Criminal Minds

Dr Glenn Wilson

Dr Glenn Wilson is a pioneer in the field of evolutionary theories of sex differences, attraction and love, and in 2001 was ranked within the 10 most cited British psychologists.

Some say that the causes of crime cannot be studied because there is no agreement as to what is criminal behaviour. It is true that societies differ in their vice laws controlling behaviours which involve no malice but are engaged in to satisfy morally dubious desires. Laws against prostitution, unorthodox sexual behaviour, gambling abortion and drug-taking vary enormously around the world. Often they lead to unintended consequences, including increases in real crime (viz. US Prohibition laws). Murder, stealing, robbery, assault and rape, involve intent to harm others and are outlawed by all societies. These are crimes in anyone's book.

Many people believe themselves to be experts in crime and to know the solutions to problems in the field. They include journalists, politicians, police, lawyers and judges. Although influential in decision-making, their expertise is based mostly on impression, anecdote and ideology. Many myths are exploded when the scientific evidence is examined.

A popular theory of crime is that it is due to poverty and unemployment. However, crime in the UK increased sharply between 1950 and 1970 when we "never had it so good" and is now falling, despite "austerity". Crime in the US also fell recently through a period of rising unemployment. The links between unemployment levels and crime are often surprising. During the time Hugo Chavez controlled Venezuela (1999-2013) unemployment was roughly halved but the murder rate tripled (Sedghi, 2013). If anything, poor countries and those with greater inequality have less crime (Fraser, 2011).

The idea that crime results from poverty may stem from the observation that all social problems tend to congregate within the same inner-city areas. In this sense, bad housing and education, unemployment, drugs and crime rates all go together. However, it is simple-minded to attribute one social problem to another. People in these areas also elect Labour councils, yet not so many sociologists ascribe crime to voting Labour. Correlations do not confirm cause and effect.

Establishing cause and effect is difficult because it is not ethically possible to conduct proper experiments with humans, hence some researchers use animal models. Bambico et al, 2013) investigated the "absent father" effect on the neurological and social development of California mice, a breed which is normally monogamous and biparental. Mice raised without a father (but only females) were more aggressive than those raised by both parents. This was connected with alterations to the medial prefrontal cortex, which is important in social behaviour. It is consistent with human studies showing that girls have a greater dependence on father contact than boys.

Opportunity is an important contributor to crime. Security devices have improved considerably in recent years and this probably the reason certain crimes have fallen sharply (Farrell, 2013). For example, car theft has plunged since the introduction of sophisticated alarms, immobilisers, tracking devices and automatic number plate recognition. On the other hand, some new types of crime (e.g., card and web fraud) may be on the increase because security technology is lagging.

CCTV has been important in the fight against crime, both as a detection method and deterrent. Unfortunately, it has also altered the clothing worn by criminals (hoodies) and may displace crime elsewhere. Nettle et al (2012) put signs with watching eyes and a warning to criminals above bicycle racks at a British university campus. Bicycle theft was reduced by 62% in the three areas where the signs were deployed but increased by 65% in control locations.

Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterised by impulsiveness, aggression, recklessness, deceit and lack of concern for others. It is more common in criminals (15-20%) but is overrepresented in several occupational groups (business executives and bomb disposal personnel more than those in caring professions). It is associated with over-activity in certain brain areas (especially the nucleus accumbens, part of dopamine reward system in the mid-brain) and reduced functioning in prefrontal areas of the cortex concerned with moral reasoning, restraint, and pro-social emotions such as empathy, guilt and embarrassment (Gregory et al, 2012). These brain differences may be due to genes, brain damage, drugs or other environmental factors.

Can you tell a criminal just by looking at their face? Criminals are distinguishable from non-criminals beyond chance from a still photo of their face, after controlling for gender, race, age, attractiveness and emotional expression (Valla et al, 2011). The cues used are unclear but probably include testosterone-related (macho) indicators, which are also known to affect judgements of altruism and trustworthiness (e.g. bushy eyebrows, square jawline and swarthy skin).

Is imprisonment the solution to crime? There seems to be confusion as to what exactly prison is for. Some say punishment but prison is an oblique and expensive way of punishing people. Heavy fines and community service would surely give back more to society than having them languish in a cell. Some say deterrence is the reason but there is no evidence of such an effect. Hardened criminals do not fear prison and short prison sentences are probably counterproductive in that operate as "schools for crime" (Pritikin, 2008). As for rehabilitation, prisons stigmatise people, sever family ties and make it more difficult to get employment on release.

Advances in neurocriminology are creating a legal and ethical minefield. It is no longer clear that the concept of free will is useful in the forensic context. All behaviour is determined, albeit by a multitude of forces (both genetic and environmental) and all of them beyond our control. If the brain circuits underlying moral choice are impaired, how do we determine culpability or decide on appropriate punishment? (Glenn et al, 2013). Perhaps it is time to replace the ideas of guilt and responsibility with our best efforts to assess criminal "intent" and future "dangerousness". These should be what count when it comes to depriving a person of their freedom and ensuring the safety of everyone else.

Dr Glenn Wilson is a pioneer in the field of evolutionary theories of sex differences, attraction and love, in 2001 he was ranked within the 10 most cited British psychologists. He has also published more than 100 scientific articles and some 33 books on topics ranging from personality and attitude measurement to psychophysiology, sexual behaviour and psychology as applied to performing arts. Find out more at his website

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