Nature vs. Nurture, Visiting Scholar Gives Lecture on Crime

Is a person born a criminal, or does their environment make them into one? If you commit crimes does that mean you are “criminalized?” When do people become criminals?

These were some of the questions that were addressed at the Visiting Scholar Program lecture given in the UC Grand Room by Dr. John Paul Wright on Monday, March 30.

Dr. Wright is the graduate program director of the University of Cincinnati, Division of Criminal Justice, and has written over 70 articles about life course development dealing with subjects such as alcoholism and criminal behavior. Although trained in sociology, he now spends his time dealing with the biology of criminals as well as their environments, and his lecture “Who’s winning the Nature vs. Nurture war? Insights from the Study of Violence.”

So who does Dr. Wright think is winning the war?

“I think it’s nature… Nature tells us when, how, and who environmental effects will operate on.”

Dr. Wright used the example of a family with multiple children. They all share the same environment growing up, but as everyone with brothers or sisters know, they all turn out different. Several power point pictures of brain activity showed that people who are “criminalized,” that is exhibit anti social behavior and lack of empathy, have less brain function in the area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex.

“Anti social people see the world fundamentally different than most.”

Most everyone has done illegal acts, but these people often have extensive arrest histories, see the world as hostile, and in some cases, find pleasure in other people’s pain. According to Dr. Wright, new studies show that these behaviors start as early as two years old. While obviously not criminal acts, babies taking other babies’ toys and hitting can be the beginnings of anti social behavior. Even though these acts are normal, people with less brain activity in the prefrontal cortex continue these activities well into adulthood.

Rehabilitation of these individuals can be complex.

Dr. Wright argues that programs that are aimed at boosting self esteem are ineffective because the criminalized mind often has too much self esteem and doesn’t feel remorse after committing serious crimes. Drug education programs are ineffective and simply giving people jobs won’t help as these people are mostly unable to hold one down. Intensive action oriented therapy, he says, has shown the best results. Programs with well trained staff at correction facilities shows a 44 percent reduction in people’s anti social activities after 15 years. These programs have since been shut down. Even though initial investments are needed to start these programs back up, the reduction in returning prisoners should save the tax payers money.

As technology expands and as we get a better understanding of how our brains function, maybe we can better target and work with children before they grow into adults with multiple felonies. Unfortunately our brain is still largely a mystery, and it will take some time before science can effectively and ethically alter anti-social behavior. There are some simple answers, however.

Amid all the variables and complicated explanations of the night, when asked why certain sections of a city had so much crime, Dr. Wright responded, “Because a lot of criminals live there.”