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22 important lessons from this lecture:

00:00:58 Many people argue that you cannot have a science of criminology because nobody can agree with what exactly defines ‘crime.’

Therefore we must begin by distinguishing crime from vice.  “Crime is distingued from vice. Activities aimed at satisfying personal desires, without malice, are not consistently outlawed. Prostitution, pornography, drug-taking, gambling, abortion & euthanasia may be immoral and degrading but are only indictable in some times/places.

Murder, burglary, assault, robbery & rape involve intent to harm and are crimes in virtually all societies.

Anti-vice laws (such as prohibition in the United States from 1920-33 was a ‘failed experiment’ resulting in massive corruption and the rise of gangsters like Al Capone) are often counter-productive, ‘the cure being worse than the disease.’

Decriminalisation of homosexuality, pornography, adultery, prostituion & abortion in many countries did not result in the social chaos some feared.”

00:04:48 Many risk factors have been identified for delinquency and crime:


But correlation does not simply imply causation. Parental separation, conflict and maltreatment may be causes of delinquency and crime, but this could equally reflect a genetic transmission of antisocial traits – manifested in feckless or violent behavior.

Further, there is a popular believe that crime is the result of poverty or deprivation, but there is remarkably little support for this; no clear connection between the two. For example, during the London riots of 2011, looters targeted luxury goods such as electronics and designer trainers rather than necessities. This suggests that envy, entitlement and excitment played a larger, more explanatory role in the looting than poverty and deprivation.

Finally, relative poverty problems such as poverty, deprevation, unemployment, drugs and other social problems often congregrate within the same neighborhoods, which give you the illusion that one is causing the other, but it would be simple-minded to think that was the case.

1. Unemployment as a cause of crime

00:09:42 While petty criminals are more likely to be out of work than non-criminals, evidence showing that changes in employment levels leads to an increase in crime rates is lacking.

For example, during Hugo Chavez’s rule in Venezuela from 1999-2013, unemployment halved while murder rate tripled.

2. Perceived unfairness & inequality as a cause of crime

00:11:22 Across nations, this research has been inconclusive.

However, wage discrepancies in the US have increased in recent decades, thus arguably causing an obvious awareness of inequality between the poorer and richer people as they ‘rub shoulders.’ Ethnic mixes and income differentials within local neighborhoods, also in the US, do seem to increase property-crime rates.

00:13:01 In a study involving 700 youth-at-risk in 2012, the Cambridge Institute of Criminology found that just 4% of the 700 youth:

  • Were responsible for over 50% of all offending crimes (a total of 278 crimes by the time they had reached the age of 16)
  • Commited multiple offenses, including burglary, theft, violence and vandalism
  • Admitted to having no conscience or self-control; that they were inherently impulsive

but the majority of those 700 youth admitted to having plenty of opportunities to commit crime, however saw it as ‘morally wrong.’

00:15:24 Hans Eysenck theorised that criminology was associated with poor fear conditioning as a child, which lead to a weak conscience. Another study involving 1,795 Mauritian children in 2009 (Gao et al) revealed that the criminal group in the study showed a failure of fear conditioning.

The authors of this study implicated amygdala (the fear center in the brain) and prefrontal (where conscience and self-control tends to be located)  dysfunction in those children who grew up to become criminals.

3. A lack of a male role-model as a cause of crime

00:17:29 While you cannot control a child’s environment: choosing one child to be born with a positive male role-model, whilst choosing another child not to be born with one, scientists can do this with mice.

A study in 2013 (Bambico et al) deprived female mice from a certain race of California mice of their fatherly unit. Those deprived mice showed social deficits and increased aggression as well as structure changes in the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain. This study was consistent with human studies revealing that father-deprived daughters are more susceptible to drug abuse.

4. Watching too much television as a cause of crime

00:19:04 A 2014 study (Robettson et al) in Australia showed a positive correlation between the amount of time viewing television between the ages of 5-15 and anti-social behavior, aggression and crime. This was true for both males and females after controlling for IQ & social class. It is this control which would have been one of the most likely criticisms in the unbiased integrity of this study; meaning that the positive correlation could have been attributed to increased anti-social predisposition due to their particular IQ or social class, thus causing those children to disobey parental instructions.

