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Neurogenetics and differential susceptibility to criminogenic social environments

Neurogenetics and differential susceptibility to criminogenic social environments: How do young people develop and express crime propensities?

Principal Investigator Dr Kyle Treiber 

The study of the causes of crime has in recent years experienced a wave of research into the role of genetics. Much of this research has been interested in parcelling out genetic and environmental influences, but studies have found there is no easy division – genetic and environmental factors interact in influencing criminal behaviour. One important implication is that by taking people’s genes into account, criminological studies may learn more about how environments influence their actions. However, most genetic studies lack credible measures of people’s exposure to different environments. They can therefore go only so far in answering questions about the role of gene-environment interactions in criminal behaviour. This research addresses this shortcoming by collecting genotypic data linked to a study that has pioneered new methods for studying the role of social environments in people’s crime involvement in a longitudinal design that has already collected more than 10 years of data. This will allow us to analyse gene-environment interactions in the development of people’s crime propensities and their crime involvement from a more multidisciplinary and methodologically rigorous vantage point. In doing so we can advance knowledge about which genetic and environmental factors are especially important and why, and therefore what policies and practices may be most efficacious in preventing people from developing crime propensities and committing acts of crime.

This study has three aims: (1) to situate the role of genes in crime causation within a theoretical framework (Situational Action Theory) which focuses on the interaction between people and environments; (2) to capitalise on a pre-planned, pre-funded data collection wave for the Peterborough Adolescent and Young Adult Development Study (PADS+) in order to cost-effectively collect genotypic data that can be analysed alongside uniquely detailed longitudinal data about a contemporary UK sample, their social environments, and their crime involvement; and (3) to explore gene-environment interactions in the development of key neurocognitive functions which underlie people's crime propensities.     

The first aim has been met by applying an analytical approach to understanding the role of neurogenetic factors in crime causation. This has been accomplished through the preparation of publications and international conference papers exploring the role of neurogenetic factors in (1) the action decision making processes through which people come to see and choose crime as an option, and (2) the developmental processes through which they acquire relevant neurocognitive characteristics relating to their preferences, sensitivities, moral perceptions, and abilities and tendencies to form habits and deliberate. A key emphasis is placed on the distinction between content and machinery to better specify the source of individual differences and, subsequently, appropriate targets for research and intervention. The Principal Investigator has also been instrumental in the development of an international network of analytical criminologists and the organization of three collaborative workshops (one upcoming). Future aims are to further develop and refine this framework through theory testing.

The second aim has been met and ultimately exceeded in that the study was able to capitalize on technological advancements to collect more extensive genotypic data than originally planned. This data was collected for 97% of the PADS+ sample within the two-year study timeframe, making it possible to explore neurogenetic effects across the 14-year timeframe of PADS+ (and beyond as the study continues). This has been achieved at minimal cost. The most transformative element of the study is the fact that it has incorporated a genetic dimension in a study that holds unparalleled longitudinal data on young people’s exposure to different social environments collected through a pioneering space-time budget method. This means that the study can analyse the interplay between genes and environments during development, and its relation to neurocognitive capacities and, ultimately, criminal behaviour, in greater depth than any previous study.

The final aim is now in the process of being met. The aims for the immediate future are to advance analyses and disseminate the findings.