What Makes a Criminal?

Exploring factors contributing to criminal behavior.

Posted Jan 13, 2019

I take solace in focusing on just one person at a time in an interview room.  The individual has educated me over the years; insight springs from the emergence of patterns.  Broader societal implications I leave to the folks who study trends and make theories.  What I can say is that after interviewing thousands of people, I’ve come to appreciate certain human attributes associated with criminal behavior.    

The idea of nature versus nurture is long antiquated.  We all start with a genetic foundation inherited from our two progenitors (passed to them over centuries) with myriad possibilities. Environmental factors, unanticipated stressors and trauma, force the expression of certain genes and proteins over others.  During the formidable years of development redundant neural pathways are winnowed by environmental pressure in the presence or absence of external support. 

A child who grows up with all basic necessities cared for will look different than one who worried about where his next meal would come from or whether trauma lingered outside the door in the form of a physical or sexual abuser. A major factor is resiliency or the ability to absorb the blows of life and rebound for the better.  

Blind luck plays a role. A person with a fair amount of resiliency might endure the loss of a parent if another remains to help. However, repeated insults of a similar nature can overwhelm even someone with high resiliency. Sometimes, life doesn’t deal too much negativity until later in life and symptoms of criminality only then emerge.  

We are all endowed with varying amounts of intelligence, insight, and empathy. Other important factors include impulsivity, the ability to delay gratification, and the foresight to appreciate consequences prior to action. These attributes all exist on a continuum. It is a mix of all these facets of a personality that interact with the outside world, making tens of thousands of little choices that add up to a life lived.  

It is an unimaginably complex mixture comprising each individual. (And what makes working in mental health eternally interesting.) We are not born moral; a toddler delights in pulling the cat’s tail. It is a parental figure who instructs that such an action causes both pain for the animal and might lead to a nip and is thus best avoided. Even so, our brain’s frontal lobe, the section most responsible for our socialization, does not fully develop until our mid 20s. Many of us can recall our most bone-headed decisions in our late teens and early 20s when we believed we already knew it all. Further, it is well known that 40 marks a general age at which people, especially men, mellow.  

For most, though, it comes down to choices made, dilemmas faced, internal arguments over morality and consequence leading to decision. Rarely have I come across someone irredeemably evil or at so at odds with society as to pose a constant danger. These are the psychopaths; individuals who profoundly lack empathy for others and acts out of pure self-interest. This is not to say psychopaths are devoid of free will. They remain aware of laws and morals and make choices as we all do. Robert Hare has done considerable work in this field and has written a book called Without Conscience that I recommend highly.  

A final note. Hearing and accepting the word “no” as a child helps determine how one will cope with disappointment as an adult. When faced with perceived deprivation, some will feel less inclined to follow societal norms, or laws if they feel entitled to something. In their mind the end justifies the means because life hasn’t been fair.    


Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us.  Robert D Hare, PhD.  The Guilford Press, 1993.

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