The disciplines of physics, astronomy and chemistry are rumored on the verge of discovering the “Higgs boson” particle – the essential element upon which the universe is comprised, based on experiments in the Large Hadron Collider. Biology has Charles Darwin and evolutionary theory as the uncontested paradigm to understand all living things, past and present. Current research in criminology is taking on a similar trajectory to identify that which is essential about crime or more specifically, criminality. Is criminology getting close to finding its own Holy Grail?
The paradigmatic shift from sociological to individual accounts of variation in criminal behaviour started with a landmark text by Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi (1990). Boldly titled, A General Theory of Crime, the authors reviewed decades of research and claimed that criminology could not identify its independent variable, mainly because it conflated crime (an event) with criminality (a propensity for antisocial behaviour). The cause of crime was simple: low self-control. Their book was initially scorned by many sociologists who believed that, ultimately, the structure of society drove otherwise good people into criminal behaviour and therefore, studying variance among individuals and their traits was partial at best. Even the wide differences between women and men in their propensities for deviant behaviour was deemed to be the result of “differential socialization” rather than innate differences between sexes. Despite the skeptical reception of A General Theory of Crime, low self-control theory has since stood the test of more than 300 published studies, most of which have lent support to its basic premises (Delisi & Vaughn, 2008).
The individual propensity to commit crime is thought by some to be associated with impulsivity or low self-control (Beaver & Boutwell, 2010; Piquero, Moffitt, & Wright, 2007; Raine et al., 2005). The origins of this trait are the outcome of a parenting style which fails to instill the necessary internal restraints in children before the age of eight. Parents or care-givers must monitor, recognize and punish a child through an explicit disapproval of the offending behaviour (but not corporal punishment). Rather than arguing, as do many sociologists, that certain urban areas characterized by social disorganization and high crime rates will motivate residents to break the law, the alternate thesis is that people with low self-control will self-select into these neighbourhoods; abundant criminal opportunities will be available for those with this attribute (Gibson, Sullivan, Jones, & Piquero, 2010).
The failure to restrain one’s impulses leads to adult crime but also other risk-taking, “analogous behaviours” such as smoking tobacco, heavy drinking, using illicit drugs, early pregnancy, and even a propensity for head injuries as the result of risky behaviour. Low self-control is difficult to ameliorate after adolescent years; it is an enduring trait across the life-course. Its manifestation depends upon the opportunities which present themselves and most crime is trivial, carries high risks, and involves little planning (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). Low self-control also has the potential to be transmitted from one generation to the next (Boutwell & Beaver, 2010) and its genetic transference is currently being studied (Ferguson, 2010; Schnupp, Wright, Beaver, Delisi, & Vaughn, 2012).
A recent study by Terrie Moffitt and her associates has tracked almost every child born in in Dunedin, New Zealand from their birth (1972-73) to age 32 (Moffitt et al., 2011). The 1,037 members of this group have been evaluated every two years with health and psychological assessments, reports from the subjects themselves, their parents, and teachers. By age 11, the researchers had an index measure of each child’s level of self-control. Followed into adulthood, those with low self-control fared much more poorly than those with higher levels.
At age 32, those with low self-control had more problems with alcohol and drugs, were more likely to be single parents, have poorer health and more financial problems, and had been convicted for crimes. They were caught within the health and social consequences of decisions made earlier in life: “Adolescents with low self-control made mistakes, such as starting smoking, leaving high school, and having an unplanned baby, that could ensnare them in lifestyles with lasting ill effects” (Moffitt et al., 2011, p. 2697). The group displaying the greatest problems with impulsivity had “more of every type of mental health problem” than others in a comparable group (Moffitt, Caspi, Harrington, & Milne, 2002, p. 192).
