The view from a nightclub balcony

Responsible adults?

If a lot of our behaviour is outside our conscious control (or feels as if it is), can we always be held responsible for our actions?

Our legal system (and many other aspects of society) are based on the idea that we are ‘free agents’, able to decide for ourselves how we behave.

But how much freedom do we actually have to control our behaviour? Some brain responses are not under conscious control. Sometimes, even when we think we are making a conscious decision, our brain has already made an unconscious one. Or our conscious and unconscious wrestle for control of our actions.

Our genetic inheritance will affect our brain and behaviour, as will the environment we experience in the womb, and the way we are brought up. By the time we are adults, our scope to behave in any way we choose is significantly reduced.

On the other hand, genetic or neuroscientific determinism – that we are ‘born’ or ‘hard-wired’ to behave in a particular way – can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The prefrontal cortex, the ‘thinking brain’, still has plenty of scope to shape our actions.

Legally, courts are more lenient if a defendant can prove ‘diminished responsibility’. Sentencing will also depend to some extent on an assessment of a defendant’s mental health. So far, there has been little evidence that judges are willing to consider biological susceptibilities as a justifiable defence. As we discover more about the links between the brain and behaviour, it is likely that this will become a more common issue.

You are the judge

Read through the following two case studies and decide for yourself where you stand. You might also want to debate and discuss these topics in the classroom.

Case study 1

Defendant X

  • Impulsive behaviour runs in his family.
  • He has a variant in a neurotransmitter receptor gene that may influence behaviour.
  • He hit a bouncer at a nightclub, causing actual bodily harm.

Do any of the factors influence whether he is found guilty or not?

Should any influence the punishment if he is found guilty?

Should any biological factor ever be considered?

Case study 2

Defendant Y

  • She was brought up on a deprived inner-city estate.
  • She was physically abused as a child.
  • She stole a mobile phone to give to her boyfriend.

Do any of the factors influence whether she is found guilty or not?

Should any influence the punishment if she is found guilty?

Lead image:

Bruce Turner/Flickr CC BY

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Neuroscience, Psychology
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development