Neuroscience Spots Potential Criminals In Pre-School?

By Neuroskeptic | December 19, 2016 3:52 am

A new post at Quartz discusses

The disturbingly accurate brain science that identifies potential criminals while they’re still toddlers… scientists are able to use brain tests on three-year-olds to determine which children are more likely to grow up to become criminals.

Hmmm. Not really.

The research in question is from from North Carolina researchers Avshalom Caspi et al.: Childhood forecasting of a small segment of the population with large economic burden. It’s based on a long-term study of 1,037 people born 1972-1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand. Neuroskeptic readers may recall that I’ve blogged about other papers based on this same cohort.


Caspi et al. report that

A segment comprising 22% of the cohort accounted for… 81% of criminal convictions. Childhood risks, including poor brain health at three years of age, predicted this segment with large effect sizes.

There’s nothing new in the finding that a small proportion of the population is responsible for most crimes. As the authors point out, this is known as the Pareto principle and it applies to not just crime but a great many other things: a minority of people are responsible for the majority of just about anything you can mention.

Where Caspi et al. do claim to provide novel results is in the prediction of later membership of the criminal minority – and also of other “high social cost” groups – based on “brain health” at 3 years of age. Here’s how it worked:

At 3 years of age, each child in the cohort participated in a 45 minute examination that included assessments of neurological soft signs, intelligence, receptive language and motor skills. The examiners (having no previous knowledge of the child) then rated each child’s frustration tolerance, resistance, restlessness, impulsivity and lack of persistence in reaching goals. This examination yielded a summary index that we have termed brain health, a global index of the neurocognitive status of three-year-old children.

Although the authors call their metric “brain health”, it has little to do with neuroscience. It didn’t involve any brain scans, blood tests or other biological measures. So it could equally well be called “behavioural health”… although it wasn’t really a measure of health either, unless you think having a low intelligence or being impulsive is a disease.

Still, whatever you call it, scoring poorly on this “brain health” measure did indeed predict later criminality, obesity, smoking and even welfare claims. The effects were pretty small though. For instance, the risk of being in the “criminal minority” was 1.19 in the poor “brain health” group compared to those with good “brain health”, i.e. an increased risk of 19%.


Also, it’s unclear whether “brain health” provides any useful information above and beyond the predictive power of the socioeconomic status (SES) of the child’s family. SES was a strong predictor of future criminality. It’s not stated whether “brain health” predicts later problems after controlling for SES. In the Quartz article, the senior author is quoted as saying that “We took out all the children living below the poverty line and got the same kind of effects”, but this isn’t the same thing. Also conspicious by its absence from the paper is any consideration of the ethnicity of the participants.

Overall, Caspi et al. is far from the “Minority Report” style crime prediction technology that Quartz discusses.

h/t @clew_less

ResearchBlogging.orgCaspi, A., Houts, R., Belsky, D., Harrington, H., Hogan, S., Ramrakha, S., Poulton, R., & Moffitt, T. (2016). Childhood forecasting of a small segment of the population with large economic burden Nature Human Behaviour, 1 DOI: 10.1038/s41562-016-0005

CATEGORIZED UNDER: law, mental health, papers, select, Top Posts
  • Jeffrey Bowers

    Bad start for Nature Human Behaviour

  • Queen of the Pen

    This is bad research especially when neurologists weren’t included. Additionally, what about white collar crime predictors?

  • Bernard Carroll

    I was bothered by the article’s focus on societal economic benefits of predicting those poor outcomes. It’s almost as though the authors were trolling for research dollars.

    • waltinseattle

      That’s a high probability of winning bet for any researchers in the social “sciences” these days. 3 outta 4 conclude with, “suggests more study needed….”

  • Uncle Al

    Having been born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, I can with high confidence point out the counterproductive congenitally inconsequential in any public school room at a glance. This was inversely enforced as Federal policy beginning with President Lyndon “Landslide” Johnson in 1965. It was wildly successful over the next half-century, destroying everything it touched.

    Do it the other way.

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  • polistra24

    No surprise. Professional criminality is a distinct talent. Like other talents it shows up around age 9 and continues to develop through maturity.

