Criminality–a WIP; your thoughts appreciated

I’ve been thinking about criminality, inspired by a friend’s musings on why didn’t he turn to crime during his decades of homelessness and schizophrenia. My answer was relatively simple: I think my friend just isn’t a criminal sort of person.

To clarify what I mean: let’s assume, similar to IQ, that each person has a “criminality quotient,” or CQ. Like IQ, one’s relative CQ is assumed to basically hold steady over time–that is, we assume that a person who rates “Low CQ” at 20 will also rate “Low CQ” at 30 and 60 and 10 years old, though the particular activities people do obviously change with age. Absolute CQ decreases for everyone past 35 or so.

A low CQ person has very little inclination to criminal behavior–they come to a full stop at stop signs, return excess change if a cashier gives them too much, don’t litter, and always cooperate in the Prisoner’s Dilemma. They are a bit dull, but they make good neighbors and employees.

A mildly CQ person is okay with a few forms of petty crime, like shoplifting, underage drinking, pot smoking, or yelling at people. They make fun friends but they litter and their party guests vomit in your bushes, making bad neighbors. You generally wouldn’t arrest these people, even though they do break the law.

A moderately CQ person purposefully does things that actually hurt people. They mug people or hold up conbinis; they get in fights. They mistreat animals, women, and children. They defect on the Prisoner’s Dilemma. They make shitty friends and shitty neighbors, because they steal your stuff.

A high CQ person is a murderer; they have no respect for human life.

A common explanation for criminality is that poverty causes it, hence my formerly homeless friend’s confusion. Obviously poverty can cause people to commit crimes they wouldn’t otherwise, like stealing food or sleeping in public parks. But in general, I suspect the causal arrow points the other way: criminality involves certain traits–like aggression and impulsivity–that make it hard to keep jobs, which makes criminal people poor.

Good people, reduced to poverty, remain good people. Bad people, suddenly given a bunch of money, remain bad people.

I’m not sure how one would test the first half of this without massive confounders or terrible ethics,  but the latter half seems relatively easy, if you can just find enough petty criminals who’ve won the lottery and aren’t in prison–although now that I think about it, it seems like you could look at before and during data for people affected by essentially government-induced famines or poverty events. Just a friendly wager, but I bet Jews during the Holocaust had crime rates lower than American inner-city-lottery winners.

But “criminality” is a complex trait, so let’s unpack that a little. What exactly is it about criminality that makes it correlate with poverty?

Subtraits: aggression, impulsivity, low intelligence, lack of empathy, low risk aversion, high temporal discount.

Any of these traits by themselves wouldn’t necessarily induce criminality–people with Down’s Syndrome, for example, have low IQs but are very kind and have no inclination toward criminality (that I have ever heard of, anyway.) Many autistic people are supposed to be low in empathy, but do not desire to hurt others, and often have rather strong moral compasses. Low risk-aversion people can just do xtreme sports, and high-time preference people can be bad at saving money but otherwise harmless. Even aggressive people can channel their aggression into something useful if they are intelligent. Impulsive people might just eat too many cookies or dye their hair wacky colors.

But people who have more than one of these traits are highly likely to engage in criminal behavior.

However, these traits do not appear to be randomly distributed (thus, criminalitty is not randomly distributed.) Rather, they seem to belong to a complex or archetype, of which “criminality” is one manifestation.

This complex has probably been more or less the human default for most of human history. After all, chimps are not especially known for not tearing each other’s faces off. And saving up wealth for tomorrow instead of eating it today doesn’t make sense if the tribe next door can just come in and steal it. In a violent, chaotic, pre-state tribal world, “criminality” is survival.

Over at Evo and Proud, Frost has been talking about his paper on the genetic pacification of Europe via executing lots of criminals, and various counter arguments, ie, In the wrong place at the wrong time? and How many were already fathers?

To summarize, briefly, Frost proposes that the precipitous drop in W. European crime levels over the past thousand years or so has been due to states executing criminals, thus removing “criminal” genes from the genepool. The sticky questions are whether the drop in crime actually happened when and where his theory suggests, and if enough people were actually killed to make a dent in criminality.

I suspect that Frost is at least partially right–many people who might have had children were executed instead–but there is another factor to consider:

A land where criminals are executed is a land where criminals are already useless or less than useless. They have gone from assets to nuisances (horrible ones, but nuisances nonetheless), to be swatted like flies.

In a land where criminals are useful, we do not call them criminals; we call them heroes. Is Che Guevara a murderer or a freedom fighter? Depends on who you ask. Is the man who crushes enemies, drives off their cattle and hears the lamentations of their women a hero or a butcher? In Mongolia, there are statues of Genghis Khan and he is regarded as the father of Mongolia. Vlad Tepes is a here in Romania.

