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Criminal behavior linked to thinking about risk, study finds

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Gillian Smith

Valerie Reyna

For the first time, a study has shown a distinction between how risk is cognitively processed by law-abiding citizens and how that differs from lawbreakers, allowing researchers to better understand the criminal mind.

“We have found that criminal behavior is associated with a particular kind of thinking about risk,” said Valerie Reyna, the Lois and Melvin Tukman Professor of Human Development and director of the Cornell University Magnetic Resonance Imaging Facility. “And we have found, through our fMRI capabilities, that there is a correlate in the brain that corresponds to it.”

In the study, published recently in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Reyna and her team took a new approach. They applied fuzzy-trace theory, originally developed by Reyna to help explain memory and reasoning, to examine neural substrates of risk preferences and criminality. They extended ideas about gist (simple meaning) and verbatim (precise risk-reward tradeoffs), both core aspects of the theory, to uncover neural correlates of risk-taking in adults.

“Using fuzzy-trace based risky-choice framing tasks completed in the MRI scanner, we examined neural covariation with self-reported criminal and noncriminal risk-taking,” she said. “We found that most people will show a framing effect, avoiding risk when they are going to win and seeking risk when they are going to lose. Criminals, on the other hand, reverse that framework.”

Participants who anonymously self-reported criminal or noncriminal tendencies were offered two choices: $20 guaranteed, or to gamble on a coin flip for double or nothing. Prior research shows that the vast majority of people would chose the $20 – the sure thing. This study found that individuals who are higher in criminal tendencies choose the gamble. Even though they know there is a risk of getting nothing, they delve into verbatim-based decision-making and the details around how $40 is more than $20.

The same thing happens with losses, but in reverse.

Given the option to lose $20 or flip a coin and either lose $40 or lose nothing, the majority of people this time would actually choose the gamble because losing nothing is better than losing something. This is the “gist” that determines most people’s preferences.

Those who have self-reported criminal tendencies do the opposite through a calculating verbatim mindset, taking a sure loss over the gamble.

“This is different because it is cognitive,” Reyna said. “It tells us that the way people think is different, and that is a very new and kind of revolutionary approach – helping to add to other factors that help explain the criminal brain.

As these tasks were being completed, the researchers looked at brain activation through fMRI to see any correlations. They found that criminal behavior was associated with greater activation in temporal and parietal cortices, their junction and insula – brain areas involved in cognitive analysis and reasoning.

“When participants made reverse-framing choices, which is the opposite of what you and I would do, their brain activation correlated or covaried with the score on the self-reported criminal activity,” said Reyna. “The higher the self-reported criminal behavior, the more activation we saw in the reasoning areas of the brain when they were making these decisions.”

Noncriminal risk-taking was different: Ordinary risk-taking that did not break the law was associated with emotional reactivity (amygdala) and reward motivation (striatal) areas, she said.

Reyna points out that not all criminal reasoning is equal, and therefore, public policies around the legal system can be impacted by these findings through a greater understanding of human brain behavior to have a more just system, while helping better protect the public.

“There are social contexts for crime, impulsive people who are acting without thinking, and many other causes of crimes,” she said. “This study is showing us a type of person who is very carefully calculating the odds of getting caught, so the intervention for these few things are all very different.”

According to Reyna, you have to understand the problem to have the solution. The whole legal system has to be designed to distinguish this, she said, from prevention, to police activity to the judicial system and its decision-making.

“I think this can really give us insight into how to help young people, for example, and how to distinguish the vast majority who will not grow up to be criminals, how to think about their risk-taking – even when it does break the law – in fundamentally different ways,” Reyna said.

Stephen D’Angelo is assistant director of communications at the College of Human Ecology.