Genetic Basis to Self-Control Research Paper

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In 1990 Gottfredson and Hirschi advanced a parsimonious and provocative theory of crime that was designed to explain all types of antisocial behaviors. Unlike most dominant criminological theories that focus on social/ environmental factors as causes of crime, their theory focused on an individual-level factor – levels of self-control – as the key causal agent for crime, delinquency, and other forms of disrepute. More specifically they argued that persons with relatively low levels of self-control who have a criminal opportunity will, on average, commit more crime and antisocial acts in comparison with people who have relatively high levels of self-control. An impressive amount of empirical research has assessed the potential association between levels of self-control and a host of antisocial behaviors. The results of these studies have been remarkably consistent in showing that measures of self-control are among the most consistent and strongest predictors of a wide range of antisocial behaviors, including crime, delinquency, and drug use. Moreover, the link between levels of self-control and antisocial behaviors has been detected between genders, across racial/ethnic groups, and within samples collected from different countries (Pratt and Cullen 2000).

Given the robust criminogenic effects associated with levels of self-control, there has been a wave of research attempting to uncover the factors that are associated with causing variation in levels of self-control. Much of this research has been guided by Gottfredson and Hirschi’s thesis that levels of self-control are largely the result of parental socialization. According to these theorists, parents who wish to raise offspring with high levels of self-control must engage in three intertwined parental management techniques. First, parents must supervise their children. Second, parents must recognize when their children are engaging in socially taxing or antisocial behavior. Third, parents must consistently correct their children’s antisocial behaviors. Parents who engage in these three parenting techniques and who are attached to their children should, on average, raise offspring with relatively high levels of self-control. According to Gottfredson and Hirschi, parents do not have much time to inculcate self-control because by around the age of 10, levels of self-control are formed and remain relatively stable over the remainder of the life course.

A line of research has examined the merits of the parental management thesis and the results of these studies have provided some support in favor of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s argument. For example, most studies reveal that measures of parental management techniques predict levels of self-control, with parents who supervise their children, recognize their children’s transgressions, and punish their children, tending to raise offspring with relatively high levels of self-control (Gibbs et al. 1998; Hay 2001; Polakowski 1994). However, Gottfredson and Hirschi likely overstated the effects that parents have on sculpting levels of self-control. Numerous studies indicate that measures of parenting only have very small effects on levels of self-control and leave an overwhelming amount of variance unexplained. As a result, there are likely other salient factors that are causing variation in self-control that were not identified by Gottfredson and Hirschi. An emerging pool of research has pointed to the very real possibility that biological and genetic factors may be the dominant source of variation in self-control.

Genetic Influences On Levels Of Self-Control

In articulating their theory, Gottfredson and Hirschi were very clear that they did not believe that genetic factors played any role in the development of self-control. However, research from multiple lines of inquiry, including developmental psychology, behavioral genetics, molecular genetics, and neurobiology, points to a very different conclusion – namely, that self-control, self-regulation, and impulse control problems are all affected in large part by genetic factors (Beaver 2009). Studies exploring the extent to which genetic variation accounts for variance in measures of self-control, and related disorders, typically employ samples that consist of twin pairs. There are two types of twins: monozygotic (MZ) twins who share 100 % of their DNA and dizygotic (DZ) twins who share, on average, 50 % of their DNA. Both types of twins, however, are assumed to share environments that are approximately comparable to each other. In other words, the environments of MZ twins are assumed to be no more similar than the environments of DZ twins. As long as this assumption is met (known as the equal environments assumption [EEA]) – and there is good evidence to indicate that it is – the only reason that MZ twins should be more similar to each other than DZ twins is because they share twice as much genetic material. So, genetic effects are detected if the similarity of MZ twins is greater than the similarity of DZ twins. And the greater the similarity of MZ twins in comparison to the similarity of DZ twins, the larger the magnitude of the genetic effect. The proportion of variance accounted for by genetic factors is known as the heritability estimate.

Although twin-based research designs provide a great deal of information regarding the genetic foundations to behaviors and traits, they also provide some of the most compelling evidence for the role of environmental factors. The reason for this is because the variance that is not explained by genetic factors is explained by environmental factors (plus error). Unlike most social science research that pools together all types of environments, twin-based research designs make the distinction between two different types of environments: shared environments and nonshared environments. Shared environments are those environments that are the same between twins and therefore make twins more similar to each other. Some of the common examples of shared environments are neighborhood conditions, family socioeconomic status, and common parental socialization factors. Nonshared environments, in contrast, consist of environments that are different between twins and that make twins dissimilar from each other. (Nonshared environments also capture the effects of measurement error.) Examples of nonshared environments include peer groups, parenting practices unique to each twin, and even different prenatal environments (especially for non-twin siblings). Together, the heritability, the shared environment, and the nonshared environment account for 100 % of the variance in any measure being studied in a twin-based research design.