In a land where marauding tribes are no longer a concern, you have no need for violent tribesmen of your own. In a land where long term saving is technically possible, people who do can get ahead. In these places, the criminality complex is no longer favored, and even mildly CQ people–too mild to get executed–get out-competed by people with lower CQs.

However, I do caution that recent data suggests this trend may have reversed, and criminals may now have more children than non-criminals. I wouldn’t count on anything being eternal.

Looking back over my own thought on the subject over the years, I think this is essentially reversal of sorts. Our legal system is built on the Enlightenment (I think) idea of redeemability–that criminals can be changed; that we punish the individual criminal act, not the “criminality” of the offender. This may not be so in the death penalty or for certain egregiously heinous acts like child rape, but in general, there are principles like “no double jeopardy” and “people who have served their time should be allowed to re-integrate into society and not be punished anymore.” The idea of CQ basically implies that some people should be imprisoned irrespective of whatever crimes they’ve been convicted of, simply because they’re going to commit more crimes.

There’s a conflict here, and it’s easy to see how either view, taken to extremes, could go horribly wrong. Thus it is probably best to maintain a moderate approach to imprisonment, while trying to ensure that society is set up to encourage lawful behavior and not reward criminality.

Your thoughts and reflections are encouraged/appreciated.


8 thoughts on “Criminality–a WIP; your thoughts appreciated

  1. Good people, reduced to poverty, remain good people.

    Not sure how you’d quantify it, but the Great Depression certainly must have a lot of data. Plenty of hitherto “good” people were thrown out on their butts and had to scrape. Did criminality go up? Certainly. How much? How much would we expect?


  2. I would support mandatory death sentences for repeat offenders with no right to appeal I am willing to give a second chance but no third chances. And this includes juvenile offenders, youth offenders almost always grow up into full sized offenders see no reason why there records should be wiped clean just because someone thinks they look cute.


  3. “Subtraits: aggression, impulsivity, low intelligence, lack of empathy, low risk aversion, high temporal discount.”

    Lately, I’ve begun telling myself, “They don’t know any better,” which is, I suppose, a version of, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

    Sam Harris says this similarly (in paraphrase): “If you go into the woods and meet a bear, and the bear attacks you and tears off your arm, if you later survive the encounter, you do not tell your friends about it with the explanation, ‘That was an evil, criminal bear that deserves to be locked-up forever.’ So, why do we speak this way about people who, based upon previous behavior, predictably behave like bears?”

    In like fashion, certain sub-traits: “aggression, impulsivity, low intelligence, lack of empathy, low risk aversion, high temporal discount,” may be qualities, such as teeth, claws, and a penchant for tearing apart hikers, that discount what many of us might otherwise describe as human. By this I don’t mean that people possessing the traits you describe aren’t “human” in the taxonomical sense, but in the sense that some of us expect certain qualities from human beings, and people possessing the traits you describe don’t share these assumptive qualities. it would be a mistake to call such people “human” in the colloquial sense. Designations such as “us and them” have more meaning if one comprehends such nuances regarding disqualifying qualities that would make one a criminal in one society but not another.

    For instance, you wrote elsewhere that returning excess change is a courtesy one expects in a high-trust society, but the capacity to make change is not within the strict description of a high-trust society – it may be a function of education and is certainly a function of intelligence. One does not trust a dog to accurately dispense change in a monetary transaction – or, at least, I don’t trust my poodle to accomplish it.

    So, I think a better description of the qualities you’re attempting to codify would be (admittedly relative) cultural concepts. Many of these would be parallel within similar societies (urban technological versus rural agrarian versus mixed urban/rural nomadic), but not necessarily identical. For instance, Europe has drifted toward “liberal” attitudes to female attire, but most other urban societies (even Japan!) have retained concepts and rules of modesty.


    • From a technical perspective, I would not expect to find a society with an organic economic system beyond the mathematical abilities of its members. People with no words for numbers past 3 manage to carry on trade via 1-to-1 correspondence of items and body parts, eg, “I will give you 4 hands worth of chickens for each sheep. I want 1 hand of sheep,” or “You must pay hands and feet of sheep for every slain warrior on our side.” Trustworthy people who cannot count change will just check with you: is this good? Is this enough? I recall the story of a small child selling gum on the streets of Mexico city; he couldn’t subtract, and so would just hold out a handful of change and hope the customers would be honest and take what they were owed. He didn’t go broke, so I assume most of his customers were basically honest.

      So trustworthy people are trustworthy, even if they can’t do $5-$1.78 in their heads.

      Obviously traits vary by culture, but culture is itself the aggregate of the traits of the people in it, so there is a certain recursion here. Gene-culture co-evolution and all that.

      I suspect that the difference between humans and bears is that we can (almost) all recognize that bears are dangerous to people, but untrustworthy people can be in your own family. It is easy to avoid high-crime people who live far away (just as I live far from bears,) but a bit harder to avoid my neighbors; if they happen to be the puking-in-the-bushes sorts of people, then I have to figure out how to deal with them.


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