Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Neurocognitive Deficits Related to Poor Decision Making in People Behind Bars

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Neurocognitive Deficits Related to Poor Decision Making in People Behind Bars

Article excerpt

Using a novel quantitative model of repeated choice behavior, we investigated the cognitive processes of criminal offenders incarcerated for various crimes. Eighty-one criminals, including violent offenders, drug and sex offenders, drivers operating a vehicle while impaired, and 18 matched controls were tested. The results were also contrasted with those obtained from neurological patients with focal brain lesions in the orbitofrontal cortex and from drug abusers. Participants performed the computerized version of the Iowa gambling task (Bechara, Damasio, Damasio, & Anderson, 1994), and the results were decomposed into specific component processes, using the expectancy valence model (Busemeyer & Stout, 2002). The findings indicated that whereas all the criminal groups tended to select disadvantageously, the cognitive profiles exhibited by different groups were considerably different. Certain subpopulations-most significantly, drug and sex offenders-overweighted potential gains as compared with losses, similar to chronic cocaine abusers. In contrast, assault/murder criminals tended to make less consistent choices and to focus on immediate outcomes and, in these respects, were more similar to patients with orbitofrontal damage. The present cognitive model provides a novel way for building a bridge between cognitive neuroscience and complex human behaviors.

Do different groups of criminals suffer from the same dysfunctional cognitive processes when making decisions? The present study explores the nature of the cognitive processes of criminal offenders, including violent offenders, drug and sex offenders, and dangerous drivers (operating a vehicle while impaired [OWI]). The study also contrasts the pattern of these cognitive processes with those of neurological patients with bilateral orbitofrontal cortex damage (i.e., ventromedial prefrontal cortex damage), as well as with those of chronic cocaine abusers.

The issue of similarities and differences between criminal populations prevails in the criminology and psychopathy literature. The famous early criminologist Cesare Lombroso (1911/2005) argued that all criminals share the same characteristics and developed the concept of the atavistic, or born, criminal. Although subsequent facts did not fit Lombroso's theory and his research was later questioned, the idea that all criminals have shared characteristics lingers to date. Indeed, one of the more popular theories in criminal research is the self-control theory of Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990), which posits that "people who lack self-control will tend to be impulsive, insensitive, physical (as opposed to mental), risk-taking, short-sighted, and non-verbal" (p. 90). According to Gottfredson and Hirschi's theory, poor self-control is also the primary underlying factor in criminality. Research has indeed shown that poor self-control is associated with a variety of imprudent behaviors, including drug and alcohol use, drunk driving, gang membership, and the use of violence (see, e.g., Armstrong, 2005; Hope & Damphouse, 2002; Keane, Maxim, & Teevan, 1993).

The present study espouses a different view, that whereas poor decision making is characteristic of criminal behavior, the cognitive processes that lead to this behavior might vary across criminals who commit different offenses. The idea that grouping criminals according to types of offenses could yield insight into important individual differences in psychological characteristics is not new. For example, several studies in which self-report measures have been used have indicated that different criminal populations appear to belong to different personality groups (see Krueger, Hicks, & McGue, 2001). In our study, we asked whether criminals with different primary offenses might have characteristic differences in basic psychological processes that underlie decision making. Building on previous studies in clinical populations using the Iowa gambling task (IGT; Bechara, Damasio, Damasio, & Anderson, 1994), we and others have found that whereas a wide variety of clinical populations perform more poorly than their respective control groups on this task, the cognitive processes that lead to these poor performances can differ between clinical populations and, thereby, add insight regarding the different pathways to poor decision making that might characterize various disorders. …

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