From Hannibal Lecter to Walter White, the criminal mastermind has long been a staple of popular culture. Now a recent book by James Oleson, a criminologist based at the University of Auckland, suggests that real-life geniuses do indeed have a penchant for running afoul of the law.
In Criminal Genius: A Portrait of High-IQ Offenders, Oleson surveys the criminal histories of 465 adults from around the world with an average IQ of 149, and compares their self-reported crime rates to a control group of people with normal IQ scores. The bulk of his sample came from a society exclusive to members with high IQs (think Mensa, but even more selective). He also included subjects from elite colleges, and a small group of high-IQ prisoners.
Many prevailing theories of intelligence suggest that people with lower IQs are the ones most likely to break the law, since impulsivity, struggles at school, lack of social bonding, and lack of foresight are all linked to criminality. In comparison, intelligent people have traditionally been seen as less likely to commit crimes, and this view of brainpower as a protective factor against offending has been bolstered by many studies over the decades. But there may be an IQ threshold after which a high IQ becomes more of a risk factor.
Indeed, Oleson’s high-IQ group reported higher crime rates, compared to the control group, for 50 of the 72 types of crime surveyed. These included minor offenses such as trespassing and copyright violations, but also serious crimes such as arson, fraud, and kidnapping. The high-IQ offenders were also more likely to get away with their crimes, with significantly fewer convictions per reported offense.
When Oleson interviewed a selection of respondents in person, many claimed to have gotten away with violent crimes. One subject said he had committed armed robberies, and another claimed responsibility for more than a dozen unsolved murders.
“Claimed” is the operative word here, as Oleson’s research is based on self-reports, where subjects fill out detailed questionnaires about their criminal histories. It may seem counterintuitive that people would willingly confess to undetected crimes. But self-reporting is the most commonly employed methodology in criminology, and it generally yields results that correspond to official crime statistics. Self-reports also matter because most crime research is based on offenders who have been caught, and very little is known about offenses that go undetected and unreported.
So why might the exceptionally bright be more inclined to commit crimes in the first place?Many of Oleson’s respondents discussed the alienating effects of their high intelligence; social maladjustment could be a possible explanation for their elevated crime rates. Some research suggests that the highly gifted experience more isolation, bullying, and difficulty in forming attachments, all of which are risk factors for criminal behavior. Research by Joseph Schwartz, a criminologist based at the University of Nebraska, also found slightly elevated rates of criminal behavior among subjects in the highest IQ category. But Schwartz stresses that the overall amount of crime in this range is still “much, much lower” than among people with very low IQ scores.
That said, other studies have found no evidence of maladjustment among this group. “There’s a fair amount of research that says there’s nothing particularly different about their social skills,” says Stuart Ritchie, a psychologist based at the University of Edinburgh, ”and there’s other research that says they’re not doing so well, which is why we need to spend more attention on them.”
Another possible explanation is that extremely intelligent people may feel less bound by traditional moral codes. During his follow-up interviews, Oleson spoke with high-IQ subjects who suggested that adherence to standard rules and behaviors was important for the general public, but not for them. Many offenders he interviewed said they felt their own analyses of right and wrong were “legitimate, possibly superior, alternatives to obedience to conventional social norms and laws.”
Oleson is quick to point out that the results presented in his book should be seen as preliminary rather than conclusive, especially considering how rare his subjects are. Another issue is that the bulk of his gifted cohort was recruited from a private high-IQ society, and people who join such clubs might not represent highly intelligent people in general.
Caveats notwithstanding, Oleson’s book marks the first major study of adult offenders with genius-level IQs, and has implications for criminal justice and public policy. “Not only does it mean that elites are just as likely to lie, cheat, and steal as anyone else,” Oleson writes, but it also means that our prisons are largely filled with “unlucky people whose real crime was getting caught.”