In search of Criminology’s Holy Grail

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.


Babiak, P., Neumann, C. S., & Hare, R. D. (2010). Corporate Psychopathy: Talking the Walk. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 28(2), 174-193. doi: Doi 10.1002/Bsl.925

Bakan, J. (2004). The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. Toronto, Ont.: Penguin.

Beaver, K. M., & Boutwell, B. B. (2010). The Intergenerational Transmission of Low Self-control. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 47(2), 174-209. doi: 10.1177/0022427809357715

Beaver, K. M., Vaughn, M. G., DeLisi, M., & Higgins, G. E. (2010). The biosocial correlates of neuropsychological deficits: results from the national longitudinal study of adolescent health. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 54(6), 878-894. doi: 10.1177/0306624×09345993

Boutwell, B. B., & Beaver, K. M. (2010). The Intergenerational Transmission of Low Self-control. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 47(2), 174-209. doi: 10.1177/0022427809357715

Calavita, K., Tillman, R., & Pontell, H. N. (1997). The savings and loan debacle, financial crime, and the state. Annual Review of Sociology, 23, 19-38.

Chambliss, W. J., Michalowski, R., & Kramer, R. C. (Eds.). (2010). State Crime in the Global Age: Willan Publishing.

Delisi, M., & Vaughn, M. G. (2008). The Gottfredson-Hirschi Critiques Revisited: Reconciling Self-Control Theory, Criminal Careers, and Career Criminals. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 52(5), 520-537.

Denson, T. F., DeWall, C. N., & Finkel, E. J. (2012). Self-Control and Aggression. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(1), 20-25. doi: 10.1177/0963721411429451

Ferguson, C. J. (2010). Genetic Contributions to Antisocial Personality and Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review From an Evolutionary Perspective. Journal of Social Psychology, 150(2), 160-180.

Friedrichs, D. (2004). Enron et al.: Paradigmatic white collar crime cases for the new century. Critical Criminology, 12, 113–132.

Gibson, C. L., Sullivan, C. J., Jones, S., & Piquero, A. R. (2010). “Does It Take a Village?” Assessing Neighborhood Influences on Children’s Self-Control. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 47(1), 31-62. doi: 10.1177/0022427809348903

Gottfredson, M. R., & Hirschi, T. (1990). A general theory of crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Kramer, R., & Michalowski, R. (2006). The invasion of Iraq. In R. J. Michalowski & R. C. Kramer (Eds.), State-corporate crime: Wrongdoing at the intersection of business and government. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers.

Moffitt, T. E. (1993). The neuropsychology of conduct disorder. Development and Psychopathology, 5(1-2), 135-151. doi: 10.1017/S0954579400004302

Moffitt, T. E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R. J., Harrington, H., . . . Caspi, A. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1010076108

Moffitt, T. E., Caspi, A., Harrington, H., & Milne, B. J. (2002). Males on the life-course-persistent and adolescence-limited anti-social pathways: Follow up at age 26 years. Developmental-Psychology and Psychopathology, 14, 179-207.

National Crime Prevention Centre. (2011). Youth At-Risk of Serious and Life-Course Offending: Risk Profiles, Trajectories, and Interventions Research Report: 2011-02.

Nguyen, T. H., & Pontell, H. N. (2010). Mortgage origination fraud and the global economic crisis: A criminological analysis. Criminology & Public Policy, 9(3), 591-612. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-9133.2010.00653.x

Piquero, A. R., Moffitt, T. E., & Wright, B. E. (2007). Self-Control and Criminal Career Dimensions. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 23(1), 72-89. doi: 10.1177/1043986206298949

Prasch, R. E. (2012). The Dodd-Frank Act: Financial Reform or Business as Usual? Journal of Economic Issues, 46(2), 549-556.

Ragatz, L. L., Fremouw, W., & Baker, E. (2012). The Psychological Profile of White-collar Offenders. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 39(7), 978-997. doi: 10.1177/0093854812437846

Raine, A., Moffitt, T. E., Caspi, A., Loeber, R., Stouthamer-Loeber, M., & Lynam, D. (2005). Neurocognitive Impairments in Boys on the Life-Course Persistent Antisocial Path. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 114(1), 38-49.

Rothe, D. L., & Ross, J. I. (2010). Private Military Contractors, Crime, and the Terrain of Unaccountability. Justice Quarterly, 27(4), 593-617. doi: Pii 912497226

Schnupp, R., Wright, J. P., Beaver, K. M., Delisi, M., & Vaughn, M. (2012). Genes, Maternal Negativity, and Self-Control: Evidence of a Gene × Environment Interaction. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 10(3), 245-260. doi: 10.1177/1541204011429315

Welch, M. (2009). Fragmented power and state-corporate killings: a critique of blackwater in Iraq. Crime, Law and Social Change, 51(3), 351-364. doi: 10.1007/s10611-008-9169-6


2 thoughts on “In search of Criminology’s Holy Grail

  1. I left my reply on one of your pages but I will post it here as well:

    I learned from a German professor under whom I studied that Karl Marx said, before he died, “I am not a Marxist”.

