Why Do Geniuses Commit Crime?

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“Our society tends to regard as a sickness any mode of thought or behavior that is inconvenient for the system and this is plausible because when an individual doesn't fit into the system it causes pain to the individual as well as problems for the system. Thus the manipulation of an individual to adjust him to the system is seen as a cure for a sickness and therefore as good.”

The line between genius and insanity is a fine one indeed, as exemplified by former UC-Berkeley Professor Theodore J. Kaczynski, aka the "Unabomber", who wrote the words above. Kaczynski has an IQ of 167. He also mailed or delivered more than a dozen homemade bombs to various individuals between 1978 and 1995, killing three and injuring 23. He is currently serving eight consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.

Science writer Sam Kean briefly profiled Kaczynski in his latest book, The Icepick Surgeon, partly because Kean was curious: Why would this clear genius commit such a dastardly crime?

Crime is typically thought of as a low-IQ activity, and most scientific research bears this out. Lower levels of intelligence are broadly associated with increases in criminal behavior, though the exact reasons for this correlation are heavily debated. Curiously, however, this trend doesn't seem to hold for individuals whose IQ scores place them in the top 0.1% of intelligence.

Dr. James Clinton Oleson, an Associate Professor in Criminology at the University of Auckland, turned up this fascinating nugget of information after conducting anonymous surveys and interviews with 465 members of a high IQ society, who possessed an average IQ of 149. He compared their levels of self-reported criminality with those of a control group of 756 'bright' individuals with an average IQ of 115, fifteen points above the societal mean score of 100. The 'geniuses' admitted to more crimes overall, and particularly committed more property crimes, white-collar crimes, and violent crimes.

So why? Why would such exceedingly gifted individuals turn to crime more often than slightly-less-intelligent peers? Kean shared one hypothesis in his book:

"One strong predictor of trouble is a mismatch in the brain between IQ and EF, the so-called executive function. Executive function is located primarily in the frontal lobes. It helps us manage our impulses, make decisions, and impose self-control, among other things. As one psychologist put it, "IQ operates like the raw horsepower of a car engine, while EF... operates like the transmission, directing the power" toward useful ends. But if someone's IQ greatly outstrips their EF, then you essentially have a drag-racer without a steering wheel: the car can easily careen out of control and send the owner flying off the path of acceptable behavior."

But perhaps some of the best explanations for genius criminality came straight from the mouth of one of the anonymous geniuses who Oleson interviewed.

“I'd say geniuses commit crimes for the same reasons less gifted individuals do. There are at least two exceptions that come to mind. First, sometimes very intelligent people develop a disregard for laws because they all too easily see the hypocrisy of the people who make and enforce those laws. Second, it is common for very intelligent people to feel that their existence is ultimately meaningless. When you feel that there is no point to being, then it is not a very long stretch to the conclusion that man-made laws are also meaningless.”

Difficulty interacting socially may also propel extremely high-IQ individuals to criminalize others. When unable to form a social bond with society, people may be more likely to flout its laws.

Though imperfect due to its use of self-reports, its small sample size, and its potential selection bias, Oleson's study provides a unique look into genius criminality.

"Elites are just as likely to lie, cheat, and steal as anyone else," he wrote.



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