Crime and Human Nature

While crime is condemned by societies everywhere, attempts to control it have failed; it has yet to be explained why certain individuals repeatedly disobey society’s rules. Some have blamed crime on rational choice, some on genetic, social, psychological, even physiological differences, but none of those explanations has proven satisfactory. The authors, however, maintain that certain obvious patterns exist which show that more than random differences are at work. This interdisciplinary theory of criminality, developed by a political scientist and a psychologist, evolved out of their Harvard University course on the subject.

According to their theory, frequency of breaking the law is controlled by its consequences--that is, how rewards or punishments are meted out. The aversive consequences of crime (being caught and punished) too often do not come about at all, or, at best, are delayed, while the rewards are immediate, making it very attractive to a person who can discount the future. Both maturity and the “equity equation” (what one thinks one deserves compared to what others are getting) come to bear on a person’s actions. Very young children are by nature completely selfish, but as they mature, they normally begin to realize that others deserve a fair share. In contrast, Wilson and Herrnstein argue, many criminals never achieve this elementary sense of fairness. Regarding themselves as special, they denigrate their victims (whom they refer to as jerks, suckers, and so on).

This book presents valuable insights into a universal social problem. It is a well-documented study with an excellent bibliography.