Fearlessness in juvenile offenders

Juvenile offenders have impairments in emotional learning and punitive measures to control their behaviour are unlikely to be effective, new research by a team from the University suggests.

Led by Stephanie van Goozen of the School of Psychology and Simon Moore from the School of Dentistry, the team set out to establish whether a lack of fear was linked to juvenile offending, and if rates of criminal offending were linked to the severity of this emotional learning impairment.

"Poor fear conditioning has been cited as a predisposing factor to crime," said Professor van Goozen.

"Individuals who lack fear are less likely to avoid antisocial and criminal behaviour that is associated with future punishment. We wanted to assess whether this is true in the case of juvenile offenders," she added.

The team measured responses to stimuli in 45 juvenile offenders aged between 12 and 18 years old. They found that juvenile offenders had problems learning a fear response to stimuli that predicted unpleasant events.

Speaking about their study, Professor van Goozen said: "Our findings support the idea that offending youths have deficits in the neural systems that serve emotion learning. This underlines the need to take individual differences among offenders into account when establishing programmes to tackle behavioural problems.

"The effects of fearlessness only really start to manifest later in the young offenders lives, which makes sense as the punishments start to become more salient later on. Custodial sentences, for example, are only really handed out to 15 + year olds.

"Turning to the relationship between fear conditioning and rate of offending, our results show that young offenders who were able to learn a fear-conditioned response were less prolific offenders than those who did not show this form of learning. These findings have clear implications for our understanding of the continuity of antisocial and criminal behaviour: individuals who are slower to learn the association between events and negative consequences are those who are involved in committing more offences.

"Persistent young offenders are responsible for significant levels of harm in their communities. Our findings offer a better understanding of the psychological processes that contribute to chronic offending and may help with the design of targeted interventions."

The paper, ’Fearlessness in juvenile offenders is associated with offending rate’ by Syngelaki, Fairchild, Moore, Savage & van Goozen is published in the journal Developmental Science.