Home » News » Study Examines Genetic Risk for Criminal Behavior

Study Examines Genetic Risk for Criminal Behavior

Genetic Risk for Criminal BehaviorA provocative new paper suggests your genetic background may steer you toward a life of crime.

University of Texas at Dallas criminologist Dr. J.C. Barnes and two fellow professors studied if genes can cause an individual to become a life-time persistent offender.

The paper detailed the study’s findings in the journal Criminology.

Researchers focused on whether genes are likely to cause a person to become a life-course persistent offender — characterized by antisocial behavior during childhood that can later progress to violent or serious criminal acts later in life.

Barnes says the framework for the research was based on the developmental taxonomy of antisocial behavior, a theory developed by Dr. Terrie Moffitt, a prominent researcher into the origins of criminality.

Moffitt identified three groups, or pathways, found in the population: life-course persistent offenders, adolescent-limited offenders and abstainers. She suggested that environmental, biological and, perhaps, genetic factors could cause a person to fall into one of the paths.

“That was the motivation for this paper. No one had actually considered the possibility that genetic factors could be a strong predictor of which path you end up on,” said Barnes.

“In her (Moffitt’s) theory, she seems to highlight and suggest that genetic factors will play a larger role for the life-course persistent offender pathway as compared to the adolescence-limited pathway.”

Adolescent-limited offenders exhibit behaviors such as alcohol and drug use and minor property crime during adolescence. Abstainers represent a smaller number of people who don’t engage in any deviant behavior.

The researchers studied data from 4,000 participants in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health with an objective of identifying how people fell into each of the three groups.

Investigators then compared the information using what is known as the twin methodology, a study design that analyzed to what extent genetic and environmental factors influenced a trait.

“The overarching conclusions were that genetic influences in life-course persistent offending were larger than environmental influences,” he said.

“For abstainers, it was roughly an equal split: genetic factors played a large role and so too did the environment. For adolescent-limited offenders, the environment appeared to be most important.”

The analysis doesn’t identify the specific genes that underlie the different pathways, which Barnes said would be an interesting area for further research.

“If we’re showing that genes have an overwhelming influence on who gets put onto the life-course persistent pathway, then that would suggest we need to know which genes are involved and at the same time, how they’re interacting with the environment so we can tailor interventions,” he said.

Barnes said that although there is no specific gene for criminal behavior, genes can influence your likelihood of committing a crime. In fact, Barnes believes crime is a learned behavior.

“But there are likely to be hundreds, if not thousands, of genes that will incrementally increase your likelihood of being involved in a crime even if it only ratchets that probability by 1 percent,” he said. “It still is a genetic effect. And it’s still important.”

The association between genes, the environment and behavior is a ripe area of criminology study. In fact, the issue is divisive as criminologists have primarily focused on environmental and social factors that cause or influence deviant behavior.

“Honestly, I hope people when they read this, take issue and start to debate it and raise criticisms because that means people are considering it and people are thinking about it,” Barnes said.

Source: UT Dallas

Teenager in jail photo by shutterstock.

Study Examines Genetic Risk for Criminal Behavior

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Study Examines Genetic Risk for Criminal Behavior. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 26 Jan 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.