Teen Crime May Be a Result of Culture, Not Biology, Study Suggests

Teen Crime
"Whatever the biological, or neurobiological, factors that might contribute to criminal behavior, culture and social structure apparently play as great, or greater role," said Yunmei Lu of Penn State University. Jose Cabezas/Reuters

In the United States, involvement in crime typically spikes in one's mid- to late-teenage years, after which it declines. This had led many to believe that teenagers are biologically predisposed to commit more crime than adults. "The teenage brain is like a car with a good accelerator but a weak brake," according to Temple University's Laurence Steinberg, who helped draft an American Psychological Association brief for a 2005 case that saw the Supreme Court outlaw the death penalty for minors. "With powerful impulses under poor control, the likely result is a crash."

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But a new study from Penn State University posits that cultural forces, not biological ones, may be responsible for crime among teens. Criminologists at the university studied the relationship between crime and age in Taiwan, finding that involvement in crime peaks in one's late 20s and early 30s. This differs from trends in Western countries like the U.S., where the culture is more individualistic than it is in Taiwan, where teenagers place less emphasis on having fun and are more likely to behave similarly to adults.

"Whatever the biological, or neurobiological, factors that might contribute to criminal behavior, culture and social structure apparently play as great, or greater role," said Yunmei Lu, one of the study's co-authors.

In conducting the study, the research team examined both violent crimes like robbery and assault and nonviolent crimes like theft and fraud. Arrest data from the Taiwan Criminal Investigation Bureau of Police Administration Agency was compared with U.S. arrest data from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program. The study was published in the journal Criminology.

If a predisposition to commit crimes were biological, as many believe it to be, then crime in Taiwan would peak in the same age group as it does in Western countries. Factors such as adolescent supervision and how quickly teenagers are indoctrinated into adult life, then, could have a large impact on when crime could become a force in one's life. The findings are significant because, as Penn State's Darrell Steffensmeier said, the idea that biology is responsible for teen crime is so common that it has affected policy decisions in the United States.

"Saying that teen brains are wired for crime has become a mantra, in many ways," he said. "Some see this as having policy implications, too. For example, if teenagers are pre-programmed for sensation-seeking, which leads to crime, then it means that they're less responsible and blameworthy. Therefore, people who believe this might say we need to undo this punitive juvenile justice system. Now, it may be that the justice system is too punitive, but the idea that this age-crime relationship is driven primarily by biology becomes a scientific rationalization."

In a 2005 Supreme Court decision to ban the death penalty as punishment for crimes committed when someone is under 18, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote about how teens show "a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility" and that "juveniles are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure."

Though this may be the case in the United States, Penn State's study shows that cultural norms rather than biological science could be to blame. The research team plans to study age-specific crime data in other countries in order to build a more fully developed idea of how culture can influence involvement in crime among young people.