Cognitive Abilities and Criminal Acts: Is There A Correlation?

The cognitive abilities of every stakeholder in a court case are very important, especially in criminal cases.
Photo by Morgan Housel on Unsplash

Various scholars and academics have suggested that there is a close affinity between the cognitive abilities of an accused and the alleged crime committed. Given this, cognitive abilities could be an interesting subject in determining criminal matters. Plessis (2021) in her article, Cognitive Skills: What They Are, Why They Matter, How to Improve Them, defined cognitive skills as “mental skills used in the process of acquiring knowledge, the manipulation of information, reasoning, and problem-solving.” Indeed cognitive skills generally help with perception, attention, memory, and logical reasoning. These skills have to do with how people learn.

In a bid to understand violent acts done by individuals, some factors have to be considered. These are the innate and acquired behavior propensities, neurophysiological characteristics, aspects of the immediate situation, and cognitive functioning. Bettman (1998) in his dissertation, Social Cognition, Criminal Violence, and Psychopathy, talks about the social learning theory. According to him, the social learning theory proposes that “violent behaviors, like most other behaviors, are determined by a combination of stable behavioral dispositions interacting with specific features of the environment.”

Lower cognitive abilities lead to conviction of violent crimes?

Initially, the correlation between cognitive abilities and criminal behaviors was not generally accepted. However, after various scientific researches with various case studies, it has been found to be true. Frisell(2012) in his research article, Is the Association between General Cognitive Ability and Violent Crime Caused by Family level Confounders? stated that “research has consistently found lower cognitive ability to be related to increased risk for violence and other antisocial behavior.” He further stated that according to his research, persons who have lower cognitive abilities were convicted of violent crimes as opposed to persons whose cognitive skills were not as weak.”

In determining criminal cases, there is a need for cognitive testing to determine a crucial aspect of the case. This sheds more light on the case at hand and gives better insight into the character and capabilities of the accused. The absence of cognitive control in an accused person can help to understand his or her tendencies. Bantjes (2019) in his article, Association between Violence, Criminality, and Cognitive Control Deficits among Young Men Living in Low Resource Communities talks about the correlation between cognitive control defects and deviant behavior. He defines cognitive control as “the capacity to modulate other cognitive and optional responses in the service of goal-directed behavior.”

Cognitive control as a factor

Golub (2012) in his article, published by The National Center for Biotechnology Information claims that “deficit in cognitive control gives rise to a range of health-compromising behaviors, including high-risk sexual behavior, aggressive or violent responses, and hazardous substance use.” The rate at which a person can attain cognitive control is also a factor to put into consideration when determining guilt in the law court. So the extent of cognitive control helps a person to know what is right and what is wrong. Cognitive testing results can be adduced in law court through the help of expert witnesses. In determining the level of cognitive abilities of a person, the services of a neuropsychologist can be employed.

Haldane (2018) in his article, Why is it Important to Assess Cognition in Criminal Cases, explained that different persons that will play important roles in the determination of a case should be tested as regards their cognitive skills. So this test can be carried out to determine if an accused person is fit to plead in court; whether a prospective witness is fit to testify if a person who has neuropsychological impairment will require special conditions in court; if the accused was suffering under a neuropsychological impairment when the crime was committed; and if the accused, victim or witness can achieve the accurate recall of the incident at hand.

In conclusion, it’s safe to conclude that the cognitive abilities of a person have a large role to play in determining the propensity to commit a crime. However, It is important to procure expert witnesses on this subject.

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