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 Micah Maglaya, Year 11 Wantirna College

The mind is a powerful instrument that governs the way we think, which leads to the way we act. There are many environmental factors that shape an individual’s psychological development, but the impact on a victim of crime can lead to a disastrous result in the mind and play a downfall in their well being. A victim of a crime is most likely to experience trauma after the event, and can get affected psychologically, financially, physically, and spiritually (Wasserman & Ellis 2007, Ch.6 p. VI-1).

The impact of crime and trauma on the psychological development of an individual can alter the person’s whole personality and their perception of the world and society around them. They may start to suffer from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which can generate feelings of being unsafe, vulnerable, and powerless—which would lead to a domino effect of the way they live their lives. A victim of crime’s psychological development could degrade and lead to ruined relationships, ethics, social bearings, and personal interests solely due to that harrowing event. The victim of crime starts to revolve their life around the continuous remembrance of the mishap; and this shapes their psychological development to a mind that would need assistance of simply letting go, or even more.

However, naturally some people react more strongly to these events than others. Gender roles and ‘nature versus nurture’ can lead to various results of the size of the impact of crime on a victim. One of the approaches to psychology is the debate on ‘nature versus nurture’. Where in essence, nature is our innate behavior, genetics, or the biological approach; and nurture refers to all environmental influences, experiences, or the conditioning through society.  Most victims of serious crime will somehow experience emotional turmoil at one point after the event, but for others, this chaos will linger for months and even years. Others may take longer to restructure their lives, while the other may find it impossible to resume a functional life.

According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, research has shown that criminal victimization has generally found that younger victims experience fewer adverse effects than older victims. Woman are generally, more naturally, traumatized than men; and victims with little formal education and low income are traumatized more than the victims who have higher socioeconomic and education backgrounds. The research also shows that victims who have been injured, or whose lives have been threatened during the crime, tend to have a larger impact in the long term than those who have not been injured or threatened.

The impact of nurture to a victim of crime can also be taken in the context of pre-crime beliefs and assumptions about the world of an individual. A Professor of Psychology at University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, is the author of “Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma (1992)”, where she talks about how we all function from day to day on the basis of assumptions and personal theories that allow us to set goals, plan activities, and order our behavior. These conceptual systems develop over time and provide us with viable expectations about our environment and ourselves. For example, with our “assumptive world”, we simultaneously believe that crime… “it can’t possibly happen to me”. Therefore, in our day-to-day existence, we operate on the basis of an illusion of invulnerability. This misconception about the unlikelihood of experiencing negative events can furthermore make the trauma of a victim of crime more drastic and long lasting, because of the falsehood of our “pre-assumed world”.

Similarly, the authors of “The Crime Victim’s Book (1986)”, Morton Bard and Dawn Sangrey, suggest that all people have their own normal state of “equilibrium”, or psychological balance, “based on trust and autonomy”. Like Janoff-Bulman, Bard and Sangrey states that people tend to go-about their lives as if the world is basically a trustworthy place, and to some extent, controllable by our own actions. When an individual is in a state of equilibrium—or psychologically balanced—everything just seems to “work”. Bard and Sangrey continue to say that everyday stressors—such as illness, moving, changes in employment, and family issues—influence this normal state of equilibrium. When any of these changes occur, equilibrium will be altered, but people are able to adjust and change in the needed ways so that they can regain it back once more.

The importance of the research conducted by Janoff-Bulman, and Bard and Sangrey, suggests that nurture in the context of pre-crime beliefs and assumptions about the world play a vital part of the impact of victimization of crime. This nurture produces tremendous stress and anxiety as the victim’s experiences cannot be readily assimilated; as well as the assumptive world developed and confirmed over many years cannot account for these extreme events. The assumptions and theories that we hold shatters from the event that produces psychological upheaval and difficulty of regaining back their equilibrium.

The impact of nature on a victim of crime is one that is still debatable. It is not entirely clear whether or not genetics play a big role on how a victim of crime is impacted. However, an aspect to consider at how nature impacts victims of crime is within the gender roles, traits and hormones of being a man or a woman—in other words, the biological differences of gender roles.

Neuropsychologist Renato Sabbatini has conducted research about the nature of gender roles and its biological differences. Sabbatini’s research provides various physiological differences of the male and female brains. The research and science have proved that areas within the brain, such as the cerebral cortex (responsible for thinking, perceiving, producing and understanding language), frontal lobes (responsible for recognizing future consequences, choosing between good and bad actions, and retaining longer term memories which are not task-based), temporal lobes (responsible for visual memories, language comprehension, and processing sensory of auditory and visual input), and the hypothalamus (responsible for several functions, including motor function control) have distinct differences amongst the sexes that could determine the impact of victimization of crime.


