The Psychology of the Criminal – Nature vs. Nurture is Back Again

At University I’m taking a course in criminology that focuses mainly on theories of crime (how we define crime and criminals for instance). In the last few weeks, we’ve been looking at how psychologists look at criminals, and it’s been interesting to hear a criminologist, and my peers’ points of view on psychology and its association with criminals.

Listening to conversations within the classroom, I can’t help but hear the following phrase too many times:

“People can be born bad”. I have to completely disagree.

This conversation all really started quite recently when a short documentary on TV aired about notorious killer Ivan Milat’s nephew Matthew Milat, who committied an extremely similar crime to that of his uncle. After the airing of the program, a survey was posted online asking the question “do you think people can be born bad?”. The overwhelming amount of responses that said that said “yes” was amazing. Personally I was quite astounded.

How can a criminal, or anyone for that matter, be born a certain way? I find it incredibly hard to believe that a person can be born a murderer…I honesty don’t believe it is possible. What about parental influences? What about peer influences? What about society in general shaping us as individuals?

And so the nature vs. nurture debate is back again. 

A long time ago, I stated in a speech I did in year 11 that “individuals are shaped by their nature (from birth) AND nurture (the way that society has shaped them)” and I still strongly stand by this statement.

Imagine however, if everyone believed that people can be “born bad”. What would society do? Lock up babies knowing that one day they might commit some dreadful crime?

Do not get me wrong here, I do believe that there is and can be some sort of ‘nature’ element to this argument.

No individual can be born (nature) a criminal. Perhaps they may have a predisposition to violence (or aggressiveness) because of their genetics, or have brain abnormalities that could lead to psychopathic traits/behaviours if activated or triggered (e.g. damage/abnormality in the amygdala). Environmental factors (nurture) like personal experience, may certainly influence criminal behaviour, such as abuse during childhood. On a less extreme scale, everything and anything that any one individual experiences in their lifetime will influence the way that they behave.

I do not believe that people can be ‘born bad’. I believe that people can have a predisposition to criminal-like behaviours, but whether or not these are acted upon depend entirely on the individual and the various environmental factors around them.

A criminal cannot be solely defined off of their nature, however possibly their nurture. In most cases, I believe that there is an interplay between both nature and nurture when it comes to anyone, especially criminals. 


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