Discuss the impact of environmental factors, in particular crime and trauma, on the psychological development of an individual. Discuss the impact of “nature versus nurture” in the context of crime, both the perspective of the victim and the criminal.

By Murphy Bong Year 11: Melbourne High School.

When presented with the word “crime”, many individuals would immediately think of grieving victims, intimidating prisons and judges. Some might even go further and say that with crime comes punishment. Whilst this is correct to some degree, it is merely a shallow understanding of crime and its causes. A shallow understanding of crime can only bring about detriments to society as there is nothing stopping the recurrence of crime unless the reasons why crimes occur are understood. In the context of crime, it is inarguable that a holistic understanding needs to be undertaken and more specifically, in a “nature versus nurture” discussion the root-issues on why crimes occur, in particular environmental factors, need to be duly considered, which will be the endeavour of this discussion paper.

In 1969, Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted experiments in neighbourhoods across the United States.  In his experiments, he placed an automobile without a license plate, parked with its hood up, in the low socioeconomic area of Bronx and another identical car on a street in a higher socioeconomic area of Palo Alto and observed what happened to the cars. The car in Bronx was attacked by “vandals” within ten minutes of its “abandonment” and within twenty-four hours, virtually everything of value had been removed. The other car in Palo Alto sat in pristine conditions for a week – despite having no licence plate and the car’s hood opened up. Zimbardo then smashed part of the car in Palo Alto with a sledgehammer. Soon, passerbys joined in – within hours, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed. 1

The results of this experiment were groundbreaking, later contributing to a significant phenomenon known as the broken-window theory which suggests that blemishes in an environment, such as litter and vandalism, have a snowball effect into larger crimes. The fact that immediately after Zimbardo smashed the car in Palo Alto in his experiments, “vandals” were aroused to join in the destruction of the car shows that crime occurs with a snowball effect – that, once an imperfection exists, a community falls into a slippery slope towards further crime.

It is therefore unsurprising that just recently inhabitants of Tecomba were vocally protesting against a McDonald’s restaurant being built 2 as they believed that it created problems such as litter and vandalism – which would lead to further, more serious crimes. A vocal opposition to a fast-food restaurant being built seems unjustified to some, but it is not entirely baseless. Considering that the recidivism (reoffending) rate in Australia stands at 60% 3, prevention rather than treatment needs to be a key priority in our legal system. In today’s society, often the main message obtained from a crime by the community would be that: victim X received ‘justice’ because perpetrator Y received an appropriate sentence for his/her crime. The public, through little fault of their own, often neglect that justice (an overused, and not properly understood, term in the media) is not about individuals receiving sentences that match their crime. Justice, at the most shallow and non-philosophical level, is the fairness afforded to all and by turning a blind eye towards systemic flaws, such as environmental problems, the public is doing themselves an injustice as they are exposing themselves to further crimes.

In criminology, there are two schools of thought: classical theory and positivism 4. The classical school asserts that the perpetrator of a crime, whether rational or irrational, chooses to commit crimes whereas the positivist school proposes the opposite. The positivist school assumes a distinction between the “normal” and the “deviant”. The deviant individual has no immediate control of his deviation and is seen to possess some form of deficiency, biologically or psychologically. For the purpose of a “nature versus nurture” discussion, the positivist school is more appropriate.

Biological positivism was first popularized by Lombroso 5 who supports the “nature” side of the argument by postulating that the criminal is born not made. Their deviancy is caused by biological flaws that differentiate them from the “normal”. This was reflected in subsequent studies by the University of Melbourne where an experiment conducted on 355 inmates found that serious crime offenders have small brain cubic capacity.  Also, biologists in 1973 also found that approximately 1 in 750 6 males possessed an XXY chromosome (as opposed to the “normal” XY for males). It is then empirically suggested that individuals with a XXY chromosome is more predisposed to criminal activity.

The findings and premises put forward by biological positivists show that it is possible that the criminal is born (nature) not made, with some groups more likely to commit crime than others. However, even if biological positivism is valid of a theory, it is no justification for an individual, biologically predisposed to be more violent, to commit a heinous crime.

However, having said that, society should not go judge-and-jury on a perpetrator of a crime. This is an unpopular view but it is one that needs to be considered. Society should focus more on the whys: why did action or omission X occurred,? Indeed the crime itself needs to be considered, but the public should not fall victim themselves to seeing crime occurring only to “ideal victims” (ie. vulnerable, frail) and instead, should see the bigger picture. This is one of the hallmarks towards mitigating the endemic culture of crime in our society.  The most recent example being that of the Jill Meagher’s murder: the media focused on the life that the vulnerable Meagher could have had if not for the cruel acts of Bayley (perpetrator). The victim was painted in a positive light (a positive, intelligent ABC employee) whilst Bayley a villain. Society does not seem to care about anything to do with the perpetrator bar the punishment he received.  When did anyone ever dare to express that perhaps he is only a victim to the legal system? Perhaps his environment that nurtured him was one of the root causes of his crimes?  This is a very unpopular view but is one that needs to be considered. There is no doubt that deranged criminals like Bayley needs to be punished but punishment should not and never should, be the sole concern. To move forward, we need to find explanations for things occurring: not shirk it off as if it will not happen again. 7

On the other hand, psychological positivism states that the criminal is made but not born. This directly supports the “nurture” strand of the “nature versus nurture” conundrum. The main contention of psychological positivism is that the criminal is made by outer influences. This is best supported by the self-control theory (Hirschi and Gottferdson), which states that all individuals have some self-control and that the individual who commits a crime is the one who lacks, or did not exercise his self-control. Ineptitude to exercise self-control is explained to stem from a lack of supervision at a young age by the parents and a lack of detachment with the male parent. The lack of nurture and detachment with the parent then interact with environmental potentials (such as the “broken windows theory” discussed earlier) to “manufacture” the criminal.

