The criminal, and unethical, brain is different

Listen to this article

The criminal, and unethical, brain is different

A new study shows a difference between how risk is cognitively processed by self-reported law-abiding citizens and self-reported lawbreakers, allowing researchers to better view and understand the criminal mind.

I have been doing a lot of research recently on the genetics and neuroscience of ethics specifically unethical behavior, so this study is of particular interest to me.

What the researchers say: The team behind this study examined the neurological correlations between risk preferences and criminality in adults.

In the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, participants who anonymously self-reported criminal or non-criminal tendencies were offered two choices: $20 guaranteed, or to flip a coin for double or nothing. The study found that individuals who are higher in criminal tendencies choose the gamble, even though they know there is a risk of getting nothing. Those who self-reported having higher criminal tendencies focused on the fact that $40 is more than $20.

Similarly, when given the option to lose $20 or flip a coin and either lose $40 or lose nothing, the study showed a majority of people choose to gamble because losing nothing is better than losing something. Those with higher self-reported criminal tendencies do the opposite, taking a sure loss over the gamble.

"This is different because it is cognitive," said the lead author. "It tells us that the way criminals and non-criminals think is different, and that is a very new and kind of revolutionary approach—helping to add to other factors that help explain the criminal brain."
As the tasks were completed, researchers looked at brain activation using fMRI scanners and found that criminal behavior was associated with greater activation in temporal and parietal cortices, which are brain areas involved in cognitive analysis and reasoning. Ordinary risk-takers who self-reported not breaking the law showed emotional reactivity in the amygdala and reward motivation in the striatal areas.

So, what? This study adds to the large body of evidence that shows that a number of genetic and neurobiological differences exist between law-abiding people and those who are not and between those that obey ethical dictates and those that don’t.

What is really interesting is that the researchers showed that there is increased activation of the reasoning part of the brain in criminals when faced with a risk and the emotional components of the brain in non-criminals. The non-activation of the amygdala in the criminal brain is especially interesting as it shows a lack of fear in a risk situation. Interesting because fear would be a mitigating response to risk.

Earlier research, also in previous TRs, shows that criminals and those who don’t adhere to ethical rules have higher levels of the neurochemical testosterone, which also predisposes people to take risks. Testosterone itself is associated with less activity in the amygdala.

What now? Can we use these findings as a test for criminality? No, but maybe as a test for a predisposition to break legal and social norms, and thus for preventative interventions.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

Join the discussion

More from this issue of TR

No items found.

Join our tribe

Subscribe to Dr. Bob Murray’s Today’s Research, a free weekly roundup of the latest research in a wide range of scientific disciplines. Explore leadership, strategy, culture, business and social trends, and executive health.

Thank you for subscribing.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Check your details and try again.