Criminal Behavior: Nature or Nurture?

Crime, prison, psychology

Does crime stem from nature or nuture?

Researchers and professionals in corrections care, leaders in society, and other interested citizens are understandably troubled by crime in our communities and high recidivism rates among released prisoners. Occasionally, wisdom prevails and the focus to improve the crime problem in our culture, shifts from rehabilitation efforts with probation, rehabilitation programs in prison, and parole strategies after incarceration, to the notion of PREVENTION. Gosh, where did that idea come from?

A common dilemma in addressing the cause and prevention approach to stopping criminal behavior is the ongoing debate of nature-nurture. Do genes (nature) cause criminal behavior or does environment (nurture) cause criminal behavior? The abundance of evidence and collective professional opinion seem to weigh on the notion that both are the root cause of criminal behavior.

How each of these two concepts work individually and collectively to produce criminal behavior in people is not always clear. Many people who favor the genetic influence on criminal behavior seem to also favor some notion of exculpability (“He couldn’t help it; it’s in his genes”, “It’s not his fault”, etc. ). Among those who favor the environmental causes of criminal behavior, are some who also propose that it’s someone else’s fault, the usual suspects being the parents or primary caregivers. When we examine these dedicated efforts of many professionals, and lay people, to solve this menacing problem of crime in our culture, one might ask, “Is there any measure of PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY (of the perpetrator ) that just might be an important part of diminishing or eliminating criminal behavior?” Imagine the horrible feeling of isolation when the enlightened perpetrator might say, “It’s my fault; I can’t blame anyone else for my decision to commit the crime. Oh, and maybe I can change my predatory and antisocial attitude if I work hard at it. And maybe I can develop a stronger conscience and develop behavior that is pro-social and law-abiding. After all, that shrink in prison said I have basic worth and value and he said that I could change whether or not my crimes were related to, NOT caused by, genes or the environment!”

Behavior Theory, not a perfect approach to rehabilitation, does offer promising outcomes by addressing habit formation–including diminishing antisocial habits—with proper use of positive reinforcement and punishment (time-out procedures). Cognitive Theory, also not a perfect approach to rehabilitation, offers promising outcomes by modifying irrational beliefs and negative perceptions which can lead to troublesome feelings and maladaptive behaviors.

Cognitive Theory works well in combination with Behavior Theory and the combination of the two is called–you guessed it–Cognitive-Behavior Theory. It is recommended that we learn and apply these theories at early developmental stages in our attempts at prevention of criminal behavior. Likewise, these theories are useful in the tougher work of rehabilitation where crime has already reared its ugly head.


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