There are so many aspects of human behavior that still baffle us as researchers, scientists, and psychologists. Why some people display violent and aggressive behavior whereas others are entirely passive and non-violent is a question that has received particular attention. In searching for answers on the origins of violence, the debate surrounding the influence of nature and nurture revolves at the center.
Nature vs Nurture
As humans, we are all made up of genetics; genes, cells, DNA, and neurotransmitters, and we know that this biological makeup can operate differently across individuals. This is the ‘nature’ aspect of the debate. Those factors that are uncontrolled by us, things that we cannot choose or in theory influence, and these have a significant impact on our behavior and how our minds work.
On the other side are the environmental aspects, the ‘nurture’ side where what we have experienced in our lives, the lessons and influences on us as we were growing up which includes the environment we were brought up in, and how our parents treated and provided for us, shapes us as individuals.
More personal aspects come into play here; whether we receive love as children or whether we were neglected. Whether our home and social environment were nurturing and beneficial for learning those key parts of humanity; empathy, care, sympathy, and love, or whether we were surrounded by violence, neglect, and abuse.
Which one of these, nature or nurture, is more important in shaping us as adults and driving our behavior?
For decades psychologists have argued over these two umbrella terms and what they signify. You have the more scientifically driven who place their belief in nature, in genetics and biology, as the most significant and influential driving force. If there are faults in this biology, connections that are just not there, genes which predispose a person to violent behavior, and areas of the brain which have not developed fully or have developed abnormally then these, and these alone, are responsible for the behaviors displayed. Furthermore, if these are present then an individual is on a crash course. They are essentially ‘born evil’ and there is little that could have been or could now be done to change it.
Alternatively, there is the belief that we are all born with basically the same mechanics. We all have a blueprint that we start with biologically and none of it can be considered evil at the starting line. This belief advocates that the reason some are violent and some are not is down to environmental factors, external influences that have molded an individual.
“I don’t deny the importance of genetics. However, the fact that I might be altruistic isn’t because I have a gene for altruism; the fact that I do something for my children at some cost to myself comes from a history that has operated on me.”– American Psychologist B.F. Skinner
The development of a child is an extremely important stage that no one can deny. How a child learns what is appropriate behavior and what isn’t, how to regulate their own behavior and emotional responses to others, along with appropriate social behaviors is through the environment they develop in. These examples are set by others; the behaviors they witness as a child are significant.
Imagine, a child who grows up in a household with no rules and no boundaries, with parents who pay them little attention, who are involved in criminal behavior, who mix with others of a similar ilk. This is what this child thinks is ‘normal’. The behaviors they witness, the possible violence, and the lack of caring they experience are what they internalize into their own psyche and into their own developing personalities.
In comparison, a child who is loved, whose parents provide care and support, engages in play and activities to teach them how to share, to teach them others have feelings, molds entirely different normality for that child and this is more than likely the developmental path they will follow.
JIM FALLON: NATURAL BORN KILLER?
Sociology and psychology film producer and author Chris Livesey has recently directed a documentary film featuring Professor James Fallon where he explores his research, his discoveries, and what this means for our understanding of criminal behavior, violence and aggression, and the nature-nurture debate.
It is an excellent film, breaking down the components of a complex debate and explaining their significance. It is an opportunity to listen to Professor Fallon discuss his work and these theories in his own words, giving a real insight into the current thinking in this field of research at this time.
Furthermore, this film from Short Cuts TV reveals his thoughts on how nurture may, in fact, be able to change nature, alter those genes and biological factors and ignite them in a way that can have devastating consequences.
Nature and Nurture?
It has become apparent in recent years that a more accurate picture of what makes up an individual and the influencing factors on behavior is a combination of nature and nurture rather than one or the other. Genes and biological brain development do influence a developing mind as does how a person grows up, and those external influences and experiences they develop within. While this combined perspective and theory sound more reasonable and more appropriate, the mechanics of how this works is still something that has not become clear.
Advancements in technology have helped greatly in this search for answers to the roots and origins of human behavior, particularly when it comes to criminal behavior, violent aggression, and acts against others that are especially brutal. This is why the behaviors of serial killers can often be at the center of these investigations.
Multiple murderers represent individuals in society who appear to have no conscience. They do not seem to feel anything for their victims and they have the capacity in many cases to carry out cruel and brutal acts to the clear distress and pain of those they are hurting.
