Biological & Psychological Theories of Deviance Research Paper Starter

Biological & Psychological Theories of Deviance

Many psychological theories of deviance are inextricably linked to biological conditions of the human body and mind. Characteristics of deviants, such as poor self-control, impulsivity, aggression, lack of empathy, thrill-seeking, and poor reasoning and verbal skills, all may have a biological component that predisposes an individual to antisocial behavior. Scientific methodologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), provide additional insights into the relationship between biology, psychology, and learning as they relate to deviance and criminality. Regardless of causation, poor parenting skills, child abuse, parental criminal history, and lower verbal IQ scores, are important elements in the development of deviant and delinquent behaviors.

Keywords Delinquency; Empirical; Neurology; Operant Theory; Predisposition; Psychopathy; Social Control Theory; Social Learning Theory



The debate of nature versus nurture is a central theme in any review of psychological theories of deviance. Is a person born bad, or is it by interacting with others that an individual fails to learn acceptable social behavior? In part, the answer to that question depends upon the focus one brings to the issue. Experts in genetics, neurology, and related biological sciences tend to develop perspectives based upon more innate physical qualities that impact human behavior. Social scientists and psychologists tend to focus on human interactions as a basis of social development. Some individual scholars view one factor as causal in terms of deviance and criminality, while others seek a more integrated theoretical analysis that looks at several factors. For example, although a detailed analysis of the causes of sexual offending is beyond the scope of this article, Ward and Beecher (2008) provide a useful integrated theory that includes genetic predisposition; adverse developmental experiences (such as child abuse, rejection); psychological dispositions/trait factors (interpersonal problems, mental disorders); social and cultural structures and process (sexism, masculinity, and other learned behaviors); and contextual factors (such as stress or intoxication). While their theoretical framework is related to sexual offending exclusively, it could also be helpful in the development of theories of violent crime in general. Thus, although the balance of this article looks at the various factors individually, it is important to appreciate the complexity and interconnectedness of biological and psychological theories of deviance and criminality.

Because so many factors pertaining to our physical existence impact our brains and emotional responses, some biological theories of deviance and criminality deserve mention in this look at psychological theories. Biochemical theories of deviance might consider how allergies, vitamin deficiencies, lead poisoning, hypoglycemia, low brain serotonin, alcohol consumption, or responses to drugs like Prozac, for example, could affect an individual's propensity toward deviant or criminal behavior. For example, studies on animals relate high levels of dopamine and norepinephrine to impulsive or reactive acts of aggression (Raine, 1995). It may be the case, then, that no one cause or condition explains criminal deviance.

Further Insights

Biological Factors in Deviance

The Frontal Cortex

Studies of brain conditions and development also provide some compelling research on the development of antisocial behavior. Raine (1995) and her colleagues surveyed the literature and set forth two areas of the brain that may relate to antisocial behavior: the frontal cortex and the left hemisphere. The frontal cortex regulates aggression, self-control, social judgment, concentration, and intellectual flexibility, while the left hemisphere of the brain governs "functions of language, verbal comprehension, and expressive speech" (p. 53). Studies of adults and delinquent youth show lower verbal IQ scores, suggesting that they may have a left hemisphere dysfunction. Based on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies, scientists believe that the brain of a juvenile is less developed than that of an adult, especially in the front lobe, which is responsible for executive, high order functioning, such as memory, planning, and inhibition. Bower and others suggested that this condition presents some juveniles with difficulties in "regulating aggression, long-range planning, mental flexibility, abstract thinking, the capacity to hold in mind related pieces of information, and perhaps moral judgment" (2004). In addition to the recent findings on children's apparently inherent diminished brain functioning capacity, MRI research suggests that exposure to violent video games and television might negatively impact frontal lobe development and function ("Playing With," 2003; Phillips, 2004). Because of these findings, advocates within the juvenile justice field, such as the Human Rights Watch, are pressuring politicians and judicial leaders to reconsider harsh, punitive measures when sentencing juvenile violent offenders.


