January 25, 2017

Race, Personality, and Crime

In this article, I am going to look at some of the personality differences between Blacks and Whites which likely predispose Blacks to have a higher crime rate. In particular, I am going to look at racial differences in impulsivity, aggression, stress, and psychopathy.

Racial differences in self-control

Firstly, Blacks are more impulsive than Whites are. Self-control is experimentally measured by having people choose between a reward they can get now and a larger reward they can get later. People who choose to receive a larger reward later have a greater ability to delay gratification and, so, more self-control.

Such studies have shown that low self-control predicts criminality and poverty even after controlling for IQ and parental socio-economic status (Moffitt et al. 2010). Moreover, racial differences in self-control have been shown to exist across many studies. Said differences exist around the world, in children and adults, and cannot be explained by racial differences in socio-economic status (Last, 2016). These differences likely contribute to racial differences in crime, poverty, and non-marital birth rates.

Racial Differences in Aggression

The personality trait most obviously associated with crime is aggression. There are several lines of evidence suggesting that Blacks are more aggressive than Whites. First, Blacks are more likely than Whites to get into fights at school.


Child Trends Database

Secondly, Blacks are more likely than Whites to bully people at school (Wang, 2013).

Thirdly, the more violent a crime is the more heavily African Americans tend to be overrepresented in it.


Thus, there is good reason to think that Blacks are more aggressive than Whites are.

Psychopathic Personality

Blacks also score higher than Whites on measures of psychopathic personality. Lynn (2002) described a common measure of psychopathic personality, the Psychopathic Deviate Scale:

“This was constructed by writing a number of questions, giving them to criterion groups of those manifesting psychopathic behaviour and ‘‘normals’’, and selecting for the scale the questions best differentiating the two groups. The criterion group manifesting psychopathic behaviour consisted of 17–24 year olds appearing before the courts and referred for psychiatric examination because of their ‘‘long histories of delinquenttype behaviours such as stealing, lying, alcohol abuse, promiscuity, forgery and truancy’’ (Archer, 1997, p. 20). The common feature of this group has been described as their failure to ‘‘learn those anticipatory anxieties which operate to deter most people from committing anti-social behaviour’’ (Marks, Seeman, & Haller, 1974, p. 25). The manual describes those scoring high on the scale as follows: irresponsible, antisocial, aggressive, having recurrent marital and work problems, and underachieving (Hathaway & McKinley, 1989). A number of subsequent studies have shown that the Psychopathic Deviate scale differentiates delinquents and criminals from nondelinquents and non-criminals (e.g. Elion & Megargee, 1975).”

Lynn then reviewed 5 studies comparing racial groups on this measure. In White, Asian, and African countries it was found that Blacks scored higher than average in psychopathic personality:


Lynn (2002)

Two later meta-analyses on Black/White differences in psychopathic personality came to the conclusion that Blacks did have higher levels of psychopathy than Whites but that this difference, while statistically significant, was not large enough to be practically significant (Skeem et al., 2004; McCoy and Edens, 2006). However, whether or not this difference is practically significant on its own tells us nothing about whether or not it is one among the many factors which contribute to racial crime disparities. Furthermore, all the samples used in these meta-analyses were either clinical or correctional in nature. Because of this, the reported mean differences in these studies may be significantly less than what would be found were the sample taken from the general population.

Racial Differences in Stress and Anxiety

Another feature shared by both Blacks and criminals is low levels of stress. Criminologists have explained the association between low levels of stress and crime by positing that many people would be deterred from committing a crime even if they wanted to by the level of anxiety, stress, and nervousness, that attempting to commit said crime would cause, which is why having a less active stress response would predispose people towards criminality.

Having a slow heart beat and a low level of cortisol are both biological markers of this phenomenon which have been independently linked to criminality and shown to be more common among Blacks than among Whites. (Aggarwal, 2013Easton, 2000; “Race and Stress“; Murray et al., 2016Higginbotham et al., 1991Gillum, 1988). Blacks also self-report generally having lower levels of stress than White people do.

Hormone (ng/dl) Male Female White Black Hispanic
Epinephrine 156.66 97.4 107.44 159.57 113.87
Norepinephrine 2830.18 2073.89 2157.9 2921.6 2261.87
Cortisol 1099.79 904.43 1101.61 963.09 1062.74

Masi et al. (2004)


Too often, we talk about the “ultimate” causes of racial crime disparities without noticing the personality differences which mediate the relationship between things like poverty, family structure, genes, etc., and crime. Looking at these differences is important both because it can give us clues as to what the ultimate causes of racial crime disparities are and because part of why crime disparities are important in the first place is that they tend to be accompanied by personality disparities as well.

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