Penn research connects social/biological risk factors for antisocial behavior

Adrian Raine is a pioneer in the field of neurocriminology, aiming to unearth the biological roots of criminal behavior.      

A new study from his group is developing the basis for a new branch of this field: social neurocriminology, which seeks to better understand the societal origins of these biological factors.

Raine and his lab members are now the first to experimentally demonstrate the links of this chain. In a study of nearly 400 Philadelphia-area children, aged 11 to 12, the researchers showed how social adversity, such as parental separation, parental incarceration, or unstable housing situations, correlated to low heart rate during a stress test. This, in turn, was associated with antisocial behavior. 

“We’ve known for a long time that social adversity raises the odds that a kid will be antisocial. The question is why,” says Raine, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor with appointments in the School of Arts & Sciences and the Perelman School of Medicine. “We’ve also known for some time that negative social factors can affect the brain and other aspects of biological function, but it’s never been triangulated this way before.”

Olivia Choy, a graduate student in the Department of Criminology and the lead author of the study, says they wanted to put the biological research into social context—two areas, she says, that have largely been separate.

Low heart rate may seem like it would protect against violent tendencies, but it is one of the more consistent biological correlates of antisocial and aggressive behavior.

“If you don’t have a normal stress response when you think about the consequences of committing a crime—like being caught by police or being physically hurt—that would be a big predisposition for criminal behavior,” says Jill Portnoy, a criminology graduate student and co-author of the study.

The children’s parents first answered a questionnaire about their child’s home life and upbringing, gauging their level of negative social factors. Then, the children’s heart rates were monitored while they were asked to prepare a short speech about the worst thing that had happened in their lives—a task made more stressful by the presence of a video camera and an experimenter. Other questionnaires, answered by both parents and children, were used to collect data on their antisocial behavior, such as bullying, stealing, or skipping school.    

Children who had higher levels of social adversity were more likely to have lower heart rates during the stress test; those children were also more likely to have higher levels of antisocial behavior. Importantly, low heart rate reactivity partly explained why social adversity was associated with increased antisocial behavior.

Tracing the origins of this kind of behavior to its biological and social roots in a statistically rigorous way gives some hope that early intervention in children’s lives can break the links of this chain.

“If you experience a lot of stress early in life,” Choy says, “you become habituated to it. You wouldn’t have the same stress response another person might have.”

Adrian Raine