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Nature vs. nurture: Which causes crime?

A combination of both biological and social factors combined mold people into who they are and determines the mindset of one that chooses to engage in criminal behavior


San Bernardino County Probation Officer Marshawn Etchepare arrests parolee Kenneth Lucas for the second time in months after he was released just 60 days into a six-month sentence, during a night probation compliance sweep in Apple Valley, Calif.

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

The age old question of why crime exists is one that will never cease. While there are many theories that attempt to address and explain this phenomenon, two specific concepts stand out above the rest. They involve the belief that the social environment is the main reason why individuals commit crime, and, secondly, crime occurs and is fostered by biological traits that eventually lead to criminal behavior.

While both theories make outstanding arguments on why their concept is the best, the fact remains that a combination of both biological and social factors combined mold people into who they are and determines the mindset of one that chooses to engage in criminal behavior.

Social Environment

In order to truly understand how an environment can shape a mindset that has the potential to lead to deviant behavior, we must first identify what a social environment is. “Human social environments encompass the immediate physical surroundings, social relationships, and cultural milicus within which defined groups of people function and interact” (Barnett & Casper, 2001). An easierOne definition is molding behavior based on a set of morals, values and beliefs that are instilled in individuals during early childhood. These morals, values and beliefs form a system that facilitates decision making throughout the course of an individuals’ life.

Several criminal theorists have attempted to research and define the commonality between one’s social environment and how it ties into the commission of crime. “Recent studies show that during the last 5 years, 60 percent of the entire world’s city residents have, directly or indirectly, been a victim to violence, crime and felony. Thus, the increasing crime rate, violent or non-violent, is a serious threat for all the urban societies of the world” (Salehi, 2012). This proves that society has contributed to fostering a social environment that breeds criminal behavior. But there are other variables that need to be considered when attempting to identify what leads a person towards a lifestyle of deviant behavior.

Social Influences

One’s upbringing and social learning environment directly contribute to an individual’s specific criminogenic needs. Such needs are traits that lead to criminal behavior. In other words, our experiences growing up as a child have the capability to shape our view of the world, and have a direct impact on one’s ability to make rational decisions. What may appear to be a rational decision to one individual could be considered completely irrational by another.

One of the best examples of a criminogenic need that ties into the social learning environment would be criminal peers. Such peers are those individuals that tend to coerce or indirectly effect the decision making of another. “It is reasonable to suppose that adolescents can be influenced by peers who are not actually present during a delinquent event (including occasions when an offender acts alone) ( (Warr, 2002). Oftentimes, a young adult will elect to participate in delinquent behavior simply to “fit in” with their peers. If that involves engaging in criminal activity, then so be it.

However, there is a possibility that if such an individual had been raised in a positive environment, there is a chance that the individual may elect to refrain from deviant behavior due to said environment. Unfortunately, there is also research that indicates the opposite as well. Those that have been raised under not so fortunate circumstances often exhibit criminal behavior later in life; however, statistically they have a lower probability to do so.

Other Factors

Other factors that can be directly linked to the social environment would include child abuse, domestic violence and exposure to emotional harm. “Research into the impact of childhood abuse and neglect on violent behavior of adults who became serial killers concluded that adults who had been physically, sexually, and emotionally abused as children were three times more likely than were non-abused adults to act violently as adults” (Silva, Leong, & Ferrari, 2004).

A lack of positive developmental traits is directly connected with behavior as children drift from adolescence on to adulthood. “When individuals with conduct disorder reach adulthood, symptoms of aggression, property destruction, deceitfulness, and rule violation, including violence against co-workers, partners, and children, may be exhibited in the workplace and the home, such that antisocial personality disorder may be considered” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Criminogenic traits can and do contribute to a life of poor decisions, however, they don’t necessarily all exist based on one’s individual social environment. Biological factors are often the starting point for understanding criminal behavior.

Biological Factors

“Many genes may affect brain functioning in ways that either increase or reduce the chances of individuals learning various complex behavior patterns” (Cullen, Agnew, & Wilcox, 2014). Many often question whether it is possible to determine a link between genetics and criminal behavior. There have been multiple research studies that have all come to the same conclusion. The simple answer is yes, genetics does play a role. Adrian Rane, a well-known bio-psychologist, once stated that “despite strong resistance in many quarters, there is now little scientific doubt that genes play a significant role in antisocial behavior.” At the moment of conception, genetics begin to play a factor in the development of traits that have the potential to lead an individual down the path of illegal behavior.

