A man pick-pocketing a woman's phone.
Image credit: Alamy.

All human beings are biologically predetermined to commit crimes under the right circumstances – according to a new theory in bio-social criminology.

The theory explores the evolutionary concept of retribution and reciprocity and looks at under which circumstances people do and do not commit crimes.

In her new book called Evolutionary Criminology and Cooperation, Dr Evelyn Svingen, Assistant Professor in Criminology at the University of Birmingham, argues that human beings have evolved to be collaborative and cooperative, with our cooperative ancestors being more likely to pass on their genes and convey evolutionary advantage. Retribution and reciprocity have played, and still play, an important role in maintaining cooperation in society.

Retribution, receprocity and our environment

Although human behaviour is complex, on a fundamental level we respond with kindness to kindness and with hostility to hostility – we reciprocate. Humans are also driven by norms and punish those who violate these social norms – we seek retribution.

Research experiments are used to outline that the hardwired sense of retribution and reciprocity, in addition to the perception of our environment means that under the correct circumstances, suggests that everyone will commit crimes.

On the other hand, it is possible that under the right conditions, no one would commit crimes. If we can improve everyone’s perception of their environment, through things such as good investment in our public services, you would see fewer people committing crimes.

Negative retribution and reciprocity make crime more likely to occur, and positive reciprocity makes crime less likely to occur. This is influenced by the perceptions of the environment and is highly individualised. For example, if a friend insults you, you are likely to perceive it as a joke or friendly banter, but if a stranger insults you, it‘s more likely you will see it as an act of hostility and retaliate accordingly, an eye for an eye so to speak.

Dr Evelyn Svingen, University of Birmingham

Perceptions of the environment can refer to people, places, organisations, or even whole nations or the world in its entirety. If someone has a ‘positive‘ perception of their environment then they will feel they have been treated fairly, helped and supported.

In contrast, ‘negative‘ means that people feel that they were treated unfairly and are being exploited. It is this individual perception that will mean everyone will commit crime, but the circumstances under which this would happen, vary from person to person.

Bus stop scenario

Participants responses to a series of hypothetical scenarios demonstrate how the theory works in practice.

Dr Svingen had participants face four hypothetical scenarios: two that ask how likely the participant is to push or punch someone, and two that ask how likely they are to steal money from another person. Every scenario had a baseline, and which was manipulated for every tendency separately with intensity gradually rising from low to medium to high.

One of these was the Bus Stop Scenario - the participant is standing at the bus stop and gets bumped into, or sees someone else being bumped into. The scenario was changed to measure responses to positive reciprocity, negative reciprocity and retribution. Results showed an increase in participants reporting they would commit a crime as the intensity of both negative reciprocity and retribution scenarios rose, and that number dropped as the intensity of positively reciprocal scenarios rose.

Dr Svingen explained: “The results from this experiment mean that all three tendencies, reciprocity, retribution and perceptions of the environment, play an important role in crime causation. These tendencies are ingrained in us and played an important role in our evolution, meaning we are all biologically predisposed to commit crimes depending on our personal interpretation of the situation and environment.

“The theory that everyone will commit a crime under the right circumstances doesn’t mean that ‘all people are evil‘. In fact, although there may be some anomalies and outliers, the theory actually suggests that fundamentally people are nice, and won’t commit crimes without these environmental influences. The desire to commit a crime as, at least in part, a response to a perceived injustice that has been done to a person, either by an individual or even society as a whole. The crime is used to reciprocate that injustice, or punish someone/something for that injustice.”

Gaming for public good

A second experiment that Dr Svingen conducted is known as the Public Goods Game. Dr Svingen had 1000 participants play an online game with a computer simulating other participants. Each player, including those controlled by the computer, was provided with fake money which meant they could make contributions to the ‘public good‘, which then sees all money distributed equally among participants.

In the second round people were able to reward or punish participants for generous or selfish behaviour, by awarding or removing money from other players. However, this would come at a personal cost to them as they would need to pay half of the total rewards and punishments they wanted to give out to others. In the third round of the game, only three ‘players‘ were left and the human participant became the Third Party Punisher (TPP). The TTP could not contribute to or benefit from the public good. Their only job was to reward and punish the other two ‘players‘.

Dr Svingen said: “The game was designed to measure people's individual differences to see how their behaviour changed. Most people showed remarkable levels of individual differences, including spending all their money on rewarding and punishing other players even at no benefit for themselves.

“This demonstrates the desire for humans to encourage cooperative tendencies and disuade selfish ones, retribution and reciprocity. This desire for cooperation has offered an evolutionary advantage and likely spread, being supported by people learning by example and by neurophysiological mechanisms. Of course there are always the non-cooperative types, but they tend to be outliers and much rarer than people might think.”

A new way of thinking

The new theory opens up the opportunity to explore the relationship between evolutionary biology, psychology and social factors.

One of the positive takeaways is that it is theoretically possible to create an environment where we eliminate crime. By creating a truly just society, with opportunities for all and good investment in our public services, such as schools and social services we could make meaningful steps towards changing perceptions of our society and leading to a reduction in crime.

Dr Evelyn Svingen, University of Birmingham

Dr Svingen concluded: “This is the first attempt, that we know of, to create an evolutionary theory of crime. This is not to say that this is the only reason that people commit crimes, there will be outliers who may be motivated by purely selfish reasons, and other factors will be at play as well as humans are complex beings.

“One of the positive takeaways is that it is theoretically possible to create an environment where we eliminate crime. By creating a truly just society, with opportunities for all and good investment in our public services, such as schools and social services we could make meaningful steps towards changing perceptions of our society and leading to a reduction in crime.”