Biosocial Theories – What They Are & Examples in Criminology


Biosocial theories offer a new way of understanding human behavior. They are grounded in the idea that biological factors such as genetics and hormones play an important role in shaping people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Biosocial criminology is an emerging field that studies crime from this perspective. For example, some biosocial criminologists believe that testosterone levels may be linked to aggression and criminality among men. This article will delve more into biosocial theories.

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What is the Definition of Biosocial Criminology?

Biosocial criminology is a broad term encompassing many different theories that focus on the interaction between biological factors and social influences.

While other types of criminal behavior may be added to biosocial theories, such as white-collar crime or hate crimes, most biosocial theories are concerned with explaining violent and aggressive acts—such as murder, arson, rape, or assault.

Biosocial theories are often based on the assumption that humans have evolved and possess biological adaptations useful to them in ancestral environments, but that may cause problems in modern society.

Accordingly, biosocial criminologists study ancient as well as modern societies to understand these biological adaptations better. One example of such an adaptation, according to many biosocial criminologists, involves human aggression.

In the ancestral environment, acting aggressively could have helped humans survive and reproduce by making them more competitive for resources or mates. However, aggressive behavior is often counterproductive in modern society, where it can lead to incarceration.

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What Are the Five Biosocial Examples in Criminology

The five biosocial examples in criminology include;

1. Evolutionary Theory of Crime    

2. Testosterone and Criminal Behavior    

3. Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis and Antisocial Behavior/Psychopathy                   

4. Cortisol and Psychopathy     

5. Oxytocin, Vasopressin, and Psychopathy 

1.    Evolutionary Theory of Crime     

An important part of biosocial criminology involves understanding the biological basis for violent and aggressive behavior. According to an evolutionary theory developed by David M. Buss in 1989 (and further expanded upon by Randy Thornhill in 2000), sex-specific forms of aggression have evolved in response to changes in the social and physical environment, such as a shift from an ancestral focus on obtaining food to a current priority on money. Males tend to be more aggressive than females because their reproductive success depends on their ability to compete for resources (wealth or sexual partners).

Buss and Thornhill hypothesized that the most dangerous types of aggression, such as murder or rape, were the least likely to be tolerated in ancestral environments and thus have had the strongest evolutionary pressures.

In contrast, more benign forms of aggression, such as a bar fight over insults about one’s mother (which may not threaten reproduction), would not have been deterred by natural selection.

Based on this evolutionary approach, crimes committed to obtain power or control over others (e.g., rape and murder) should be more common in males. In contrast, those committed to obtaining material goods (e.g., theft and burglary) should be more common in females.

This theory also suggests that certain acts against property—for example, shoplifting or vandalism—may be more common in females.

Buss’s and Thornhill’s evolutionary theory has been supported by research showing that males are more likely to commit certain types of aggression than females (such as homicide and spousal abuse). Still, other types of IPV may not show a gender difference.

For example, males may be more likely to choke their partners, whereas females are more likely to stab or shoot their victims. The prevalence of choking also might depend on the culture in which it occurs; for instance, there was a substantial gender difference in one study conducted primarily among African Americans ( ARTICLE].

The evolutionary theory has been used to understand why males are more likely to commit crimes, but there is less research on applying this theory to females.

In general, these theories have been most successful when applied with groups known for both high rates of violence and evidence linking them to evolutionary forces (such as among Australian aborigines).

2.    Testosterone and Criminal Behavior

One of the most studied biosocial theories involves testosterone. Many studies have shown that low levels of testosterone are associated with low rates of criminal behavior in males. Conversely, high levels of testosterone are associated with aggression and impulsive violence.

Men who cannot produce normal amounts of testosterone due to a medical condition or anabolic steroid use often exhibit much lower levels of violent crime (Ehrhardt & Meyer-Bahlburg 1996).

An analysis of the relationship between testosterone and criminal behavior in a sample of about 400 women from a U.S.-based longitudinal study supported these findings (Wiebe & Wright 2009).

In addition, if men’s levels of testosterone decline over time, they may be more likely to commit serious crimes later on in their lives (Beaveyr, B. R., Wright, M., & DeLisioi, T. J., & Lacey, 2011).

One of the most important studies about the structural difference in the brain between men and women being aggression was conducted by Doreen Kimura (1992) over 25 years ago.