Ten percent of the cohort males in Moffitt et al.’s sample earned the label “life-course persistent” offenders – those who showed “stable, pervasive and extreme antisocial behaviour in childhood plus extreme delinquent involvement in adolescence” (Moffitt et al., 2002, p. 197). They accounted for five times their share of the cohort’s violent offences and were more likely than others to display a psychopathic personality profile. This group also carried the highest load of childhood developmental risk factors, clearly demonstrating the relationship between neuropsychological deficits in their early years and socially destructive behaviour in adulthood.
Not surprisingly, people with low self-control contribute to higher costs for society. Hospital care, mental health services, income subsidies, and criminal justice expenses are disproportionately consumed by this group. It follows that society can save tens of millions of dollars by encouraging the development of internal controls in children if policy-makers make it easy – or the default choice – to do what is healthy. These are
so-called “opt-out” schemes that tempt people to eat healthy food, save money, and obey laws by making these the default options that require no effortful self-control. If citizens were obliged to opt out of default health-enhancing programs or payroll-deduction retirement savings schemes, individuals with low self-control should tend to take the easy option and stay in programs, because opting out requires unappealing effort and planning. (Moffitt et al., 2011, p. 2693).
Lest we be tempted, it is short-sighted to blame parents for personal attributes most often correlated with crime and analogous behaviours. Impulsive behaviour in childhood and adolescence is one manifestation of Conduct Disorder (CD) which overlaps with the legal definitions of “delinquency”. CD is correlated with neuropsychological deficits as a consequence of brain trauma from things like fetal alcohol syndrome, maternal stress in the third trimester, low birth weight, or poor maternal nutrition and/or drug use during pregnancy (Beaver, Vaughn, DeLisi, & Higgins, 2010; Moffitt, 1993; National Crime Prevention Centre, 2011). In their early years, children born with these deficits are much more likely to suffer from Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) which interferes with their ability to learn at the same pace as their non-affected classroom peers. Those children afflicted with CD often pose management problems in the classroom, are isolated by their peers, and end up doing poorly in school. In their early teenage years and without the proper interventions, they generally gravitate towards more serious law-breaking and by their early twenties, have been arrested, convicted and spent time in prison – a pattern that will repeat itself as they age into adulthood. The outliers in this cohort will be responsible for a significantly disproportionate share of violent crime (Denson, DeWall, & Finkel, 2012; Moffitt et al., 2002).
Has criminology found its Holy Grail? While it may be tempting to believe that low self-control is the main “cause of crime”, the theory and research on impulsivity misses a great deal. It has considerable difficulty explaining the motivation for individuals who are otherwise “normal” but use their corporate or government positions to victimize the public as consumers, shareholders, taxpayers, and employees.
The predatory personalities behind the Savings and Loan crisis in the United States (Calavita, Tillman, & Pontell, 1997), the 2001 Enron bankruptcy (Friedrichs, 2004), and the 2008 Wall Street crash (Nguyen & Pontell, 2010) were not forged within the families and neighbourhoods shared by street criminals. These men were cunning enough to risk the fortunes of other people’s money to make themselves wealthy in a relatively unsupervised environment (Prasch, 2012). The crooked activities of corporations reaches deeply into warfare (Chambliss, Michalowski, & Kramer, 2010; Rothe & Ross, 2010; Welch, 2009), including the illegal invasion of Iraq (Kramer & Michalowski, 2006). These are crimes of the power elite. It’s difficult to find explanations for their behaviour which focuses on individual pathologies like low self-control, although there is some recent evidence that these principal actors display the same personalities as do clinical populations of psychopaths (Babiak, Neumann, & Hare, 2010; Bakan, 2004; Ragatz, Fremouw, & Baker, 2012).
Criminology has not yet found an over-arching theory by which to explain the behaviours of those who inflict acts of force or fraud in the pursuit of self-interest, and in so doing, wreak more economic and physical harms than do common street criminals. Only when we have a theory that covers all forms of socially injurious conduct, and not just that which is criminalized by the state, can we lay claim to a “dominant paradigm”.
Our search continues.
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