Since criminological research focuses almost exclusively on the role of the environment in relation to criminal and antisocial behaviors, they have overlooked and ignored the potential role of genetic factors. As a consequence, much of the evidence that has examined the genetic basis to levels of self-control has to be culled from fields of study outside of criminology. Fortunately, an impressive number of studies have employed twin-based research designs (or variants of them) to examine the genetic origins to traits/disorders that overlap with Gottfredson and Hirschi’s conceptualization of self-control.

For example, studies have investigated the heritability of self-regulation, impulsivity, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The results of these studies have consistently revealed that genetic factors explain between 50 % and 90 % of the variance, with the remaining variance being attributable to nonshared environmental factors (Rietveld et al. 2003; Mick et al. 2002; Wright and Beaver 2005). In most studies, shared environmental factors explain none or very little of the variance. Only recently have criminologists begun to explore the genetic underpinnings to self-control and the findings have yielded results that parallel those reported by non-criminologists. Overall, genetic factors explain approximately 40–70 % of the variance, nonshared environmental factors explain between 30 % and 60 % of the variance, and shared environmental factors explain none of the variance. When taken together, the empirical research unequivocally indicates that levels of self-control are scripted, in part, by genetic factors along with nonshared environmental factors (Beaver 2009).

Although twin-based research designs represent a rich analytical tool that can be used to estimate genetic and environmental effects, they are limited in the ability to identify the specific genes and the specific environments that are involved. For instance, knowing that genetic factors account for 40–70 % of the variance in self-control is only part of the puzzle; finishing the rest of the puzzle requires searching for the particular genes which account for variation in self-control. Molecular genetic studies are useful in this regard.

Molecular genetic studies attempt to link variation in specific genetic markers to variation in certain behaviors, traits, and other characteristics (e.g., levels of self-control). To understand the underlying logic to these types of studies, it is necessary to provide some elementary background information about genes. The human genome is comprised of approximately 25,000 genes which are located on 23 pairs of chromosomes (22 pairs of autosomes and 1 pair of sex chromosomes). Because genes are located on pairs of chromosomes, all genes (except those located on the sex chromosomes for males) consist of two copies: one inherited maternally and one inherited paternally. The information encoded into genes determines virtually every physical characteristic (e.g., eye color, hair color) and influences many other unobservable traits (e.g., personality, cognitive skills). Most genes consist of only one version, meaning that all humans have the same “type” of gene. However, for a small percentage of genes, there exist at least two versions in the population. Genes that vary across people are known as genetic polymorphisms and alternative copies of the gene are known as alleles. To illustrate, suppose there was a gene for height and there were two different versions of the height gene: a short allele and a tall allele. It would be possible to inherit two short alleles (one maternally and one paternally), two tall alleles (one maternally and one paternally), or a short allele (either maternally or paternally) and a tall allele (either maternally or paternally). A person’s height, therefore, would be partially a function of the alleles they inherited for this hypothetical polymorphic height gene. In reality, height is affected by hundreds of genes along with environmental factors (e.g., nutrition).

A great deal of research has examined the potential association between certain genetic polymorphisms and ADHD, impulsivity, and attention problems. The results of these studies have provided some evidence tying certain genes – especially those of the dopaminergic system – to these disorders and traits. There is some limited evidence, moreover, that genes of the serotonergic system may be involved in the development of self-control (Beaver 2009). The available evidence suggests that specific genetic polymorphisms tend to have their strongest effects on levels of self-control when they are paired to certain environments. What this necessarily means is that genetic polymorphisms are associated with levels of self-control, but the effects of these genetic polymorphisms are even more pronounced when they are coupled with adverse and criminogenic environments. These types of relationships are called geneenvironment interactions, and they illustrate the incredible complexities underlying the causes of human behavior. Given that molecular genetic research involving self-control is still in its infancy, much more research needs to be undertaken to provide a more complete picture of which genetic polymorphisms may ultimately be responsible for affecting variation in levels of self-control. But, as the results of the twin-based studies reveal, genes tend to be the dominant force in structuring the development of self-control.

