The Top Ten Most Valuable Studies from the Criminology Unit

Travis DixonCurriculum, Revision and Exam Preparation, Teaching Ideas

When it comes to learning concepts in the course, I don't focus on "key studies" per se. But when it comes to exam review, it does help to narrow student focus to those that they need to know in-depth.

Personally, I think the most useful studies to know in-depth in order of appearance are:

  • Bechara et al.’s study on the vmPFC, Iowa Gambling task and decision making (2.2)(link)

  • Feinstein et al.’s case study on SM (2.3)(workbook)

  • Radke et al.’s experiment on testosterone and the brain (2.4)(textbook)

  • Cohen’s culture of honor experiments (2.5)(in workbook)

  • Passamonti et al’s experiment on serotonin and the brain (2.6)(link)

I will eventually have all of these studies details posted on this blog.

  • Desbordes et al.’s study on mindfulness and the brain (2.7)(textbook)

  • Luby et al.’s study on poverty and the brain (2.7)(textbook)

  • Caspi et al.’s longitudinal “Dunedin Study” on the MAOA gene (2.8)(workbook)

    • Additional info added to the student workbook

  • Meyer-Lindenberg’s fMRI study on the MAOA gene and the brain (2.8) (or Raine’s similar study) (workbook)

  • Bandura’s Bobo Doll study (2.9)

Other studies are still valuable, but if I had to have a Top 10, these would be them.


Do we need other studies?

There are a lot of studies mentioned in Chapter 2 (Criminology) of the student guide as there are in all of the chapters. This is often necessary to build the understanding needed to understand the concepts we’re exploring, and often needed to understand these major studies. When it comes to exams, these can be helpful to mention in just a sentence to provide some context for the explanation.

For example, Grafman et al’s study (in 2.1: Brain and Behaviour) is a valuable one to introduce the connections between brain damage in the PFC and behaviour. So if a student is discussing, for example, serotonin and aggression and the relationship with the PFC, a sentence or two in the beginning of an argument could be helpful to contextualize the answer. Let’s take this example introduction from a short-answer response on the effects of neurotransmission on behaviour as an example:

“Serotonin has been correlated with aggression and this relationship could be explained by looking at its effect on the PFC. Research has shown that damage to the PFC can cause increased aggression (e.g. the Vietnam Head Injury Study), and so if serotonin reduces function in the PFC it might have a similar effect. There is evidence for serotonin’s effect on the PFC in Passamonti et al.’s study.” 

So we see that knowledge of evidence is key in contextualizing and understanding arguments. But when it comes to explaining concepts like localization of brain function or the use of technology to study the brain, I think one or more of the above topics are more valuable than Grafman’s report from the VHIS.

A Few Studies = Many Applications

So in my teaching the above ones are the studies that I try to emphasize during consolidation activities and in the unit review. One reason for this is that they can be used in many different aspects of the course. For example, Passamonti et al. (tryptophan/serotonin) and Radke et al. (testosterone/amygdala) can be used to show the effect of neurotransmission and hormones on behaviour, respectively. They can also be used to demonstrate:

  • the use of technological techniques to study the brain (fMRI)
  • research methods (true experiment)
    • For the brain and behaviour and hormones (for Radke)
  • ethics (informed consent/debriefing, due to ingestion of substances)
    • For the brain and behaviour and hormones.

Another good study is Meyer-Lindenberg’s study on the MAOA gene variants and brain activity. This can be used to demonstrate a similar range of concepts as Radke and Passamonti. So then you might be wondering, why does it only get one line in the textbook? There’s a couple of reason for this, but primarily it’s because if student’s can draw from the rest of their learning in the unit they shouldn’t need more than those few details included on pg. 114. Similarly, if they’re to explain the significance of the results of this study in full (MAOA-L* gene participants have increased amygdala activity and reduced PFC activity compared to MAOA-H participants) it would take the best part of 300+ words, so they wouldn’t have much space (nor need it) for the description of the study. Another reason is that I knew I could always make the details available in other places, like on this blog and in the student workbook. So those students (and teachers) that want the extra details can have access to them.

Critical Thinking / Counter-arguments

I’ve said it before, but don’t mind admitting it: the criminology chapter was originally written with the human relationships option topic “violence” in mind. I was a bit gutted when it changed to “conflict” and seemed to take one a much more socio-cultural approach in the option.

But it’s not a complete loss. The group dynamics/conflict topics are covered in Chapter 3 “Social Influence” and we explore the social and cultural origins of conflict and conflict resolution. But all this means is that when it comes to counter arguments in essays (i.e. showing critical thinking through a depth of understanding of the complexity of interacting variables in behaviour), the criminology material gives excellent fodder. A student might, for example, explain how realistic group conflict theory and the competition for resources could increase competition. But then they’ll add that the role of biological factors can’t be overlooked, like brain function and testosterone. And the way we’re raised (social cognitive theory) and the culture we’re in (culture of honor) could influence how conflict-driven an individual is.

READ MORE: 3 Things all essays should have

So here we see that while these key studies can support central arguments in short-answer responses and essays, they also make excellent material for critical thinking/counter-arguments in essays, too. This is just one way in which the themantic approach reduces content while still increasing understanding and critical thinking (and thus improving exam readiness).

* L = low, H = high, referring to extent of MAOA gene expression.