Psychological positivism is arguably the most accurate or effective way to discuss the “nurture” side of the “nature versus nurture” debate in the context of crime. However, like biological positivism, it should not be taken fully, at its face value, in explaining crime. Psychological positivism relies on a somewhat cause-and-effect relationship where the criminal is “manufactured” or made by their environment. It does not take into account that criminals may be arbitrarily born: it seems to focus on the likely traits of a criminal – one who lacked supervision and attachment.

Crimes, in general, have a scarring and traumatic impact on society and the victims. Direct victims, if still alive, often require lengthy periods of counseling to recover and there are no guarantees that they will. They often require ongoing assistance, such as victims of street violence who are reduced to a vegetative state, or they may suffer from ongoing psychological scars such as posttraumatic stress disorder.

An example of this is victim of domestic violence, Angela Barker, who talks publicly about her traumatic experiences of being abused. She was told by her doctor that she would “live like a vegetable” for the rest of her life.  Yet without her mustering the courage to speak about her traumatic past, not many people would know about her. This is where the criminal justice system fails: in many ways it is focused on punishing the offender, not treating the victim and the community. It is far too tempting to only report and talk about the effects of crime, grieve about the trauma caused and do nothing about it – in fact, that seems like the accepted approach.   Justice seems to be achieved when the offender is punished through offender the courts, as if that is sufficient of an appeasement to the victims and communities. This is empirically and anecdotally incorrect when it is known that the recidivism rate in Victoria stands at 60%. If nothing is done in the future, this cycle will only continue: more people will be hurt and the cycle will continue to repeat itself. A holistic approach is definitely required to remove the systemic problems of crime, and this starts with understanding the consequences of one’s environment.

The underlying tone of this essay has been critical, rather than laudatory, because criticism is the jumpstart for future improvements. These criticisms are not baseless:  as mentioned above, the recidivism rate in Australia is a staggering 60% – showing that the same strata of individuals are going to prison repeatedly. The government needs to be wary of turning a blind eye towards crime. Although crime rates in Australia have not risen drastically in the past decade, it is not time to be complacent. Australia needs to be careful not to fall into an endemic culture of crime, like in the United States where more money is assigned to build and maintain prisons each year than to build and maintain schools. 8.

Considering that it costs nearly $300 8 each day to keep one criminal incarcerated, society has a vested interest in reducing crime and this should begin with effective leadership from the government. The government, in addressing crime and trauma, needs to be consultative. This means that their duty of care is not limited to policing and prosecuting. Instead, they have a role to undertake both a pedagogical and proactive role in addressing crime and trauma.  This includes an educative and consultative role by the government (or an appointed body) on the possible environmental contributions towards crime and trauma and how to mitigate it. This may include: improving the overall aesthetics or “livability” of marginalised communities (as per the “broken-windows theory, where blemishes in communities create larger crimes) and perhaps undertake a much more proactive, rather than reactive role.  A proactive government is one with vision and care, and one possible side condition to this is that they should be apolitical– that is, they need to affect change because they genuinely care not because of political whims. A proactive approach is required to tackle crime as passivity has failed us in the past, self-evident through crime statistics.

Although many believe that the threat of harsh penalties may deter individuals and is the most viable option to address crime, this is simply not so empirically and anecdotally. To tackle crime, one must fix the problem at its roots-level. This includes improving environmental factors, as discussed through the reference of the broken windows theory, and focusing more on prevention rather than treatment. Due consideration must also be given to the “nature and nurture” strand of the debate, where the cause of an offence can be established to prevent future harms from taking place. These, along with the aforementioned suggestions, are all just small steps towards mitigating the effects of crime and trauma.


Sources (Footnotes)

1. Wilson, James, and George Kelling. “The Police and Neighborhood Safety BROKEN WINDOWS.” (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

2: “McDonald’s Hamburger Hell Continues in Tecoma.” Herald Sun, n.d. Web.

3. Recidivism Rates.” Australian Institute of Criminology -, n.d. Web. June 2013.

4. White, R. D., and Fiona Haines. Crime and Criminology. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

5. Ibid

6. Ibid

7. “Jill Meagher’s Husband Tom Says Killer Adrian Bayley Was ‘let off Too Many Times’” Herald Sun, n.d. Web.

8. Andersen Serving Time or Serving the Community? : Exploiting a Policy Reform to Assess the Causal Effects of Community Service on Income, Social Benefit Dependency and Recidivism. Odense: University of Southern Denmark, 2012. Print.

9. “Sentencing Statistics.” Sentencing Council Victoria N.p., n.d. Web.

Other Sources

Beazer, Margaret, and Michelle Humphreys. Justice & Outcomes: Legal Studies for Units 3 & 4. South Melbourne: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Huxley-Binns, Rebecca. Criminal Law Concentrate: Third Edition. N.p.: Oxford UP, n.d. Print.


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