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Criminals Process Risk Differently Than Law-Abiding Citizens

A new study reveals the difference between how risk is cognitively processed by self-reported law-abiding citizens and self-reported lawbreakers.

This gives us a better view and a new understanding of the criminal mind, according to Dr. Valerie Reyna, a professor of human development and director of the Cornell University Magnetic Resonance Imaging Facility, who led the research.

For the study, participants who anonymously self-reported criminal or non-criminal tendencies were offered two choices: $20 guaranteed, or to flip a coin for double or nothing.

The study found that individuals who are higher in criminal tendencies choose the gamble, even though they know there is a risk of getting nothing. Those who self-reported having higher criminal tendencies focused on the fact that $40 is more than $20, the researchers noted.

Similarly, when given the option to lose $20 or flip a coin and either lose $40 or lose nothing, the study showed a majority of people choose to gamble because losing nothing is better than losing something.

Those with higher self-reported criminal tendencies do the opposite, taking a sure loss over the gamble, the researchers report.

“This is different because it is cognitive,” Reyna said. “It tells us that the way people think is different, and that is a very new and kind of revolutionary approach — helping to add to other factors that help explain the criminal brain.”

As the tasks were completed, researchers looked at brain activation through fMRI and found that criminal behavior was associated with greater activation in temporal and parietal cortices, which are brain areas involved in cognitive analysis and reasoning.

Ordinary risk-takers who self-reported not breaking the law showed emotional reactivity in the amygdala and reward motivation in the striatal areas, according to the study’s findings.

According to Reyna, not all criminal reasoning is equal, so public policies around the legal system can be impacted by these findings through a greater understanding of human brain behavior to have a more just system, while helping better protect the public.

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Source: Cornell University

Criminals Process Risk Differently Than Law-Abiding Citizens

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Criminals Process Risk Differently Than Law-Abiding Citizens. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 22 Dec 2018 (Originally: 2 Dec 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 22 Dec 2018
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