Biology and Psychology: Refuting the Predisposition to Violence
Many research studies have shown that biological and genetic makeup is associated with deviant behavior. Perhaps the most visible evidence is the universality in difference between female and male behaviors. Men are prone to aggressive and violent behavior than women. Findings from sociological studies indicate that “the average man is more aggressive than women even in infancy prior to sex role socialization by adults” (Hiram, 1990, p.171). This position is supported by police statistics showing that more me are arrested for violence-related crimes than women. For instance, FBI figures show that 85% of persons arrested in the U.S. for violent behaviors are men (Siegel & Welsh, 2008). Other studies on the psychology of crime suggest that the development of antisocial behaviors such as crime and aggression are determined by genetics.
The Evolutionary Psychology Theory argues that aggression is an innate component of human nature caused by evolutionary forces (Buss, 205, p. 645). Proponents of this view argue that individuals who are genetically equipped with anti-social and deviant personality traits will become criminals regardless the environment in which they are brought up. This follows evidence from clinical cases and psychological studies showing that “antisocial behavior is characterized by neuropsychological impairments” (Raine, 2006, 99).
Within this school of thought, it matters little where a person was brought up; a person will develop deviant behaviors whether he was brought up in a crime-free upper class or crime-prone lower class environment. The theory underscores the association of nature to criminal behaviors, which are attributed to biological issues such as abnormalities of the brain that cause “psychologically conditioned” offenses like psychopathic crimes and aggression. Similarly, socio-psychology studies have shown that impulsive aggression, which although is unplanned often leads to physical violence, has been associated with a having a lower threshold for resisting provocation. This tendency underscores the influence of cognition and emotion on aggressive behaviors.
Nevertheless, there is strong evidence that biological and psychological factors are not responsible for aggressive behavior in all cases. On the contrary, there is evidence from research findings that environmental factors also impact human behavior. One area of research that has shown this connection is the study of the relationship between childhood experiences and aggressive behavior in adulthood. In light of longitudinal studies on the subject, findings from psychopathology have “replicated the strong influence of adverse parental rearing on externalizing and aggressive behavior in children” (Ferguson, et al, 1996). In addition, studies indicate a correlation between parental abuse during adolescence and later-life aggressive behavior (Paperny & Deisher, 1983). These findings support the position that nurture (environmental factors and upbringing) play a big role in shaping behavior. Accordingly, this paper refutes the supposition that aggressive people are biologically and psychologically predisposed to be violent. It argues that while biological and psychological factors impact behavior, environmental factors are the most overarching determiners of violence in human behavior.
Judith Harris’s Group Socialization Theory suggests that peer influence plays a role in encouraging aggressive behaviors. She argues that children who experience parental abuse or rejection from peer groups develop aggressive instincts (Harris, 2011). Jeff Henderson, the author of Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras gives a personal real life example illustrating the profound influence of environmental factors and in the development of aggressive behaviors. Born in Southern California and raised by a single mother, Jeff Henderson was exposed to poverty and violence at an early age. For his survival, he cheated, stole and did drug-trafficking to put food on the table. In his book, Henderson narrates his gradual degeneration into a drug addict and trafficker in the streets of San Diego. From the political and sociological perspective, Henderson’s experience shows that poverty and lack of education promote antisocial behaviors. Henderson’s autobiography, therefore, demonstrates the influence of the environment and upbringing on character development in individuals. In relation to criminal studies, it shows that a crime prone environment like the drug dealers dens of San Diego encourage the learning of deviant and anti-social behaviors, which predispose individuals to aggressive behaviors.
The impact of environmental and nurturing factors on deviant behaviors is to a large extent related to their character-shaping effect on a person’s personality. Social interactions and learning take place within a defined social context (environment). Each specific environmental set up creates a unique atmosphere, which in turn conditions individuals to either consciously or unconsciously learn to behave in a certain way. For instance, the silent sacredness of a church can make even the naughtiest kid observe silence and behave appropriately, as opposed to a playing ground. It is not that the kid’s genetic make up changes with a change of environment. On the contrary, the environment triggers an unconscious response that is in harmony with one’s surroundings. In this regard, raising a child in a social environment that encourages violence will definitely instill deviant behaviors in the child, which eventually get ingrained into the child’s psych and become part of his character traits. This development in a person’s character does not reflect a case of a child inheriting deviant genes from the parents, but rather a situation of environmental conditioning. It is not uncommon for non-criminal parents to sire children who become criminals later in life as a result of negative environmental influences. In a study investigating the influence of genetics and the environment on criminal behavior, it was found out that “While 8.4 percent of the sons of non-criminal fathers eventually became chronic offenders, about 37 percent of the youths’ antisocial behavior might be a function of environmental influences and experiences, and not genetics at all” (Siegel, 2008, p. 133).
