Could breaking the law be genetic?

A new study from the University of Montreal looked at different factors that are associated with anti-social behaviour to try to determine what causes it.

The researchers studied 1337 Swedish high school students aged 17-18, all of whom anonymously answered a series of questionnaires – about everything from their family background to criminal activity to sexual abuse – as well as providing a saliva sample. Using DNA extracted from this sample, the scientists were able to determine that three different genes are linked to anti-social behaviour and young offending.

They’re Monoamine oxidase A (MAOA), which helps break down neurotransmitters, including ‘happiness hormone’ serotonin. Low levels in men and high levels in women are linked to serious antisocial behaviour. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) regulates how well our brain cells make connections and if activity of this gene is low, it can lead to an aggressive personality. Finally, 5-HTTLPR, which supports serotonin, is linked to both antisocial and aggressive behaviour.

Not only did the research find that all three of these genes were linked to the likelihood of criminality, they found that they interacted with each other and with the study participants’ life circumstances. Those who had low-activity variants of all three genes and had experience of sexual abuse, family conflict, or both were more likely to be guilty of antisocial behaviour, including crime. However, people with the same kind of genetic make-up who had a stable, loving upbringing were far less likely to offend (in any sense of the word).

So although certain genes do put us more at risk of a life of crime, they seem to need negative environmental factors to ‘switch’ them on. In other words, nurture plays a bigger role than nature in determining whether we become law-abiding citizens or not. So those of you with kids should take brilliant care of them – for their own good, and everyone else’s.

Image via Tex Texin’s Flickr.

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