    I’ve learned to be a little skeptical of any person who identifies themselves with a group that ends in “ist”. The world is far more complex than that which is often allowed by the epistemological commitments of academics. Fortunately, many academics and lay persons with an interest in crime realize this inherent truth.

    Radical criminologists have served our discipline by reminding us that the category of crime is socially constructed by those in positions of power. I think early radicals over-identified with the offender and romanticized the deviant to the point where he (she) was “more sinned against than a sinner”. Left realism was a corrective to this viewpoint and refocused our attention on the “square of crime” (offender, victim, state, community). However, what they and other sociologists had trouble explaining was the presence of non-deviants (in large numbers) within the very social and environmental conditions which purportedly “explained” the high over-representation of poor people in the criminal justice machinery. Even Walter Reckless observed (circa 1955) that “good boys come from bad neighbourhoods”. Why? That is where individual propensity should become salient in our investigation.

    Not to give you a criminological history lesson with which I’m sure you’re familiar, but it was the landmark book by Gottfredson and Hirschi, A General Theory of Crime (1990), which upset the sociological apple cart. Individual propensity for antisocial behaviour is variable and can be reduced to a single explanatory concept: low self control. However, and I may have made this point in an earlier post, the families in which low self-control is inculcated are themselves located in societies and neighbourhoods (not of their own choosing) which differentially affect the quality of rearing children in families.

    And here’s my point in responding to your post:

    What may have started out sounding like an individualistic theory of crime actually DEMANDS that we pay attention to issues of class, gender and ethnicity. Low self-control is but just one one individual characteristic of those who enage in antisocial behaviour, whether it’s break and enter or white-collar crime (which I distinguish from corporate and state crime). The individual attribute is connected to the wider social arrangements in which people live, and impulsive behaviour is rewarded in some social contexts and not others.

    Irrespective of the label we give it, criminologists do well to connect the highest level of the economic decision-making (e.g., informed by neoliberalism) to the political process which criminalize some forms of harmful behaviour and not others. The political-economy of social harms (and I deliberately avoid the use of the word “crime”) is what criminology should rightfully study, and not be side-tracked by the study of individual propensities devoid of any connection to political-economy.

    So what’s broken in the Americal system of Criminal Justice (and most criminology, generally) is the disturbing disconnect between what C. Wright Mills would call “public issues and private troubles” (sorry I’ve probably paraphrased from the original).

    It’s too bad that our discipline is “fiddling while Rome burns” in light of two “crimes of the century” within the past decade: the illegal invasion of Iraq and the sub-prime mortgage fraud perpetrated by America’s Most Vaunted. The common demoninator between the two massive social harms is neoliberalism, the very demon which criminology should be exorcising


  2. Very interesting. Ive always wondered what it was like to, say, be a geologist at the time when the tectonic plate theory was established. It changed the whole landscape of the science (couldn’t resist the pun opportunity)–something that the world of criminology desperately needs.

    I will post a section of one of my recent post discussing the current state of criminology theory (if you are interested in reading the whole thing: I argue that we need to take a step back from the individualistic approach, for findings “our holy grail” (love that term, I’m jealous I did not use it in my post) through it’s methods is, I argue, not possible (much like Freudian theories of psychology–sounds great, but is leading us nowhere). I believe the “holy grail” of “why do people commit crime” lies in the attributes of the society that crafted them, not in the individual themselves (nurture over nature, to continue my psychology theme). This, of course, means I am discussing radical criminology.

    An analogy:

    Take a chemist who studies water. The chemist’s experimental observations about water include only facts: First, the water has a chemical composition of two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule. Second, water can be found in a liquid, gas, or solid state depending on the temperatures it is exposed to. Third, the chemist find that s/he can measure how much water expands or contracts as it passes from one phase to the another and that s/he can use this information to make predictions about how other bodies of water behave as they are exposed to different temperatures.

    Following these experiments, the chemist can make very accurate predictions about the behaviors of the bodies of water. What the chemist cannot do, however, is predict how each individual molecule of the body of water will behave. Chaos theory (shout out to the world of physics) has made it clear that such predictions are not possible in the material world. The chemist cannot predict the direction or speed of an individual water molecule as a body of water is heated; or how many other molecules the molecule will collide with; or which molecules will escape first; and so on and so on.

    Like the chemist, radical criminologists can make fairly accurate predications concerning the behavior of social bodies made up of individuals; general trends, if you will. What radical criminologists have realized is that we cannot predict how specific individuals within the social groups will behave. For example, we have established that upper-class individuals are more likely to become corporate criminals, but knowing which of these upper-class men specifically will become a corporate criminal is—by definition of the chaos theory—impossible.

    Simply put, I believe America has been been doing this whole theory of crime thing wrong. By forming individualistic theories of crime and allowing them to become the corner stones of our science, we have been trying to do the impossible.

    As a science, we can and should keep some of the more successful individualistic theories, because as C.W Mills states, radical criminology cannot be the last word. But, our problem is that, right now, radical criminology is not any type of word. We need to break free of this individual paradigm that American society has instilled in us, and instead of focusing on the individual criminal, we must focus on the society that has crafted them.


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