Using Biosocial Criminology to Understand and Improve Treatment Outcomes

Published date01 August 2017
Date01 August 2017
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2017, Vol. 44, No. 8, August 2017, 1050 –1072.
DOI: 10.1177/0093854817716484
© 2017 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
Western Carolina University
Research has extensively cataloged the types of interventions that prevent and treat antisocial behavior across the life course.
Despite our knowledge of which interventions “work,” there is a limited understanding of why these practices are effective
and who does (or does not) benefit from traditional evidence-based practices (EBPs). The current study reviews the literature
on the biopsychological mechanisms and moderators of EBPs across the life course, and it provides recommendations to
clinicians and program developers based on these findings. The literature typically shows that EBPs may reduce antisocial
behavior because these programs alter clients’ biological systems responsible for stress response and self-regulation.
Similarly, individuals who receive fewer benefits from EBPs have weaker stress responses, difficulty processing punishment,
increased reward sensitivity, and problems with attention, self-regulation, and cognitive flexibility. The implications of these
findings are discussed for each stage of the life course.
Keywords: evidence-based practices; biosocial criminology; neurocriminology; mechanisms; moderators
substantial amount of attention has been devoted to identifying evidence-based preven-
tion and intervention programs across the life course. For children, interventions such
as prenatal programs, nutrition programs, nurse home visitation programs, enriched pre-
schools, and parent training programs have been shown to have long-term impacts on crimi-
nal behavior, substance use, employment outcomes, academic achievements, and mental
health problems (Piquero, Farrington, Welsh, Tremblay, & Jennings, 2009; Rocque, Welsh,
& Raine, 2012). During adolescence, programming often is broadened to include family
risk factors, individual risk factors, peer interventions, and wrap-around services, such as
individual cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), multisystemic therapy, and functional fam-
ily therapy (Benson, 2013). For adults, the most widely cited evidence-based treatment for
antisocial behavior is CBT (Lipsey & Cullen, 2007).
Despite the effectiveness of these programs, questions still remain as to why these interven-
tions are effective and why they are effective for only a subset of participants. To partially
address these questions, this article reviews the literature on the biopsychological mechanisms
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The author would like to thank the Research and Documentation Centre (WODC) at the
Ministry of Security and Justice at The Hague in the Netherlands for providing the motivation and platform for
this work. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jamie C. Vaske, Department of
Criminology and Criminal Justice, Western Carolina University, 410F Belk, Cullowhee, NC 28723; e-mail:
716484CJBXXX10.1177/0093854817716484Criminal Justice and BehaviorVaske / Biosocial Explanations for Treatment Outcomes
and moderators of evidence-based practices (EBPs) across the life course. There are a number
of reasons why it is important to consider the biopsychological mechanisms and moderators
of EBPs. First, understanding the biopsychological mechanisms of EBPs can help clinicians
and program developers further enhance the effectiveness of interventions. For instance,
despite CBT being one of the best rehabilitation approaches, there is a limited understanding
of how it changes behavior and why it is effective in reducing recidivism (Bickle, 2013;
Cornet, 2015; Golden, Gatchel, & Cahill, 2006; McGlynn, Hahn, & Hagan, 2013; Ross, 2012;
Vaske, Galyean, & Cullen, 2011). A lack of understanding of how “deep” the treatment effects
go may lead to superficial changes in individuals. That is, we may see changes in one’s behav-
ior, but these may be only surface-level changes, and they may not be long-lasting. Interventions
that affect individuals on a neurobiological level may lead to longer lasting changes that
extend to a variety of domains, compared with interventions that merely change one’s behav-
ior. Further, program developers may harness information on the neurobiological changes that
result from treatment to build more effective interventions.
In addition to knowing why a treatment is effective, it is important to understand who
does not benefit from EBPs so that adjustments to treatment can be made for individuals
who need additional support. Following the responsivity principle, it is known that each
individual is neurobiologically unique and responds to environmental cues in different
ways. Approximately 15% to 50% of individuals do poorly in EBPs (Henning & Frueh,
1996; Lewis et al., 2008; Raine, Mellingen, Liu, Venables, & Mednick, 2003; R. R. Ross,
Fabiano, & Ewles, 1988; Shenk et al., 2012); they do not complete treatment, derive less
benefit from treatment, and reoffend or relapse while in or after treatment. The reasons
underlying these poor treatment outcomes are vast, but one such reason may be individuals’
biopsychology. For instance, individuals with a certain biopsychological profile tend to
perform poorly in interventions that are punishment based, but they respond well to inter-
ventions that are incentive based. With this information in hand, practitioners can readjust
their treatment approach for such individuals to increase the chances the client will stay in
treatment and benefit from the intervention.
In light of these considerations, the following sections discuss the biopsychological
mechanisms and moderators of EBPs across the life course. The EBPs discussed begin with
prenatal interventions and extend into adulthood. The biopsychological moderators and
mechanisms included in this review are genetic factors, neurotransmitters and hormones,
brain structure and functioning, and common psychological tasks that have been linked to
brain functioning. At the end of each subsection, the article reviews the findings for EBPs
for that stage of life, and provides recommendations for clinicians and program developers
that align with the current biopsychological research. While Liza Cornet and colleagues
have provided reviews of the literature in a number of places (Cornet, 2015a; Cornet, de
Kogel, Nijman, Raine, & Laan, 2015; Cornet, de Kogel, Nijman, Raine, & van der Laan,
2014), this article extends upon the work of Cornet by organizing the EBPs across the life
course and providing recommendations for clinicians based on the literature.
Treatment and prevention programs are believed to affect antisocial behavior by reduc-
ing the number and severity of risk factors and/or increasing individuals’ protective factors.

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