The argument on the genetic inheritance of behavior patterns from parent to child follows the logic that “for an individual to evolve into a habitual offender, they would need to be biologically predisposed to violence” (Bryan, 2009). However, genetic make up is largely a covert and abstract construct of the mind which cannot compel people to be violent unless triggered by external factors such as provocation. As Nelson Bryan notes, there need to be “negative environmental factors” to cause the individual’s aggressive impulses become manifest and physically expressed through anti-social behaviors (Bryan, 2009). Therefore, it is possible for a criminally oriented person to check their crime impulses when in places where crime is not prevalent, since the environment discourages such notions.
On the contrary, situations that encourage deviance will encourage individuals to be violent. Continued exposure will gradually turn occasional acts into habits, and in the end make a habitual offender. It has further been shown that the presence of violence-oriented genes in an individual does not necessarily make a deviant person. Studies in criminology show that “there are individuals born with a propensity for violence for various reasons but may or may not become violent depending upon environmental factors” (Raine, 1993). Thus, it is within the limits of logical accuracy to maintain that nature only plays a negligible part, if any, in the development of anti-social behaviors compared to nurture- social context and upbringing. According to Leo and Castronovo (1985), people are never born criminals. Referring to the arguments of two Harvard professors, what nature gives individuals is their personality, physique and intelligence which they are born with. Moreover, some of the major causes of deviance or aspects that nurture people to turn to deviant behaviors are social or environmental issues, and not inborn characters.
In addition, McCord, et al (2001, p. 66) says that one needs to be in a certain environment that helps nurture his “natural characteristics” to commit violence. An example is a rowdy crowd or a mob justice situation that compels people to be violent. In this light, genes are merely biological components that make an individual’s personality to be in compatible mode with violence. However, for their potential to be displayed in behavior, the individual should be raised in an environment that can condition their psychological predisposition towards violence. The environment provides a context in which such a behavior is either reinforced or discouraged.
The Rational Choice Theory in criminology demonstrates that nature plays a very insignificant role in determining deviant behavior. The absence of crime deterrent measures encourages individuals to commit an offense, due to the knowledge that it is save to do so. The theory hypothesizes that individuals make conscious choices to commit a crime, based on the risks and benefits involved. Because crime is a risky undertaking, it is possible that their actions result from a calculated and rationalized weighing of the challenges to be overcome, and the rewards to be gained. This is especially the case in white-collar crimes, where offenses by managers such as forgery and misappropriation of resources “are rooted in instrumental and strategic choices made by risk-averse managers who weigh various options perceived costs and benefits to themselves” (Friedrichs, 2009, 234). Consequently, criminal activities are understood as actions resulting from the criminal’s analysis of the suitability of the environment, and a logical estimation of the gains to be made.
Finally, the aspect of peer influence, especially from the perspective of social learning theory indicate that deviant behaviors can be learnt through social interactions and association, even if the individual is not genetically wired to be violent. Through the influence of peers, individuals may find themselves engaging in violence and with time they become accustomed to violent behaviors as they grow old (Harris, 2011; Moeller; 2001, p. 79). Age plays its role through the fact that what children learn when they are young influences their future life because their actions are transformed into long-life habits. Similarly, during the adolescent stages many young people seem to be under intense pressure to conform to group behavior. It is thought that it is on this stage in life that young people become deviant and engage in activities which are contrary to societal expectations.
One of the major weaknesses of using psychological principles to predict violence is the difficulty in distinguishing between defensive and offensive violence (Reif, et al, 2007). For instance, it is difficult to determine when violence is a consequence of a predetermined motive or provoked anger. Similarly, the Evolutionary Psychology model does not explain why some people become deviant considering that all people experience evolutionary changes. Nevertheless, psychology provides a better framework for understanding violent behaviors that cannot be explained by environmental factors. For instance, some people resist deviant behaviors even when raised in violence-prone environments. Likewise, children raised in socially stable environments may become violent later in life (Harris, 2011).
In conclusion, violence as a behavioral phenomenon is encouraged by the existence of a deviance-favoring environment. Granted, genetic inheritance can influence deviant behaviors when parents pass on such traits to their children. However, environmental factors play a significant role in conditioning individuals to commit violence. Additionally, it shapes their character development from childhood through social interactions and learning. Finally, a crime-favoring environment can reinforce deviant behaviors and make them develop into habits.
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