  • ID9192

    Numerous studies have shown that the organization of brain circuitry is constantly changing as a function of experience and learning (this happens through epigenetic and neuroplastic mechanisms). So, if there are differences in structures (that are associated with adverse behavioral outcomes), we should be able to provide psychological interventions at a young age that reverse these changes in the brain (translating into positive psychological outcomes for the individual). This is comparable to how physical activity gradually brings about healthy changes in muscle cells. Evidence for this is provided by numerous examples: people who decide to learn juggling gain more gray matter in certain areas of the brain. Taxi drivers gain gray matter in other areas of the brain as a result of their experience. Impulsivity is associated in reductions in gray matter. Mindfulness practices are known to change the structure and function of the brain in very positive ways (such as increases in gray matter, cortical thickness, etc.).

  • wspackman

    As a huge fan of the overall research work at Duke, the publication of this so-called “research” disgusted me. So, I’m very pleased to see some quick rebuttal emerging.

    Dr. Caspi’s personal webpage contains a video explanation of how the Area Under the Curve analysis works and how it applies to their research. According the reliability index provided in the explainer, an AUC of 6-7 is poor; 7-8 is fair; 8-9 is good and above 9 is excellent. According to the explainer, their I.Q segmentation only scored a 7, or poor, as correlate. Also, by the table republished above, none of the correlations scored higher than 7.4 and crime, the focus of the coverage only scored 7.2.

    Thus, by their own analysis, the results of the work can hardly be considered as anything but poor.

    • ID9192

      It is good to know this.

  • RhesusPeaceus

    The golden rule of human development is that all attributes are positively correlated. Isn’t it to be expected that children who perform more poorly on the test measurements would perform more poorly in other other aspects of life? This doesn’t seem like anything new.

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  • Stephan Zielinski

    Lay that groundwork for Eugenics 2.0, boys! Remember: snuggling up to fascists ALWAYS works out well for scientists.

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  • joseph2237

    Don’t bieve a word of it. Were there any indication that the predictive criminality disappeared when the excessive or large economic burden was removed. A greater predicted of criminality is an individual unable to control his economical future.History is fill of events that resulted when whole populations are systematically surpressed. And who is experimenting on babies? Stop it, it’s criminal and sick .

  • biju

    This is BS. Sometimes is good to ignore these “scientific research”

  • Overburdened_Planet

    Reminds me of a Canadian Broadcasting episode on testing the morality of infants, showing good and bad puppets (bad meaning hindering the efforts of the good puppet to do something), and after the show, 80% of infants stared longer at the good puppet, so I wondered then as well as now, what are the 20% thinking that stared at the bad puppet?

    Where they simply curious, or are the the roughly 22% mentioned in this article?

  • Nate L

    This is a very dangerous way of fulfilling a prophesy. It should be a crime to even suggest something like this. The intent to focus attention on children of families that are already struggling to become honest law abiding citizens instead of doing something to help them get out of the hole that they live in. It’s very easy for poor people to become desperate and commit crimes especially when the rich write suggestive articles and do little to help the poor.

  • OWilson

    Anecdote alert!

    We lived in very poor working class neighborhood in an industrial city devasted by war time bombing and war time rationing. We all left school at 15 and most had never heard of university, much less knew anyone who had.

    Crime in our neighborhood was virtually non existent.

  • Olmy Olm

    Oh how depressing is the difference between things that go viral and things that don’t, but should. Like this:

    “Anjnakina et al.14 built on several other recent
    studies to demonstrate specificity of childhood adversity and psychotic
    experiences as an adult. A robust association was found between
    childhood adversity, most notably childhood sexual abuse, and delusions and hallucinations. In a previous study, Bentall et al.15
    found that bullying had a specific relationship with paranoia. Perhaps
    most importantly to the Sekar et al. study is the finding that being
    taken into custody (i.e., foster care, juvenile justice) as a child was
    associated directly and robustly with an “excited” dimension of
    psychosis, characterized by hostility, lack of impulse control and
    uncooperativeness. This builds on previous research demonstrating that children who experience abuse that comes to the attention of social services are more likely to behave in antisocial and impulsive ways.16 These traits are often associated with decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex.” – Noel Hunter, Psy.D.

    • OWilson

      Generally speaking, stable functional families produce stable functional children.

      It takes a loving family to raise a loving chlld.

      And, not governments.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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