“Some genes are expressed or turned on (or not) because of physical, social, and cultural factors in the environment; and some genes—for example, those that influence difficult temperament, impulsivity, novelty seeking, and lack of empathy—predispose people to be exposed to environmental risks.” (Kaiser & Rasminsky, 2010) Once born, children learn from their parents and their environment. An example of this would include a child that has been raised in a home where aggression and violence is common. That child has a much higher probability to be impulsive, and may have difficulty expressing emotions in what would be considered a positive manner.

Addiction is also an excellent example of a genetic or biological trait that is passed on through generations and has been identified as hereditary. While it is possible for a child to be born with an addiction to illegal substances, many times, an individual is exposed to such a substance later in life and finds them self easily addicted. It is possible that they carried a gene that would predispose them to an addictive personality, and once exposed to a situation, they were easily led to criminal thinking and potentially deviant behavior. Genetic traits can also have a direct effect on their relationships as they enter adulthood.

Biological factors also play a role in early childhood development and can result in mental health related problems. If someone is predisposed to enjoying solidarity, and is raised in an environment that lacks positive reinforcement of social skills, the end result can be devastating. Silva, Leong, and Ferrari (2004) identified a link between serial homicidal behavior and ASD, also known as Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

This disorder can be identified as “Any person, talented or handicapped, whose social skills have been severely deficient since very early childhood, who started to talk late or whose communicative use of language is inadequate, and who perseverates and lacks cognitive and behavioral flexibility meets the diagnostic criteria for an autistic-spectrum disorder” (Rapin, 2002). This is just one explanation for why serial killings and mass murders occur.


While crime occurs for many reasons, researchers over the past several hundred years have made attempts to gain answers to identify the root cause of the criminal mindset. Some research leads us to believe social learning theory and environmental factors are the only contributing reasons for why an individual elects to exhibit criminal behavior.

On the other hand, just as many research projects have taken an even deeper look and claim that while social skills and the environment do play a major role, the fact remains that the environment is a doorway to unlocking genetic traits that are instilled in people from conception. While the social landscape is vital in raising a child with proper morals, values and a positive belief system, it is not the only contributing factor in the causation of criminal activity within an individual.

It is a combination of both biological factors in addition to our social environment that molds each of us into who are today.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Barnett, E., & Casper, M. (2001). A Definition of “Social Environment”. Morgantown, WV: American Journal of Public Health.
Bartol, C., & Bartol, A. (2014). Criminal Behavior A Psychological Approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
Cullen, F., Agnew, R., & Wilcox, P. (2014). Criminological Theory: Past to Present. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Kaiser, B., & Rasminsky, J. (2010, October 25). Biological Risk Factors for Challenging Behavior. Retrieved November 3, 2013, from
Rapin, I. (2002). The Autistic-Spectrum Disorders. The New England Journal of Medicine, 302-303.
Salehi, E. (2012, April 6). Environmental factors and urban crime. Retrieved July 27, 2014, from
Silva, J., Leong, G., & Ferrari, M. (2004). A Neuropsychiatric development model of serial homicidal behavior. Behavioral Sciences & The Law, 787-799.
Warr, M. (2002). Companions in Crime. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Criminal justice practitioner with over sixteen years of experience working in multiple facets of the justice system. John began his career in 1998 working in the probation field in Massachusetts. He relocated to the State of Georgia where he initially worked as an adult probation officer in Atlanta. After having an opportunity to attend the police academy, he worked as a law enforcement officer, where he focused his training on advanced field sobriety and traffic enforcement. John has a wide array of experience, and has previously held the position of corporal, as well as being a certified field training officer. He was assigned to the criminal investigations division and worked as both lead detective and as a crime scene technician. In 2009, John relocated to Charlotte, NC to work as a probation and parole officer. In 2014, he was selected to join the administration, and he currently holds the position of Assistant Chief of Special Operations for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. His main responsibilities involve the development and implementation of a field training program. John is a certified criminal justice general instructor for the State of North Carolina.