Neurobiology And Levels Of Self-Control

The findings generated from genetic research often produce a great deal of confusion concerning what they actually mean. The media, for example, frequently talks about the discovery of a gene for X or a gene for Y (e.g., the crime gene, the low self-control gene). In reality, though, genes are not “for” any particular behavior, trait, or other human characteristic; rather, they are responsible for coding for the production of proteins. So, if genetic polymorphisms continue to be discovered that explain variance in levels of self-control, then how do these genetic polymorphisms actually produce varying levels of self-control? Stated differently, if genes do not directly determine levels of self-control, then what is the mechanism that ultimately links genetic variance (i.e., different alleles for specific genetic polymorphisms) to variance in levels of self-control? While there is not a definitive answer to this question, recent research from neurobiology sheds some light on this issue.

A proliferation of neuroimaging techniques have been developed, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), positron emission tomography (PET), and single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), that allow neuroscientists to examine the functioning of the brain when certain tasks are being performed. If a certain region of the brain is activated during a specific task, then it is quite likely that that area of the brain is involved – to some degree – in the skills needed for the successful completion of the task. A line of neurobiological research has examined brain activity in response to tasks designed to tap self-control, impulse control, judgment, and attention. Very generally, these studies have converged to show that the area of the brain partially responsible for these tasks is the prefrontal cortex (Beaver et al. 2007).

The prefrontal cortex is situated directly behind the forehead and is often divided into three different regions to help delineate the location, direction, and function of each. The first region, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), is located in the lateral of the prefrontal cortex and has been shown to be responsible for behavioral modulation, information processing, and memory formation. The second region is referred to as the orbitofrontal cortex and is located directly above the eyes and is interconnected with the DLPFC. The orbitofrontal cortex has been shown to be involved in maintaining goal-oriented behaviors, the regulation of emotions, and to affect decision-making processes. Finally, the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) is housed deep within the brain and is connected with the DLPFC. The MPFC is involved in promoting tasks that necessitate a significant amount of concentration.

The coordinated functions of the DLPFC, the orbitofrontal cortex, and the MPFC are typically referred to as executive functions. Although definitions of executive functions vary, they can be generically defined as a suite of functions that are responsible for judgment, decision-making, the ability to delay gratification, the ability to anticipate the consequences of actions, and the ability to modulate behaviors and emotions. Importantly, the definition of executive functions employed by psychologists and neurobiologists overlaps considerably with the conceptualization of self-control as set forth by Gottfredson and Hirschi. In fact, there is both empirical and theoretical evidence indicating that self-control is one of the many tasks that fall within the parameters of executive functions (Ishikawa and Raine 2003).

If self-control is indeed an executive function, then what accounts for variation in executive functions and self-control? As indicated previously, brain science research has revealed that the prefrontal cortex is largely responsible for executive functions. Variation in the structure and functioning of the prefrontal cortex therefore is largely the driving force behind variation in executive functions and thus levels of self-control. For example, some people’s prefrontal cortexes are highly active, and, perhaps as a result, they score very high on measures of self-control. Other people, however, have relatively underactive prefrontal cortexes, and they are, on average, more likely to score lower on measures tapping self-control. The point is that executive functions and levels of self-control appear to be tied directly to the structure and functioning of the prefrontal cortex.

Being able to identify what causes variation in the structure and functioning of the prefrontal cortex is thus the key to identifying what causes variation in executive functions and levels of self-control. Neuroimaging research has been instructive in this endeavor, wherein twin studies have been conducted to estimate genetic and environmental effects on variation in brain structure and functioning. The results of these methodologically rigorous and highly influential brain science studies have revealed that upwards of 80 % of the variance in brain structure and functioning in the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, is the result of genetic factors (Toga and Thompson 2005). Consequently, it is now possible to provide a more detailed and scientific answer to why there is variation in levels of self-control. The evidence reviewed above indicates that self-control is an executive function. Executive functions are housed in the prefrontal cortex of the brain and variation in executive functions (thereby including levels of self-control) appear to be largely affected by the structure and the functioning of the prefrontal cortex. Variation in the structure and functioning of the prefrontal cortex is the result of genetic factors and to a lesser extent nonshared environmental factors. It should also be noted that approximately 60 % of the 25,000 genes in the human genome are in some way related to coding for the brain and/or brain development. As a result, there are likely thousands of genes that affect the structure and functioning of the prefrontal cortex with each of these genes tending to have relatively small effects.

