October 21, 2005
Half Of Pre-Teens With Behavior Problems Become Criminals

A Swedish research group claims that half of all children who seriously violate norms of behavior go on to become criminals.

The future is bleak for children whose behavior seriously goes against the norm at a tender age. Early and long-term interventions make all the difference. This is shown in a research survey presented by IMS, the Institute for Evidence-Based Social Work Practice at the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare together with the National Board of Institutional Care.

The behavior of such children is often more serious and aggressive than that of children who do not violate the norm until they are teenagers. Moreover, it more often continues into adulthood. Current research shows that as many as every other boy and one in five girls in this group will exhibit criminal behavior as a grown-up.

Suppose the ability to predict future criminal behavior gets further refined with genetic tests, brain scans, and other measures. Suppose that some portion of 12 year olds can be identified as having a 95+% chance of becoming lifelong criminals (and I think it inevitable that we will some day have the means to make predictions that accurate for some fraction of society). Then suppose that drugs are found that, if taken by those 12 year olds will bump their brain development in a direction that cuts their odds of becoming criminals by two thirds or three quarters. would you favor or disfavor mandatory preventative treatment of all 12 year olds who can be shown to have very high odds of becoming criminals?

Greater abilities to predict future behavior and to modify development to alter future behavior will inevitably bring up the question of when to allow or require use of methods to alter brain development and behavioral tendencies. I can't predict exactly when such capabilities will be developed. But I feel quite confident that many of us alive right now will live to see the development of such capabilities. I also expect the capabilities to become widely popular once they are available. The popularity of Ritalin demonstrates that technology for behavioral modification of kids isn't going to face serious opposition.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 October 21 02:26 PM  Bioethics Debate

Bob Mottram said at October 21, 2005 3:36 PM:

Anecdotally I have heard social workers say that they can tell which kids are going to get into trouble with the law from quite an early age. This isn't necessarily anything to do with genes. It's got a lot to do with the area in which they live and the behavior/attitudes of the parents.

I think it will eventually be found that genes do have a significant effect upon behavior, but to ignore environmental factors would also be wrong. Children are very good at immitating the behavior and language of their parents, and when the parents behave like morons you also get very similar children (in my experience).

Antinomy said at October 21, 2005 8:15 PM:

After I read this blog entry, I got thinking about some of the causes of crime. I came up with three, but I don't pretend my analysis is comprehensive. For the problems I considered, if effective drugs are developed to treat them, I suspect there will be little trouble getting people to take them voluntarily. They or their parents probably will consider such drugs to be great blessings.

A lot of criminality is caused by drug abuse. A lot of drug abuse is caused by people self-medicating because of high negative emotionality. Anti-depressants can help, but they have side effects, they don't help everybody, and some people are leery about giving them to children. Better-targeted mood stabilizers that are safe to give to kids should have a noticeable effect on the crime rate once they are developed. If the side effects are low, I don't think it will be difficult to convince people to take drugs that will make them feel better.

Another big cause of criminality is low IQ. Stupidity causes people to ignore potential consequences. People who ignore consequences are more likely to commit crimes. Again, if the side effects are low, I don't think that drugs or other treatments to raise IQ will be a hard sell either.

And then there are the psychopaths. My understanding is that psychopathy is fundamentally caused by a lack of empathy. This shows up by a young age. If drugs are available to fix that, most parents will be eager to give them to their kids. After all, a sociopath can't be fun to live with.

In summary, as long as the side effects are reasonable, I can't see any major obstacles for treating these three causes of criminality. I doubt if force will be needed. In the rare cases where parents refuse to treat, it can probably be handled through the courts, as it is when Jehovah's Witnesses refuse to give needed blood transfusions to their children.

Randall Parker said at October 21, 2005 8:45 PM:


I agree that environmental factors matter. However, I believe that some people are born as basically hopeless cases. No matter what environment they are presented with they'll turn out bad. Others are on the other extreme and are so innately good that only extreme environmental conditions would turn them bad and and perhaps not even then. Still others are at various places between those extremes with genetic leanings but to varying degrees susceptible to being pushed either toward a leaning or away from it.

Bob Mottram said at October 22, 2005 1:43 AM:

I agree that there are hopeless cases (I can remember a few from when I was at school). No matter how well they're treated or how much money is spent on them they still behave antisocially. These are the people for whom drugs may help.

Having spent some time in very poor areas, I think one of the major causes of criminality is poverty. It is true that some people on low incomes also have low IQs or poor education, but this only applies to a minority of people. Many people living in poverty are reasonably clever individuals, and if they can't make a living in the conventional way (if there are no employers in the area) they usually join the black market.

T. J. Madison said at October 22, 2005 6:40 AM:

Clarifying what we mean by "criminality" is important. The criminality I care about mostly involves killing people and/or stealing their stuff. Thus your average dope peddler is much less of a criminal than your average politician.

>>And then there are the psychopaths. My understanding is that psychopathy is fundamentally caused by a lack of empathy. This shows up by a young age. If drugs are available to fix that, most parents will be eager to give them to their kids. After all, a sociopath can't be fun to live with.

I have personal experience with an individual whose innate lack of empathy (Asperger's) was overcome by extraordinary IQ. So the smart pills might help out the sociopathy as well.

My suspicion is that people will be forced to take drugs which suppress their ability to resist authority. This might end up increasing both sociopathy and stupidity.

michael vassar said at October 22, 2005 8:25 AM:

Aspergers and sociopathy are both called "lack of empathy" but are radically different. Sociopaths are socially skilled, and "lack of sympathy" would be a better characterization. Why not offer parents the drugs for free, or even provide market incentives for taking them? Markets could encourage a slew of socially desirable behaviors, from taking birth control to getting good grades in school. We use them far too little.

