New research suggests that criminal tendencies may derive from low resting heart rates.
While past studies have shown that criminals and people who engage in anti-social behavior tend to have low resting heart rates, the precise biological link remained unclear. Criminology professor Adrian Raine worked with Ph.D. student and 2010 College graduate Jill Portnoy — who collaborated with Raine on her senior thesis while an undergraduate at Penn — and three criminologists from other universities to explore the link.
The team found that the link between heart rate and criminal tendencies was the sensation-seeking theory, which Portnoy said is common among people with low heart rates who exist in a state of lower arousal.
“This is an uncomfortable physiological state, so these people do things like commit crimes to increase their heart rate to a more optimal rate,” Portnoy said.
Portnoy and the other researchers used data from the Pittsburgh Youth Study to examine 16-year-old boys. The study measured heart rate at rest, during a cognitive task and during a stressful task and asked the boys to report on their levels of aggression and fill out a questionnaire about their personality — specifically in regards to sensation-seeking activities.
“The findings demonstrated that the relationship between low resting heart rate and aggression was almost entirely abolished after controlling for sensation-seeking,” Portnoy said.
The team’s findings brings to light new approaches in crime prevention.
One way to reduce chances of antisocial behavior in individuals with low resting heart rates, Portnoy said, is to provide oppor tunities for enrichment with pro-social stimulation, like sports. These activities would fulfill the desire and need for stimulation that could otherwise result in criminal behavior.
The study also sheds light on criminal punishment and the notion that a person with a low resting heart rate should not be punished equally to someone with a normal resting heart rate who commits the same crimes or engages in similar acts of aggression.
Raine is no new face to the biological side of criminology.
In 2013, Raine published a book entitled “The Anatomy of Violence,” which summarizes the link between biology and criminology and discusses the societal implications for prevention, prediction and punishment.
“I think very broadly, the more we learn about brain-behavior relationships, the more people become more understanding, compassionate and merciful,” Raine said. “I’m not saying this is right, I am just saying this is what we know from social neuroscience.”
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