A Biosocial Critique Of The Parental Management Thesis

Even though there is a vast amount of empirical research indicating that levels of self-control are under strong genetic influence, the vast majority of criminological research ignores the potential genetic influence on self-control. Furthermore, much of this research also neglects the important contributions of neurobiology. Instead, most criminological studies only examine the role that social factors – especially parenting – have on the development of self-control. Critics of genetic research frequently point out that most of the criminological research shows that social factors are critically important to all types of antisocial behaviors, including levels of self-control. These findings, in short, appear to be at odds with those garnered from genetic and neurobiological research, leading to the question of which body of research should be believed.

In order to address this issue, it is essential to explore the most common type of methodology used in criminological research: standard social science methodologies (SSSMs). With SSSMs, researchers analyze data collected about one focal child (or adolescent) per household. The child’s parents and teachers may also be interviewed to collect more detailed information, but the key concern is the behavior and/or traits of the focal child. As it applies to self-control, SSSMs would collect information about the focal child’s level of self-control and certain social factors, especially parental management techniques. Statistical analyses are then conducted to determine whether levels of self-control covary with the social factors. If there is a statistically significant association between levels of self-control and the variation in the social factors, then most criminologists and social scientists often interpret the results as being in line with a causal explanation (e.g., Gottfredson and Hirschi’s parental management thesis).

There is a serious problem with research that is based on SSSMs – namely, that SSSMs are unable to take into account genetic factors. Recall that twin-based research designs are used to estimate the relative effects of genetic and environmental factors. In order to do so, there must be at least two siblings (e.g., twins) included in the analysis. Unfortunately, criminological research rarely includes more than one sibling in the sample and, in fact, great pains are taken to include only one child per household for statistical reasons (i.e., to preserve independence in observations). By including only one child per household, it is not possible to estimate genetic effects and thus any research that employs an SSSM is making the assumption that genes have absolutely no effect on the behavior or trait being studied (e.g., levels of self-control).

The methodological limitations of SSSMs become all the more exacerbated for studies that examine the effects of parenting on childhood and adolescent levels of self-control. Recall that according to Gottfredson and Hirschi parents must supervise their children, recognize their children’s misbehaviors, and consistently punish such waywardness. These three parental management techniques require a substantial amount of time, dedication, attachment, and self-control on the part of the parents. Parents who lack these prosocial traits are unlikely to follow the parental management suggestions offered by Gottfredson and Hirschi. Indeed, there is ample evidence to suggest that parents who lack self-control, parents who have a criminal record, and parents who engage in antisocial behaviors are not the most responsible parents and thus are unlikely to engage in effective parenting tactics.

All of this is critically important because as was discussed previously, levels of self-control are highly heritable. So, if a parent has low levels of self-control they are, statistically speaking, at risk for raising offspring who also have relatively low levels of self-control purely because the parent passed on the genetic material that influences levels of self-control. Research that fails to control for genetic factors (i.e., all research using SSSMs) when examining the potential nexus between parenting techniques and their offspring’s level of self-control and detects a statistically significant association between parenting and self-control may erroneously attribute that association to a parenting effect, when it is really the result of genetic transmission.

In methodological parlance, this type of an association is referred to as a spurious relationship. One common example of a spurious relationship is the well-noted association between ice cream sales and violent crime. As ice cream sales increase, so does violent crime. It would be absurd to think that the consumption of ice cream causes an increase in violence; instead, there is likely a causal factor common to both ice cream sales and violence: temperature. As the temperature increases, people are more likely to consume ice cream and they are also more likely to engage in routines that place them in contact with violent criminals. A spurious relationship therefore can be defined as an association between two variables (e.g., ice cream sales and violence) that disappears after a third variable (e.g., temperature) is taken into account. In social science research, it is nearly impossible to eliminate the possibility of spuriousness, but most research attempts to minimize spuriousness through the use of control variables (or random assignment). Importantly, the only time a control variable needs to be included in a study to prevent spuriousness is when that variable is associated with both the independent variable (e.g., parenting) and the dependent variable (e.g., levels of self-control). If it is only related to one variable or the other, then there is no need to include the control variable to prevent spuriousness.

Now it is quite easy to see how criminological research using SSSMs and examining the association between parenting and self-control is likely biased. Genetic factors are likely affecting the way a parent raises their offspring, and these genetic factors are also passed on to their children in the form of genetic material. So, a parent who is abusive and neglectful likely has low levels of self-control, and the genetic predisposition for low levels of self-control is inherited by their children. Consequently, there is no way to know for certain whether a relationship between parenting and levels of self-control is a true “parenting” effect or whether it represents a spurious relationship when an SSSM is used.