Invisible Scientist said at October 22, 2005 11:53 AM:

Randall Parker:

When you speculate that in the future the brain scans and other methods might determine with 95 % accuracy, those children who will become criminals in the future, you might as well speculate that in the not-so-distant future, we will also have the technology to predict with 97 % accuracy, those children who will behave in an undesirable manner (for the society, for the upper 10 % cognitive elite, for the government, etc.)

But then, it follows that the society will take the necessary measures to prevent the birth of those children who will have undesirable behavior. It will probably be possible to choose the actual behavior of the future children, how they will speak, the tone of their voice, the way they think, the way they feel, etc...

The sky is not the limit, even the outer space won't be the limit...

Patrick said at October 22, 2005 6:39 PM:

It's interesting that once again, the rates of criminal behaviour are much higher for the males than the females. Why is this so? I was asked an interesting question by someone who worked in this area:
"Say you have a guy living in one house, and down the street lives a woman. And the guy occasionally looses his temper to the point of giving his wife a casual shove, knocking her over and giving her a black eye. And the girl down the street often looses her temper to the point of repeated hitting her husband as hard as she can, resulting in slight, unseen bruising to his chest. Now who is seen as "criminal"? Who does society regard as "a menace"? And who, on the mental level, is actually the most violent?"

Sione Vatu said at October 22, 2005 8:13 PM:

It all depends what is meant by the term "crime". And that in turn depends on who gets to decide.

War on Drugs! War for Drugs! What's it to be? At least it'll be your kids who get their brains fried and not our ones.

Tj Green said at October 23, 2005 6:47 AM:

I have thought of offenders as either psychopaths(devoid of conscience and empathy),or borderline psychopaths(defecive conscience). Psychopathy is a genetic condition,and therefore enviroment would have little or no effect on psychopaths. If we divide the borderline psychopaths into two groups,antisocial personality disorder(4% of general poulation,and 65% of prison population),and sociopaths(3% mostly males,and 20% of prison population),then fatherless homes,or bad parenting,and inner city enviroments(easier availability of alcohol and drugs),can cause them to take on more aspects of the psychopathic syndrome. I am convinced that only males can be born psychopathic. Psychopaths are emotionless calculating predators,but could we have built civilization without them?

Randall Parker said at October 23, 2005 8:44 AM:

TJ Green,

Psychopathy is not the only cause of criminality. For example, some people have empathy but are easily enraged. Once their anger is triggered they will do things that they regret afterward. The rage is part of a larger pattern of poor impulse control. They react to what is in front of them whether it be something that makes them angry or something that they strongly desire at the moment. Some are too dumb to comprehend the extent to which they are hurting others.

There are even two types of psychopaths identifiable on brain scans with one having a greater ability to get away with their predations.

Bob Badour said at October 23, 2005 9:23 AM:


Beta blockers are already an effective treatment for the easily enraged.

A very anonymous person said at October 28, 2005 3:58 PM:

As a physician and father of adopted children with behavioral disorders, let me emphasize just how anonymous this post is. I'll toss a few comments in:

1. There are very few, if any, medications that significantly improve behavior. So there are many sedating medications, but few if any specifically calming medications (not beta blockers by the way, their effects on acute anxiety are very limited). Caffeine, ritalin and related stimulants are about all there is. There are lots of beliefs, few good studies.

2. Our knowledge of what behavioral interventions are effective in guiding these children is astoundingly pathetic. The research is hard and time consuming, there is no funding, there are few if any tenured positions related to this research. I've personally known a world expert in this domain. The data does not exist. Therapists have opinions, they don't have data and their opinions differ.

We don't have any good medications. We don't have any knowledge of effective interventions. Parents are driving in the dark.

There's a truism in medicine. It's not worth doing a test if you don't know what to do with the answer. We can make fairly confident prediction of violent criminal behavior (but not of white collar crime) just based on family history, IQ, income and education. No trick to that, and this new data doesn't change much. The question remains, what do we do with this knowledge?

If we want to do something, then start by funding the research on what behavioral or medical interventions work. It's a long journey that will require billions of dollars over generations, we haven't even begun it.

BTW, be wary of calls for mandatory therapy. The best approach would be to eliminate the male phenotype.

Bob Badour said at October 29, 2005 8:01 AM:


Thank you for your candid comments and for sharing your rare combination of perspective and expertise.

Having experienced both anxiety and rage, I agree that beta blockers do nothing for anxiety. For me, though, very low doses of propranolol completely eliminated rage. Of course, such first-person observations are entirely subjective and may not generalize; however, it seems reasonable to expect adrenaline to have a large signalling role in rage.

If an annoyance or frustration persists, I find I go from mildly annoyed to very angry in the blink of an eye. This phenotype seems fairly common among my paternal relatives: father, grandfather, great-grandfather, aunts, uncles, cousins of both sexes, second-cousins etc.

Sadly, the worst among those relatives simply don't give a damn about being easily enraged. However, if someone offered me a safe somatic gene therapy that would correct the phenotype, I would take it in a heartbeat. I would prefer a treatment that prevents the inappropriate avalanche of adrenaline from happening to one that prevents adrenaline from doing its job.

melissa said at January 4, 2010 11:53 AM:

it is a very interesting method....i am a student now in my freshmen year and if i may i am doing a science fair with a partner and we are doing the experiment on how environment can affect teenagers or childrens lives...like neighborhoods,friends, how can they affect their lives.... if you may plz can you give me some cases that are similar to the ones i have shown you so i can know more about these cases.

Melissa, freshmen student

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