (Wilson, 1985)

If, because of a lack of responsible parenting, or any parenting at all, these processes are in some way disturbed, the results upon the child could be disastrous. But before these processes can be fully integrated into the child’s psyche, a strong bond must be formed between, at the very least, the mother and the child. Contrary to Locke’s idea that children are born as blank slates, scholars have determined, after closely watching children for, in some cases, up to a decade after birth, that babies can be classified into three types; “easy children,” who carry regular sleeping patterns, are cheerful, adaptable, and regular in bodily functions, “difficult children,” who have irregular habits, cry a lot, and are withdrawn and intense, and “slow to warm up children,” who, as the name implies, are slow to take on the habits of “easy children” but are not prone to excessive tantrums similar to the “difficult children.”

It was determined that the babies that showed these qualities did so independently of the handling of the babies by the parents. The children that were deemed “easy children” readily adapted to most situations whereas the “difficult children” had a much harder time and required extensive patience and parenting skills. Further research showed that as many as 70 percent of the children labeled “difficult” went on to develop behavioral problems which required psychiatric supervision. The way in which the parents bond with the children who are destined to have problems may greatly determine the way in which the child grows up and lives his or her life. But the sad fact is that the bond that develops between the parent and the child is in large part dependent upon the innate temperament of the child. (Wilson, 1985)

A parent can develop the exceptional skill and patience required to adequately deal with a child whose temperament is difficult. But the child, based on his or her temperament, influences that way others respond and interact with it. An “easy child” is naturally going to smile more, probably going to have more sensitive skin, and overall respond more happily to attention from others. Because of this, this child will be smiled at, tickled, and played with more than a child, i.e., the “difficult child,” who does not. Because it is easier to adapt to the demands of child that is not seen as a problem, a stronger bond may be formed between the “easy child” and its mother than the “difficult child.” As a result, the future socialization of the “easy child” will be smoother than that of the “difficult child,” leading to fewer problems in adolescence and eventually adulthood. (Wilson, 1985)

The importance of a strong bond between mother and child was illustrated by a study done at the University of Minnesota in which researchers observed a group of children and their mothers since birth. The researchers concluded that by the age of six months, children who had securely attached themselves to their mothers were, at the age of two years, more likely to seek their mother’s help when a difficult task presented itself. By the time the child was five years old, he or she was more able to adapt to changing circumstances and better equipped to cope with difficult tasks. Contrasted to this, children, who because of their tendency to avoid their mothers because of a lack of such an attachment, were more prone to becoming angry and frustrated when presented with a difficult task. Although the study does not go so far into the child’s future to determine which of the two groups would be more likely to commit crimes later in life, it seems intuitively obvious that the individual less capable of adapting to the difficult situations presented by life would be a stronger candidate in determining which of the two groups would be more likely to break the law. (Wilson, 1985)

Alas, we cannot blame everything on the mother. Although there is much evidence to suggest that a healthy childhood in which strong bonds are developed between the parents and the child will result in a well adapted individual capable of living peacefully within society, there are other factors that may contribute to determining whether or not one child over another would be more likely to commit crimes into adulthood. One of these factors comes from the relatively new science of genetics.

The idea that genetics may influence criminal behavior is “politically explosive.” Many people either vehemently deny that such an explanation to crime can exist, and others gleefully welcome the possibility. There has, of course, been no definite link between genetics and crime. Much as there is no such thing as a “criminal personality,” there has been no “crime gene” found. However, given the rapid expansion of the field and the findings of just how much of our diseases, appearance, etc., is the result of genetic factors, I think it is safe to assume that there will probably be found, if not a direct link between genetics and criminality, than at least some factor of genes that together would make one individual inherently more prone to crime than another. (Wasserman, 2001)

Because the link between genetics and criminal behavior has yet to be found, and because the possibility of its being found is not far off, much of the debate on the subject has centered on whether or not the criminal, once there is established a genetic predisposition to crime, can be justifiably punished. If, after all, what he did was “in his genes,” it seems as though it would be immoral to punish him. We do not generally feel that a person that is genetically prone to diabetes is responsible for their coming down with the condition. This debate raises a relevant question. It has already been determined that a negative familial background could make one more likely to commit crime, yet we still punish people that commit those crimes. I think the same can be said for genetics; just because someone is predisposed to committing crime, it does not follow that the criminal should not be held accountable. A person who was genetically (or for that matter familialy) predisposed to crime would be inclined but not necessitated to act out the crime and therefore should be held responsible. Whether holding that person responsible involves incarceration or rehabilitation is where the true debate should lie. (Wasserman, 2001)

Another controversy being played out in modern times is the influence that violence in the media has on our children. Researchers have shown that a rise in violent crime occurred at the same time, all over the world, as “the first generation of children raised on TV began to reach the prime ages for committing violent crimes.” And although they say that this comparison may not be completely accurate, and that there could be many other factors which could be attributed to the rise in violence, they nevertheless go on cite numerous studies that have been done on the subject which point to a direct correlation between violence on television and violence in the real world. The correlation is so strong, in fact, that it led to numerous major organizations such as the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, among others, to sign a joint statement noting the dangers of exposing children to long term media violence. (Bushman, 2001)

The idea that certain individuals are predisposed to violence is a controversial one. However, much research has been done that shows the link is there. We should, as a society, move to an acceptance of this fact and begin to debate whether or not the current justice system deals with criminals in a morally justifiable way. And if it is determined that it does not, then perhaps it is time to move away from a system that emphasizes punishment and toward a system that emphasizes rehabilitation.

Works Cited

  • Bonger, Willem (1969). Criminality and economic conditions. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
  • Bushman, AuthorB.J., & Anderson, C.A. (2001). Media violence and the american public. American Psychologist. 56, 477-489.
  • Reasons, Charles E. (1974). The criminologist: Crime and the criminal. Pacific Palisades, CA: Goodyear Publishing Company, Inc..
  • Wasserman, D., & Wachbroit, R. (2001). Genetics and criminal behavior.New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wilson, J. Q., & Herrnstein, R.J. (1985). Crime and human nature.New York: Simon and Schuster.
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