To rule out spuriousness owing to genetic factors, a twin-based research design (or variant thereof) must be employed. Only a handful of studies have used twin-based research designs to examine the link between parenting and levels of self-control. The results of these studies have revealed that once genetic factors are taken into account, there is no association between parental socialization and offspring levels of self-control (Beaver et al. 2009a; Wright and Beaver 2005). These findings have serious implications for criminological research because they indicate that research using SSSMs is likely biased in favor of finding an environmental effect when such an effect is either likely upwardly biased or completely spurious. The use of SSSMs also helps to reconcile the different findings generated by behavioral genetic studies and by criminological studies. Behavioral genetic studies use appropriate research designs that make no assumptions about the role of genetics and the environment. Criminological studies that rely on SSSMs only produce unbiased findings when the assumption of no genetic effect is met. Unfortunately, all of the available evidence strongly suggests that this assumption is violated thereby casting doubt on the accuracy of criminological studies purportedly showing a link between parenting and levels of self-control.

Policy Implications

One of the major attacks leveled against biological explanations of antisocial behaviors and traits, including levels of self-control, is that the policy implications flowing from such research will result in oppressive and inhumane practices. According to this line of reasoning, since DNA is immutable, there is no way to change levels of self-control. In other words, people are born with a fixed level of self-control. Those who are genetically endowed with low levels of self-control are destined for a life of crime and antisocial behaviors whereas those born with high levels of self-control are likely to lead prosocial and productive lives. This logic is erroneous and is based on the confusion between the physical structure of DNA and the effects emanating from DNA.

While it is true that the physical structure of DNA is nearly impossible to change, it is not true that genetic effects are always constant. Contemporary genetic research has shown that genetic effects change over different developmental time periods, with some genes being switched on at certain periods in the life course and switched off at other times. In addition, the effects of some genes appear to be controlled, at least in part, by exposure to environmental conditions. What this necessarily means is that a gene may have a strong effect in one environment, but no effect in another environment. One gene that was found to be related to levels of self-control was shown to reduce levels of self-control when it was paired with a criminogenic environment, but it was shown to be unrelated to levels of self-control when the criminogenic environment was absent (Beaver et al. 2009a).

The finding that genes are moderated by environmental conditions holds particular promise for prevention and intervention programs designed to change antisocial traits and behaviors, such as levels of self-control. For instance, it is quite possible that intervention and prevention programs could be individually tailored to each person’s unique suite of genes to create a more effective treatment program. There is some empirical evidence emerging indicating that such an approach is quite effective. A recent study, for example, revealed that a program designed to reduce externalizing behavioral problems among children was effective for children with a certain genetic variant, but ineffective for children lacking that particular genetic variant (Bakermans-Kranenburg et al. 2008). This type of research remains very new and exploratory and so the true extent of its impact remains to be determined, but it does provide some promise for increasing the effectiveness of prevention and treatment programs.

Biological and genetic research has already had a profound impact on the juvenile justice system. In a landmark Supreme Court decision, the death penalty was abolished for juveniles. The decision to abolish the death penalty was based largely on the findings generated from academic research studies. These studies, however, were not produced by criminologists showing that environmental factors contributed to violence and aggression. Rather, the studies that ultimately swayed the Court’s decision were produced by neuroscientists showing that the prefrontal cortex of the brain – the area of the brain that houses the executive function – is not fully developed until the mid-20s. Because the brains of adolescents are structurally immature in relation to the brains of adults, the Court ruled that adolescents should not be held as culpable for murder. Thus, in one of the most progressive policy decisions affecting the criminal justice system, it was biological research, not criminological research, that was the driving force (Beaver 2009).

Conclusions And Future Directions

The 1990s are known as the decade of the brain largely because of the tremendous amount of research that was conducted examining how neurobiological factors are related to different types of human behaviors and traits. Thus far in the 2000s, there has been an immense amount of genetic research trying to tie specific genetic variants to human behaviors and traits. Out of these two intertwined lines of research has emerged incontrovertible evidence indicating that self-control is a largely genetic trait that is housed in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Despite these insights into the etiology of self-control, much remains unknown about the origins of self-control. Future research, for instance, needs to explore a wider swath of genetic polymorphisms to see which ones affect variation in self-control. At the same time, it is critically important to study the environmental factors that may moderate the effects of such genes. If this endeavor is successful, then it would likely provide a rich framework from which to create programs designed to promote levels of self-control among at-risk children, youth, and adults. In order to do so, however, criminological research must go beyond the sociological factors first purported by Gottfredson and Hirschi and integrate biosocial data, methods, and findings in order to come to a greater understanding of low self-control and its influence on criminality.


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