Supplementary to this research, studies have shown that our hormones determine many of our gender identity. Sabbatini writes that hormones have the greatest influence on our identities, roles, and characteristics. We are able to identify the characteristics of the gender through looking at the hormonal influence. It is difficult to outright say the resulting impact of crime on a victim through the biological approach, because there is just no clear evidence to support this.  However, through some research, the nature of a crime on a victim can vary through gender roles and the characteristics, traits, and hormonal differences that coincide with it.

However, ‘nature versus nurture’ in the perspective of a criminal leads to a field called ‘neurocriminology’, where it uses neuroscience (study of the brain) to understand and prevent crime. An expert in this field is Dr. Adrian Raine, the Professor of Criminology at Richard Perry University, the Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of “The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime (2013)”. However, most people are still deeply uncomfortable with the implications of neurocriminology, as conservatives are worried that acknowledging biological risk factors for violence will result in a society where no one holds accountable for his or her actions.

Despite the controversy, Dr. Raine has conducted research in both the approach of nature and nurture of the impact of crime on a criminal. Dr. Raine uses brain-imaging techniques that identify physical deformations and functional abnormalities that predispose some individual to future criminal acts. In a recent study, brain scans correctly predicted which inmates in a New Mexico prison were most likely to recommit after being released. However, the story is not also exclusively based on genetics, but a poor environment can also change the early brain and make for antisocial behavior in the longevity.

An environmental factor, or nurture, that Dr. Raine has found on the psychological development of criminals at an early age is the exposure to lead, which is neurotoxic (a poison that acts on the nervous system); and how this exposure to lead particularly damages the prefrontal region of our brain—which regulates behavior. Poorer communities tend to have higher measures of lead; and toddlers at 21 months generally pick up lead in soil that has been contaminated by air pollution and dumping, and end up placing their hands inside their mouth.

However, lead isn’t the only culprit. Other nurture factors can be linked to higher aggression and violence in adulthood, which include smoking and drinking by the mother before birth, complications during birth, or poor nutrition early in life. Dr. Raine writes that genetics and environment may work together to encourage violent behavior. A study by Avshalom Caspi and Terrie Moffitt of Duke University in 2002 genotyped over 1,000 individuals in a community in New Zealand. They assessed their levels of antisocial behavior in adulthood; and they found that a genotype conferring to low levels of the enzyme, “monoamine oxidase A (MAOA)”, when combined with early childhood abuse, predisposed the individual to later antisocial behavior. Low MAOA has been linked to reduced volume in the amygdala (the emotional center of the brain) while the physical child abuse can damage the frontal part of the brain, resulting in a double hit.

Brain-imaging studies have also shown that offenders, or murderers for instance, tend to have poorer functioning in the prefrontal cortex, or the “guardian angel” that “keeps the brakes on impulsive, disinhibited behavior, and volatile emotions”. Dr. Raine’s study found that in comparison with 32 normal people, psychopaths had an 18% smaller amygdala, which is critical for emotions like fear and moral decision-making. In essence, psychopaths know, at a cognitive level, what is right and what is wrong… but they are unable to feel it.

Dr. Raine was an expert witness for the defense counsel of the case of Donta Page, who robbed a young woman in Denver, raped her, slit her throat, then killed her by plunging a kitchen knife into her chest in 1999. Dr. Raine’s brain scans revealed “Mr. Page had a distinct lack of activation in the ventral prefrontal cortex” (the brain region that helps regulate emotions and control impulses). Dr. Raine testified to the jury that Mr. Page’s violence was due to a deep-rooted biosocial explanation. Mr. Page’s documents shows that as a child, he suffered from poor nutrition, severe parental neglect, sustained physical and sexual abuse, early head injuries, learning disabilities, poor cognitive functioning, and lead exposure. His family’s hereditary also shows links to history of mental illnesses. Also considering that by the age of 18, Mr. Page had been referred for psychological treatment 19 times, but he had never once received treatment.

As a result of Dr. Raine’s nature and nurture approach to the impact of the violence on the criminal, Mr. Page escaped death penalty. Studies have also found that early environmental enrichment—including better nutrition, physical exercise and cognitive stimulation—enhances later brain functioning in children and reduces adult crime.

In conclusion, the impact of crime and trauma on the psychological development of an individual can basically lead to a state of being mentally unstable. The impact of nurture for victims of crime through the pre-crime beliefs and assumptions about the world can lead to a devastating result because of the change of our strongly-held perception on society. The impact of nature for victims can be based on gender roles and hormonal differences between men and woman; and the impact of nurture and nature for criminals shows that being exposed to an unhealthy living in adolescence or childhood can decrease the prefrontal cortex and amygdala.

Overall, being victimized by crime, or simply doing the crime, requires assistance and support from others. People who have been affected by a crime in Victoria should consider approaching the Victims of Crime Counseling and Compensation Services to seek further assistance.

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