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May 11, 2010

"For Crime, Is Anatomy Destiny?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this interesting new piece from the New York Times.  Here are excerpts:

Poverty, greed, anger, jealousy, pride, revenge. These are the usual suspects when it comes to discussing the causes of crime. In recent years, however, economists have started to investigate a different explanation for criminal activity: physical attributes.

A small band of economists has been studying how height, weight and beauty affect the likelihood of committing — or being convicted of — a crime. Looking at records from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, they have found evidence that shorter men are 20 to 30 percent more likely to end up in prison than their taller counterparts, and that obesity and physical attractiveness are linked to crime.

“The profession has developed a large interest in biology,” what some refer to as anthropometric economics or history, said Gregory N. Price, an economist at Morehouse College and one of the authors of a paper on height and crime....

Linking physical traits to criminality may sound like a throwback to the biological determinism advocated by 19th-century social Darwinists who believed that there was a genetic predisposition for wrongdoing. Practitioners are quick to distance themselves from such ideas.

Mr. Price, for example, argues that crime can be viewed, at least partly, as an “alternative labor market.” If individuals with certain physical attributes are disadvantaged in the labor force, they may find crime more attractive, he said....

A link between a physical attribute and salary, or crime, does not necessarily mean cause and effect... [as] Howard Bodenhorn, an economist at Clemson University, and Mr. Price [found] from 19th-century prison records. In that era increased body weight was associated with a lower risk of crime. In the 21st century, though, in which service jobs are much more common, Mr. Price found that being overweight was linked to a higher risk of crime....

Mr. Price has suggested that there may be policy implications in his work, saying, “Public health policies successful at reducing obesity among individuals in the population will not only make society healthier, but also safer.”

I wonder if folks on the left have considered, relying on this research connecting crime and physical attributes, promoting health care reform as a public safety necessity. Conversely, I wonder if folks on the right have considered, relying on this research connecting crime and physical attributes, complaining that any new tax on cosmetic surgery could make us less safe. And perhaps we academics need to start worrying about police forces using this research to justify engaging in aesthetic profiling.

Getting a little more serious, based on the title of this article, I am a bit troubled that the piece fails even to mention the fact that sexual anatomy certainy seems to be directly connected to crime in the sense that men are consistently and predictably more likely to commit crimes and to commit serious crimes than women. As I have noted in prior posts, the important basic statistical link between gender and crime is, in my view, too rarely noted or stressed in discussions of crime and punishment.

Some related prior posts on gender and crime issues:

May 11, 2010 at 02:21 PM | Permalink


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Why would this story catch your . . . ?

[From the Kagan post below] "In addition, to throw in one last point on biology, I must note my pleasure with the prospect of having another Justice who is shorter than me (which is not easy)."

Okay. Now I get it. Good luck.

Posted by: Michael Connelly | May 11, 2010 2:33:03 PM

Phrenology didn't die, it just took a new alias.

Posted by: Res ipsa | May 11, 2010 2:42:28 PM

Often the only complete and reliable data on factors related to criminal behavior are for
1) gender
2) age at the time off arrest
3) frequency of incarceration (a proxy for recidivism)
4) a crude classification of the individuals race
5) in some cases complete information may be available about ethnicity (hispanic/non-hispanic)

I doubt very much that a newspaper or magazine would publish and article reporting that gender, age at arrest and recidivism are the factors most strongly associated with criminal behavior. OTOH they frequently publish articles about the criminal behavior where race and ethnicity are the only factors considered.

The odd thing about this is there are huge numbers of families of all races and ethnicities where one child engages in criminal behavior and their siblings do not.

Posted by: John Neff | May 12, 2010 5:11:20 PM

Did anyone watch Freakonomics? I watched it a couple months ago and one of the 'chapters' was about how the crime rate is in direct correlation with the unwanted baby rate in any given city. What they discovered is that when abortions are allowed in trouble areas, crime goes down. Makes you think.

Posted by: mini trampoline | Jun 13, 2011 9:28:52 PM

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