Some get a kick out of this behavior; they enjoy inflicting pain on their victims. Many enjoy the fear that their victim displays when they have been captured and realize what is about to happen to them. Not only can these individuals carry out these acts, but they also do so repeatedly.
“Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction” – German Psychologist Erich Fromm
They are not repelled or repulsed by their behavior, they are curious and keen to carry it out again to achieve the same feelings they got the first time.
The idea that multiple murderers may have some form of addiction to killing has been suggested, almost akin to a drug or alcohol addiction. The act of killing and the particular way they carry out the murder gives them an emotional reward of some kind. For some, this may be a feeling of power, for others it is sexual gratification.
It is clear that it is not the same for all killers, it varies just as their modus operandi and signatures differ. These individuals are a sample pool of humans where their psychology and now it appears their biological make-up, is most likely flawed. Something has gone wrong somewhere and we want to know what it is.
As the above film demonstrates, the research of Professor James Fallon has been very influential in this field. A geneticist in origin, Fallon found himself studying the brain scans of individuals in search of markers for Alzheimer’s disease, and in doing so, he became somewhat of an expert on the analysis of brain patterns and the interpretation of brain scans. Inevitably along the line, he was asked to review the brain scans of a large sample of criminals, most of whom were convicted serial killers and many were hoping a default in their brain would equal exoneration from responsibility for their crimes, or at least ensure they avoided the death penalty.
What Professor Fallon found was especially interesting and it was novel. He found distinct brain patterns on MRI scans for serial killers compared to non-serial killers. All had the same pattern, suggesting a lack of activity in the frontal lobe area of the brain. Being so consistent across his sample this is a finding which was begging to be followed up and explored further.
Professor Fallon’s book ‘The Psychopath Inside’ is a fascinating read. A book that is a documentation of his life, his studies, and his career on one side and a journey of discovery about his own brain, personality, and behaviors on the other.
For a man who had dedicated his life to science and was very much of the opinion that our behaviors as humans were at least 80% due to our genetics and biology and entirely from nature, this journey and his discoveries came as quite a shock. A shock not only personally but professionally, resulting in backtracking of his original theories and the development of new ones, very much incorporating and giving great weight to the nurture side of the nature-nurture debate.
“What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself” – American Psychologist Abraham Maslow
Anyone who is familiar with Fallon’s research will know the surprising discovery he made about his own brain. A discovery that his brain pattern matched the brain patterns of the serial killers he had been studying. A pattern that he had found to be consistent with violent psychopaths who can and have done great harm to others.
While this came as a surprise it also came with an air of curiosity. If he had the same brain pattern, the same lack of activity in those frontal areas of the brain which by his own theory was a strong signal that the owner of that brain was a psychopath with violent tendencies, then why wasn’t he a serial killer? Why didn’t he have a history of violence against others?
This proved that such brain patterns alone and therefore biology alone cannot account for these behaviors and why these individuals are as they are. As a further route of investigation, he checked his genes, his genetic code, to see if he had the gene set that indicates a predisposition for violence (the so-called ‘warrior gene’) and found once again he was the odd one out in his sample.
It was his genetics that showed these markers, but again if he had the genetics and the biological brain patterns, why wasn’t he a serial murderer?
These are some of the key questions that Professor James Fallon and his colleagues in neuroscience, psychology, and criminology are trying to answer and they are unlikely to be answered soon. However, the impact of these findings is clear; the nature vs nurture debate has transformed into a nature and nurture interaction. An interrelationship that may hold the key to why some individuals display such violent aggression. The potential of these research findings, and these new theories on nature and nurture are substantial and they are exciting. Modern science and research are taking us one step closer to that understanding of human behavior which many have been searching for.
Guy, F. (2016, May 16) Nature and Nurture: The Origins of Violence. Crime Traveller. Retrieved from https://www.crimetraveller.org/2016/05/nature-nurture-origins-violence/
- Criminal Psychology: A Beginner’s Guide: From the signals which give away we’re lying to psychologically profiling violent offenders, this exhaustive guide, written by UK experts is the perfect introduction.
- Familicidal Hearts: The Emotional Styles of 211 Killers: Neil Websdale uncovers the stories behind 196 male and 15 female perpetrators of familicide exploring the roles of shame, rage, and fear in the lives and crimes of the killers.
- The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers: Accurate, unglamorized information on hundreds of serial murder cases including the Sniper Killers; the Green River Killer; Harold Shipman, and Aileen Wuornos.