Journal Article

The blunt-edged sword: genetic explanations of misbehavior neither mitigate nor aggravate punishment

Nicholas Scurich and Paul Appelbaum

in Journal of Law and the Biosciences

Published on behalf of Harvard University Law School

Volume 3, issue 1, pages 140-157
Published in print April 2016 |
Published online December 2015 | e-ISSN: 2053-9711 | DOI:

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Links between genetic variants and negatively valenced behaviors have stimulated intense commentary about the implications for responsibility and punishment. Previous research has suggested that behavioral genetic evidence of a predisposition to negative behaviors has modest to no impact on mitigation of punishment, at least for serious crimes. Data are presented on the effect of such evidence in a representative sample of the general population (n = 640) asked to consider three vignettes describing lesser offenses, dealt with in less formal adjudicatory settings and in everyday life. Genetic explanations of behavior had no effect on the severity of the punishment selected in any case, in contrast to the egregiousness of the behavior and respondents’ beliefs in free-will. Public views of genetic influences on behavior may be less deterministic and more nuanced than is often thought, or genetic explanations may simply not have the salience for decision makers that is frequently attributed to them.

Keywords: behavioral genetics; neuroscience; evidence; responsibility; punishment

Journal Article.  7973 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Medical and Healthcare Law ; Bioethics

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