5. Lead poisoning as a cause of crime

00:20:52 Lead poisoning in paints and other objects has demonstrated an impairment of IQ and increasing the likelihood of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). While studies have shown that crime has falling since lead was removed from petrol and paint, this fall in crime could also correlate to many other factors such as the aging population, tougher policing, and increased incarceration.

6. The brokens window theory showing the decline in crime noting that crime will flourish if it is made easier to do

00:24:09 While opportunity is a major factor in crime and theft, modern technology has made it more difficult. For example, car theft has plunged as more and more sophisicated alarms, immobilisers, trackers and automatic number plate recognition has increased the chances of getting caught. (Farrell, 2013)

Further, burglar alarms, DNA analysis and CCT surveillance acts as a major deterrent as it increases the likelihood of getting caught, however:

  • Devices such as CCTV has also, not ironically, caused criminals to wear more hoodies, hats, gloves, sunglasses, and other deflective clothing to prevent identification, and
  • Signs and burglar arms in one location effectively relocate that crime to nearby neighborhoods and locations (Nettle et al, 2012).

The fact that people feel that they are being watched unconsciously makes them be on better behavior.

In addition, many of those technological devices such as computers and telephones that once were prime targets for theft have become so cheap that they are no longer worth stealing.

This, however, has merely shifted opportunistic crime to other, less risky forms  such as credit card fraud and web scams that prey on the abundance of a technologically naive, greedy and gullible population.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: For more on the importance of relying on the scientific method when testing hypothesis, such as the above ‘causes of crime,’ watch the lecture by Kark Popper on the limits of intelligence testing and if (A) then ©.]

00:28:50 Pre-crime forecasting, or predictive policing, involve computer modelling of crime patterns to anticipate current and future crime locations.

The successful burglary of one house effectively increases the likelihood of the neighboring houses also being burglarized, revealing that criminals tend to act as wild animals looking for food, returning to previously attacked sites until they have been exhausted.

7. Zero Tolerance as a fight against crime

00:31:00 Zero-tolerance methods involve cracking down on minor street crimes such as vandalism, graffiti, spitting on the pavement, etc. while simultaneously repairing vandalized places and fixing the broken windows.

While this technique worked spectacularly

in NY between 1994-2001, which was attributed to NY’s governor Mayor Giuliani, a similar drop in crime was noticed in many other cities across the United States who weren’t implementing the zero tolerance crackdown. The NY chief of police involved in the zero tolerance went on afterwards to implement the same crackdown in Liverpool, where crime subsequently dropped as well.

The argument for zero tolerance is that a “reputation for toughness is important within gangs – members often commit crimes for status-enhancement. Making it ‘tough’ to get away with minor offenses reduces the need to commit major crimes (Dur & Van der Wele, 2013).”

8. Genetics as a cause of crime

00:34:19 To some extent, career criminals do come down to genetics. This is from a study involving twins, where its been shown in the United States that 5% of families account for nearly half of the arrests – partly due to genes and partly mating patterns (Beaver, 2013).

Adoption studies have found that criminal behavior in an adopted child relates more strongly to the child’s biological father than the child’s foster father (Mednick et al, 1984). But the living environment does also have an effect on the child, especially if the living environment mimics that of the biological father’s criminal tendencies.

00:37:13 In the brain, dopamine genes (DAT1, DRD2, DRD4) are neuro-transmitter genes which are associated with the approach/reward system: the ‘I want that and I’m going to get it; to hell with the consequences.’ Ironically, these dopamine genes which lead to violent behavior also seem to accumulate in poor neighborhoods, meaning that the cause>effect may be going both ways: If you have the  violent genes you are an irresponsible person who tends to drift into the poor neighborhood, which only increases the tendency for crime to congregate.

9. Personality traits as an indicator of crime

00:38:31 Thrill-seekers, aggressiveness, impulsiveness and negative emotionality tend to go with criminality; also low agreeableness and conscientiousness (Reid, 2011). While this “applies to both men and women, it tends to be more pronounced in men, hence male preponderance of crime.”

Also, “different types of crime are no doubt associated with different personality profiles; Fraud tends to go with arrogance, psychopathy and higher IQ than burglary.”

10. ADHD as an indicator of criminality

00:40:23 Studies have shown that ADHD is much higher in criminals; 30-40% of criminals might be described as having, or having had, ADHD.

