Thursday, November 7, 2013

Study Finds Brain Functioning Tests May Help Classify Criminal Behavior

Does this look like a good idea to you? If so, have you ever had your Executive Functions tested?

In 2013, a doctoral student in psychology published a dissertation titled Executive Function: Conduct Problems and Criminal Behavior. The goal of his study was to determine if a particular type of brain testing should be used as part of normal forensic psychological evaluations of offenders.

Specifically, he examined problems in the frontal and prefrontal cortices of our brains. These areas comprise the thin outer layer of the brain at the very front--imagine the part of your brain right under your forehead. This small part of the brain is in control of what psychologists refer to as "executive functioning," or the ability to plan out a series of actions, to control our emotions and impulses, and to guide our goal-directed behavior. People who have damaged the frontal cortex are susceptible to angry outbursts, a failure to think through and plan their behaviors, and an increase in risk taking.

The study's author compared the executive functioning abilities of a group of criminals to a group of non-criminals. The results are very interesting: By looking only at the brain test results, it was possible to sort the criminals from the non-criminals 73% of the time. This was due to the fact that there were strong correlations between executive functioning problems and antisocial and "rule breaking" behaviors. Further, poor performance on these brain tests predicted impulsivity and aggression.

One major caveat: Although a 73% success rate sounds good, you need to keep in mind that a coin could have correctly differentiated the criminals in this study from the non-criminals 50% of the time. When you only have two choices, it is relatively easy to distinguish between the two.

But, 73% is significantly above the level of random chance, and it is an indication that more research in this area needs to be done. It could very well be that examining individuals' executive functioning abilities in addition to looking at a number of other areas of their lives can greatly improve a psychologist's ability to predict (and possibly prevent) future violence and other types of criminal behavior.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


Trausch, C. (2013). Executive Function: Conduct Problems and Criminal Behavior. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, Vol 73(9-B(e)), no pagination specified.


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