Neurology, the study of the nervous system, also may provide some insights into the psychological aspects of deviance and criminality. In their review of this literature, Raine and her colleagues point to two major areas of consideration based upon studies of psychopaths, defined as people who exhibit aggressive, violent thoughts and actions and who lack empathy (1995). "Arousal theory" suggests that "antisocial individuals are pathologically under-aroused physiologically, as indicated by low heart rate, low skin conductance, excessive slow-wave electroencephalographic (EEG) activity" (Raine, 1995, p. 52). Individuals with this condition are "less sensitive to the subtle cues required for learning prosocial behavior" and the condition may "impair the classic conditioning of emotional responses thought to be important in conscience formation and avoidance learning" (Raine, 1995, p. 52-53). Arguably, then, the violent behavior might be a mechanism for seeking stimulation or, in the alternative, the individual may not experience violence or stress as something negative and to be avoided. Similar arguments can be made in relation to the second theoretical framework discussed by Raine, "impulse/motivational systems analysis" (p. 51-52). Briefly stated, this theoretical framework argues that psychopaths have a heightened desire for rewards, along with a reduced perception of the risks of punishment. Arguably, this hyper-focus on "reward may also interfere with learning the cues that lead to punishment" (p. 52). Conversely, by being unable to feel anxiety and stress as it relates to punishment, these individuals have an increased likelihood of acting in antisocial or criminal ways.


Another important look at the interplay between psychological and physiological causes of deviance was set forth by Eysenck in the late 1940s. Eysenck employed statistical analysis to personality studies and determined that high and low levels of two factors were at play in a person's likelihood of exhibiting deviant behavior: "extraversion," which was related to a person's ability to enjoy positive social events; and "neuroticism," which referred to a tendency to experience negative emotions. According to Eysenck's analysis, the neurotic extraverts were the most likely individuals to develop into criminals since they would have difficulty socializing with other children and, as a consequence, not learn acceptable social conduct or be able to adhere to it. Although counterintuitive, Eysenck argued that because the introverts' brain arousal was more active, they sought less stimulation from social or criminal conduct, while extroverts needed the stimulation of highly social or dangerous behaviors. In the 1970s, Eysenck added levels of "psychoticism" to his scale, arguing that psychotics exhibit aggressive, cold, and impersonal behavior that can lead to interpersonal conflicts and criminal conduct (Eysenck, 1989). Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) criticized Eysenck's work, arguing that his personality dimensions overlapped conceptually and that they could not be measured independently from the behavior that they were meant to describe. Like so many other personality scales developed during the twentieth century, Eysenck and his colleagues had apparently included questions about criminal conduct and violence in their questionnaires, and they concluded that whichever traits the criminal respondents exhibited were proof of criminal tendencies.

Other Personality Traits

Another major contribution on personality traits was by Wilson and Herrnstein (1985). They concluded that individuals with criminal and violent personalities exhibited the following characteristics: assertiveness, fearlessness, aggressiveness, unconventionality, extroversion, poor socialization, psychopathy, schizophrenia, hypomania, hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and left-handedness. Other scales include lower empathy, risk taking, and an external locus of control as additional personality traits that evidence criminality (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). Since questions on these scales related to past criminality and acts of violence, however, these studies fall into the same methodological problems of labeling individuals with criminal pasts as having criminal personality traits.

In their general theory of criminality, Gottfredson and Hirschi argued that self-control factors are the most powerful predictors of deviance and crime (1990). Committing a crime is easy, exciting, and offers immediate gratification. Similarly, it takes little or no planning and does not require any long term commitment or ongoing interpersonal negotiations. Finally, since criminals exhibit little empathy with or consideration for the needs of their victims, the resulting harm to the victim does not disrupt the perpetrator's criminal urges. Gottfredson and Hirschi suggested that two factors are related to an individual's inability to control their behavior: ineffective parenting and biology. Similarly, Hardwick has argued that although parental supervision plays an important role in the development of self-control, biological factors appear to play the most significant role in the relationship between deviance and self-control (2007).

In the theoretical frameworks discussed above, biological factors either exacerbated or diminished cues in such a manner as to cause antisocial or deviant behavior. In some ways, Freud's psychoanalytic theory of personality development describes a similar internal process, possibly because he was a neurophysiologist. According to Freud, human nature is...

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