Arguments against ADHD as an indicator of criminality are that those suffering from ADHD who have undergone treatment of it are somehow different from those people who do not seek out and undergo treatment.

11. Psychopathy as an indicator of criminality

00:43:97 15-20% of criminals are said to be psychopaths, but not all psychopaths are criminals; there are a high rate of psychopaths posing as business executives, bankers, bomb disposal and similar occupations. “Psychopathy is connected with over-activity in dopamine reward system and under-functioning of prefrontal brain areas concerned with moral restraint and pro-social emotions like guilt and embarrassment (Gregory et al, 2012).

 12. Facial recognition as an indicator of criminality

00:46:01 To some degree, studies have shown that when shown a line-up of criminals and non-criminals, the average person can identify with a greater than 50% chance those in the lineup who are criminals. “Criminals can be distinguised beyond chance (which is by no means perfect) from non-criminals through headshots alone.” However, it was not possible to distinguish which kind of crimes the criminals had committed, perhaps indicating that criminals don’t specialize in just one sort of crime.

With one exception, women were unable to identify the rapist in the lineup of men, and even identified the rapist as a non-criminal.

13. Adaptability of criminality

00:49:16 “Psychopathy may not be ‘dysfunctional’ but an evolved life strategy with genetic benefits that outweigh the disadvantages.

Psychopaths, and criminals in general, are often attractive to women.” A study in 1995 found that criminals “have higher fecundity (averaging nearly 4 children each vs 2.21 for non-criminal controls from same social classes/urban residence.)”

14. Is crime compulsive?

00:52:01 “Armed robber Trevor Hayes was serving an indefinite term in prison when a brain tumour was discovered in his frontal lobe that might have caused his aggressiveness. Defence lawyers argued that following surgery he was no longer dangerous. Judge in London’s Appeal Court reduced his sentence to 11 years, saying that Hayes still ‘knew what he was doing was wrong.’”

“In Italy, a murderer had his sentence reduced because he carried 5 genes associated with violence (Feresin, 2009). This was illogical because this defendent would be just as dangerous after release.”

[EDITOR’S NOTE: In his lecture Human Behavioral Biology: The Dangers of Categorical Thinking, Robert Sapolsky asks:

“What do having your period, having a brain tumor, eating a lot of junk food, and taking anabolic steroids have in common? They all have been successfully used in the courts of law to explain the behavior of a murderer.


  1. Sometimes, the stuff that is going on in your body can dramatically affect what is going on in your brain.
  2. Sometimes, the stuff that is going on in your head can dramatically affect what’s going on in your body.]

00:53:32 Neurocriminology is the science of looking at the brain’s basis of violence. In his book The Anatomy of Violence, author Adrian Raine says “murders may be identified by brain scans showing underactivity in the prefrontal cortex. This implies poor control of limbic regions that generate anger and violence.

Psychopaths often have a small amygdala and an exceptionally low heart rate.

Epigenetics are also important and environmental factors like child neglect & abuse, poor nutrition, prenatal smoking & drinking contribute to development of criminal brains.”

So what exactly is prison for?

  • For punishment? Prison is a pretty bleak, wasteul method of punishing somebody.
  • As a deterrent? Criminals don’t seem to fear prison very much and it may actually be a school for crime, coming out of prison a better trained criminal and with a larger network of criminals established while within.
  • As rehabilitation? Prison does more in stigmatize and break family ties than it uplift and/or retrain the criminals. While within inmates must deal with drugs, unprotected sex and a suicide rate 10x higher than the outside community.
  • As retribution? This argument is a bit immature because it is based on outcome rather than the intent of behavior. For example, a man fell asleep behind the wheel of is truck, resulting in the death of nearly 10 people. This man was sentenced to 5 years in prison not because of his criminal intent, but because of the outcome; the consequence of his falling asleep behind the wheel. Had he fallen asleep and ran into a tree, he wouldn’t have found himself in such a terrible position.
  • As containment? This is perhaps the best, most currently logical use for prison – keeping criminals confined instead of letting them free to commit crime and plot acts of terrorism – as protection for the public.

Is rehabilitation possible for criminals?

01:01:36 In some cases, for example with psychopaths, rehabilitation is simply not possible, and yet they are the ones most likely to charm their ways out of prison by smiling at the parole board (Porter et al, 2009). Research has shown that psychopaths get early release from prison more often than non-psychopathic inmates.

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