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Intelligence and Crime

The Future Of Iq-crime Studies

Turning to the future of IQ-crime studies, two questions stand out. Will criminologists continue to study intelligence and crime, and if so, which research questions should be pursued?

Starting with the second question, one issue for future studies involves society's response to intelligence. Menard and Morse hypothesized that school teachers and administrators negatively label low-IQ students thus increasing their risk of criminal behavior. In addition to testing this hypothesis, studies should examine other societal reactions to IQ as well. Stories abound of classmates stigmatizing bright students as "brains" and "geeks," especially in schools with overall low scholastic achievement. Bright students might avoid these negative labels by cutting back on schoolwork and acting out antisocially. Indeed, peers' labels of high-IQ students may cause more harm than officials' labels of low-IQ students.

Another issue for study involves the nature of IQ's effect on criminal behavior. Up until now, causal arguments have assumed that low IQ increases criminal behavior; however, it is possible that in various ways high IQ actually increases criminal behavior. For example, more-intelligent individuals may feel greater confidence of committing crimes without getting caught, which, as per deterrence theory, should lead to more criminal behavior. More-intelligent individuals might also have more opportunities for some crimes, such as white-collar crime. (See Wright et al., 1999b, for a discussion of simultaneous positive and negative causal linkages, between social class and crime.)

An additional issue for study involves the effect of low IQ after a crime is committed. As discussed above, low IQ correlates more strongly with arrests and imprisonment than with self-reported crime (Hirschi and Hindelang), which has been taken as evidence for the detection hypothesis—that low-IQ criminals get caught more easily. Another possibility, though, is that low-IQ criminals experience more negative outcomes once in the criminal justice system. If criminal justice officials, from police officers to judges to parole officers, believe that low intelligence increases criminal behavior, they might prejudge low-IQ criminals as greater risks and correspondingly give them fewer opportunities and harsher punishments.

The question of how to study intelligence and crime, however, is meaningless if few criminologists study it, and this might happen because of its highly politicized nature. Critics have derided IQ-crime causation theories as social Darwinism and as supportive of regressive social policies. Advocates have countered that critics' political preferences have blinded them to empirical realities (Hirschi and Hindelang). This type of conflict dampens research interest in intelligence and crime.

Ultimately, the best answer about whether to study IQ and crime takes a middle path between critics and advocates. Cullen and others exemplify this approach in their critique of The Bell Curve. They catalog potentially serious misuses of IQ-crime research in both criminological theory and public policy and strongly encourage researchers to avoid these misuses. At the same time, they also argue not to "throw the baby out the with bathwater" by ignoring the well-documented empirical link between intelligence and crime. Instead, criminologists should accept that "IQ is a criminogenic factor, and, thus, is an individual difference that must be included in theories of crime causation" (p. 403).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawIntelligence and Crime - Measuring The Size Of The Iq-crime Correlation, Is R = -.20 A Meaningful Correlation Size?