The result was different from the popular perception that women are more peaceful than men. According to her data analysis, there were more differences between men’s brains than women’s brains in the left prefrontal lobe. This part of the brain is responsible for aggression, planning and organization. 

In a more recent study, researchers found that out of 1,400 prisoners tested, violent offenders had significantly less white matter (the connective tissue of the brain) in 2 parts of the brain. That is, those who had committed violent crimes tended to have less white matter in the frontal lobe and cerebellum areas of their brains (Steinburg, P. R., & Grisso, T.(2007). 

3.    Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis and Antisocial Behavior     

This is another example in biosocial criminology where low levels of a biological factor (in this case, cortisol) are associated with high rates of criminal behavior in males.

A meta-analysis of studies testing the relationship between cortisol and antisocial behavior found that both violent offenders and non-offenders had significantly higher salivary cortisol levels than controls.

Violent offenders also had significantly lower recall memory scores than controls (Hyde, Linnoila, & Wahlstrom 1995). The relationship between cortisol and antisocial behavior was strongest for those with conduct disorder.

In addition to the general dysregulation of the HPA axis in antisocial populations, more specific effects may be found among females.

For example, low cortisol levels have been associated with early-onset aggressive and violent behavior, while overproduction of cortisol has been related to later life forms of aggression (Davidson, King, & Turkewitz 1995).

In one study of the HPA axis in violent offenders and first degree relatives of violent offenders (FDRVOs), investigators found no evidence that a dysfunction in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis played any significant role causing violence in FDRVOs. However, the researchers found significantly higher mean cortisol levels in FDRVOs than controls (Hamner et al. 2001). 

4.    Cortisol and Psychopathy   

Cortisol may also be a culprit in psychopathy. Psychopaths are highly aggressive criminals who lack empathy and tend to gloat about their crimes to others (Hare, 1993). Research has suggested that the absence of fear is part of psychopathic makeup (Blair et al., 1997), explaining their violent criminal behavior. Interestingly, one study found a positive correlation between cortisol and psychopathy amongst men but not women (Blair et al., 2002).  

5.    Oxytocin, Vasopressin, and Psychopathy

 Researchers have found a correlation between the genes that code for the vasopressin receptor and antisocial behavior in males (Caspi, Sugden, Moffitt, Taylor, and Craig IWAG Study). Vasopressin is a hormone that has been implicated in affiliative behaviors like sexual arousal, aggression and parenting.

When the gene that codes for the vasopressin receptor (AVPR1A) was coupled with a functional polymorphism of the monoamine oxidase A gene (MAOA), a specific combination, referred to as the “double allele,” has been associated with lower levels of MAOA.

In both children and adults, this relationship is considered causal, as the allele combination is linked to greater-than-normal activity in brain regions related to emotional regulation and aggressive behavior (Caspi et al., 2002).

The “double allele” has been tied to higher rates of antisocial behaviors across adolescence and adult life, including serious criminal convictions for some people with this gene pattern (Linnoila et al. 1992).

Most research in this area has focused on males, but a relationship between the “double allele” pattern and antisocial behavior was also found for females (Rhee & Waldman, 2002).

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What Are the Biosocial Crime Factors in Theories of Crime?

The biosocial theory of crime hypothesizes that the development of aggressive and non-aggressive criminal behavior results from a biological predisposition coupled with social learning (Raine, 2006).

Researchers have identified several factors that they believe play an important role in influencing whether or not certain individuals will commit violent crimes. These factors include adverse childhood experiences, mental illness, antisocial peers, poverty and substance abuse.

The biosocial theory emphasizes the interaction between biological factors (i.e., genetic) and environmental factors (i.e., social learning) in predicting criminal or violent behavior.

Generally accepted biosocial criminological theories of crime were developed to understand better why some people engage in violence, whereas others do not (Loeber et al. (2013).

For example, the “Risk factor” hypothesis suggests that biology and environment combine to produce individuals at risk for criminal behavior. The “Risk factor” or biosocial theory proposes that there is a high correlation between biological factors like genetics (i.e., MAOA and the serotonin transporter gene), brain abnormalities, neuropsychological deficits, or hormonal problems and violent behaviors (Raine et al., 2000; Rhee & Waldman, 2002).  

Researchers have concluded that biological factors do not directly cause crime but rather interact with environmental factors to influence whether an individual will engage in criminal or antisocial behavior (Loeber, R., & Stouthamer-Loeber, M.(1986). 

