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Cesagen · Research

Perceptions of Nature and Nurture as Factors in Youth Crime and Antisocial Behaviour: A pilot study

Mairi Levitt

Start date



The Criminal Genes & Public Policy project revealed that professionals who work with offenders and ‘problem’ families hold complex multifactorial models of the causes of violent and antisocial behaviour with the stress on many cultural, social and environmental factors. Focussing on any one factor, including genetic susceptibility, was seen by the professionals as unhelpful for practice and policy –making. The aim of this further research is to explore ideas on the interaction of nature and nurture in these behaviours across the generations. Publics’ understandings of the causes of criminal behaviours and attachments of blame, fairness and responsibility are critical to their acceptance of policy and practice in this area. While much of the research into the causes of crime focuses on males, the professionals in the earlier project echoed the findings of the Edinburgh Youth Transitions study and Caspi, Moffitt et al that there is a smaller gender difference in adolescent antisocial behaviour than is apparent from the statistics. Thus the research will gather ideas about nature/nurture, including gender differences, as explanations of young people’s criminal behaviour. The inclusion of different age groups may show differences in respondents’ attitudes to biological/genetic factors, perhaps mirroring changes in media coverage, public policy responses etc.


To explore peoples’ perceptions of the interaction of nature and nurture in violent and antisocial behaviour.

  • How do respondents characterise the factors that made them who they are?
  • Is there more emphasis on genetic factors in good and bad behaviour among younger respondents compared with older generations?
  • How (if at all) should nature/genetic factors or nurture/environmental factors be taken into account by courts?
  • How (if at all) do these factors affect fairness, blame or responsibility?
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    • Does it matter for society or individuals whether nature or nurture are seen as most important in explaining problem behaviour?


Scoping interviews were conducted with social science and medical researchers working on projects relevant to young people and crime and behavioural genetics. Interviews were conducted with participants on the senior learners programme* at Lancaster University. The interviews used open ended questions gathering data on respondents’ ideas about ‘what made you who you are’ and responses to short case studies. An open-ended questionnaire was constructed based on the same questions and respondents were invited to distribute the resulting questionnaire to family members in order to pilot it on 3 generations of respondents. The questionnaire was also given to a group of first year students, enrolled on various humanities and social science courses and taking a criminology module, to include more people in the late teens and early twenties age group. In all 13 senior learners were interviewed and around 58 people completed the questionnaire including 36 students. * This group attended a programme of lectures by university staff on their own research and may also attend normal student lectures on areas that interest them. Those interviewed were active citizens who participated in varied community activities, most had had some form of post-school education or training.

Project update

Emerging Themes:

The older generation, the senior learners, stress the role of nurture in making them who they are and in the changes and re-formation that have occurred during their lives. Interviewees were at least 55 years old but most were over 65. They did not see genetic factors as significantly different to environmental factors in terms of the effect on behaviour. However, they thought that other people might see genetic factors in a more deterministic way. They argued that neither genes nor environment affects responsibility for actions but might, in some circumstances, be used in mitigation. For policy making they argued that environmental factors should be the priority and saw dangers in explanations of behaviour that emphasise nature as causative. I have not yet analysed responses from the younger generations who may give more weight to ‘nature’ in seeking explanations for behaviour. 


M. Levitt (2012) 'Genes, environment and responsibility for violent behavior:“Whatever genes one has it is preferable that you are prevented from going around stabbing people”', New Genetics and Society, iFirst: pp1-14. Online here.

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