Could brain stimulation make us criminals?

20 February 2018

Question

You can stimulate parts of the brain to make us feel happy. Could you similarly stimulate the brain in a way that might make someone want to commit crimes?

Answer

Chris Smith put this question to neurocriminologist Kyle Treiber...

Kyle - I think the first thing we have to do when we start to think about crime is to remember that it’s a behaviour. It’s a very complex phenomenon and something that is the culmination of a decision making process. When we’re talking about stimulating the brain and activating emotions, those are one element that would go into that decision making process.

You can look at this question in a number of different ways but I’m going to look at it from the perspective of making people want to commit crime, so we’re looking at motivation here. We’re looking at perhaps these emotional processes increasing your anger against someone who may have split their drink on you or bumped into you. Or maybe increase your temptation towards an object that you want. Something in a shop that maybe you want to steal.

We have these motivations but, of course, there’s lots of ways that people can respond to those motivations. The way that they respond will be based on their experiences that they’ve had previously which will lead them to remember certain types of behaviour that have been successful. They’ll have seen other people’s behaviour and so they will have learned different ways they can respond this. And, in the vast majority of cases, thankfully, most of us don’t see crime as a way to satisfy our motivations. In some cases yes, people will do that, and that may be because of the experiences they’ve had before. But, even if we can increase that motivation, it’s not going to increase the chance of these people seeing crime as first, the option that they might consider. And then, of course, down the road to the decision making process itself, the one that they choose amongst the other alternatives they may see.

We tend to think about that decision making process in this kind of rational way with lots of different options and evaluation, and considering consequences. There is another type of behaviour which is habitual behaviour and habitual behaviour happens when you’ve done something over and over again and you’ve developed a habit. You’ve been in a situation or this place before, you’ve acted a certain way. It worked great for you the first time in previous experiences so, sure, you’re just going to do that again. The can be more automatic type of behaviours.

We haven’t studied enough of these habitual behaviours in criminology but likely they are influencing a lot of this persistent crime that we see, which is one of the most problematic aspects of crime. It’s possible then that these could be stimulated more easily with a more simplistic framework than these deliberate processes, but that would be the closest you would get to it.  But I still think it’s such a complex type of behaviour that all we can do is perhaps influence some of the information that goes into that process.


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