Thus, the biosocial theory highlights “the need for a more comprehensive approach to understanding crime based on both environmental and biological factors” (Raine et al., 2000; Rhee & Waldman 2002).

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What Is an Example of Biosocial Theory?

An example of a biosocial theory is the Maturational Theory. The maturation theory suggests that biological factors and social learning interact to shape behavior throughout life course development.

That means that as an individual grows up, their brain is constantly changing and developing. Those changes are occurring genetically and because the environment is a powerful influence on brain growth and development.

This theory has been applied to explain the crime rate increase during adolescence (Moffit, T. E., 1993). The maturation theory suggests that as individuals go through puberty, they experience a number of physiological changes and neurological changes in the form of maturation and increased emotional reactivity.

It is suggested that these environmental factors may lead to an increase in criminal behavior.

This theory has also been applied to understand the relationship between crime and age. As people get older, they are likely to commit less crime because their brains have developed enough to make responsible decisions (Moffit, T. E., 1993).

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How is Criminality Explained in the Perspective of Biosocial Theory?

A biosocial theory to explain a person’s criminality is based on both biological and social factors. Most people are exposed to the same environmental experiences, but only some become criminals (Loeber, R., Farrington, D. P., & Waschbusch, D.A., 2002).  

For instance, according to biosocial theories, criminal behavior can be explained by the interaction of genetics and the environment.   Hanson & Bussière (1998) argue that there are two different types of offenders: “situation-oriented” and “personality-oriented”.

First, the “situation oriented” offenders display more impulsive behavior and tend to behave impulsively in a wide range of situations. 

They are not characterized by high levels of antisocial behavior or social deviance, but rather their offences reflect the fact that they tend to respond inappropriately to specific environmental cues (like a chance encounter with an attractive female) and fail to adjust their actions accordingly adequately.

The behavior of “situation oriented” offenders is based on the interaction between a deviant (i.e., antisocial) personality and a particular environmental context. Still, these characteristics alone do not trigger criminal behavior.

In contrast, “personality-oriented” offenders demonstrate an enduring, rather than situational, a pattern of misconduct that crosses most realms of their lives. 

These individuals possess a constellation of personality and temperamental traits that are highly deviant. They include narcissism, sensation seeking, low conscientiousness, impulsivity and borderline or antisocial personality disorder (Hanson, R.K., Jagannathan, N., & Bussière, M.T., 2001).    

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What is Biosocial Theory of Juvenile Delinquency?

The main idea behind the biosocial theory of juvenile delinquency is that biological characteristics, such as genetic and hormonal factors, are important predictors of antisocial behavior. 

Although most criminologists acknowledge the importance of the environment in explaining a person’s criminality, they tend to believe that genetics affect deviant behavior.

According to this perspective, some individuals are biologically more vulnerable than others to commit a crime.  Many researchers suggest that certain genes may make a person more likely to engage in antisocial behavior (Raine et al., 2000).  

For example, Rhee and Waldman (2002) found out that there is an association between the monoamine oxidase A gene and antisocial behavior in children and adolescents. 

Moreover, Loeber (1993) found out that the gene for low serotonin transporter is associated with delinquent and aggressive behavior in boys only.  

However, environmental factors are also important in explaining the relationship between genetics and crime.  The interaction of biological factors (e.g., the MAOA gene) and social factors (e.g., a stressful environment during childhood) increases antisocial behavior.

In contrast, biological factors with other biological factors have no negative effect on delinquency (Rhee, S.H., & Waldman, I. D., (2005).  

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What Are Three Major Types of Criminological Theories?

There are three major types of criminological theories:  

1} Retributive Theory

Retributive theory is based on the belief that criminal behavior should be punished to show that crime does not pay.

2} Restorative Theory 

The restorative theory aims to balance justice and mercy better to make victims and offenders feel better.

3} Rehabilitative Theory 

The rehabilitative theory aims to reduce the likelihood that a person will commit another crime by changing their behavior (Garner & Fagan).  

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It is clear that the biosocial theory of juvenile delinquency has important implications for society. The understanding of biological factors and their influence on criminal behavior can help prevent crime in the future.   

Overall, this article describes three major types of criminological theories: retributive theory, restorative theory, and rehabilitative theory, and the biosocial theories overall. We hope it was helpful!  

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