White-collar criminals demonstrate better executive functions, increased and sustained orienting, increased arousal, and increased cortical thickness in multiple brain regions subserving decision-making, social cognition, and attention. Results, while provisional, constitute the first findings on neurobiological characteristics of white-collar criminals. Findings lend support to the hypothesis that white-collar criminals, compared to other offenders, have enhanced cognitive and attentional functioning that place them at an advantage in committing offenses in the workplace.
White-collar criminals had better executive functioning as assessed by a classic measure of this neurocognitive ability, the Wisconsin Card-Sorting Task. This task measures concentration, planning, organization, cognitive flexibility in shifting strategies to achieve a goal, working memory, and the ability to inhibit impulsive responding23
. White-collar offenders appear paradoxically to have the type of neurocognitive capacity and skills that would normally place them at a job performance advantage, a finding consistent with an extension of rational choice theory of white collar offending17
At a psychophysiological level, white-collar criminals also showed increased electrodermal arousal at rest compared to matched controls. This was most strongly indicated by spontaneous skin conductance responses which reflect ongoing cognitive processing and sustained attention 30
. They also gave large skin conductance responses to both neutral as well as attentionally-meaningful auditory stimuli, including consonant-vowel speech stimuli, indicating greater attentional processing. They additionally took more trials to habituate, indicating sustained attention to these auditory probes. Increased orienting has been associated with increased activation of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the temporal-parietal junction, the supramarginal gyrus, and the amygdala, particularly in the right hemisphere 31,32
. Increased cortical thickness was observed in the first three of these right hemisphere regions in white collar criminals and may partly account for their heightened attentional processing to external stimuli.
At the level of brain structure, white-collar offenders showed greater cortical thickness in five circumscribed areas compared to matched controls (see ). First, they showed increased thickness in the right inferior frontal gyrus (BA 44). The inferior frontal gyrus has been implicated in a number of executive functions, particularly cognitive control and response inhibition. These functions include the ability to coordinate thoughts and actions in relation to internally generated goals, the ability to respond to changes in task demands, the ability to inhibit a dominant response, and the ability to resolve conflicting reasoning 33, 34, 35
. Recent research has increasingly documented localization of these inferior frontal functions to the right hemisphere 34,35,36,37,38
. This posterior region of the fronto-lateral cortex also constitutes part of the inferior frontal junction, an area centrally involved in cognitive control systems, response inhibition, and task switching 25
. Taken together with findings of better executive functioning, increased cortical thickness of the inferior frontal gyrus and inferior frontal junction is consistent with increased cognitive flexibility and regulatory control in white collar criminals compared to matched controls.
The second area of increased cortical thickness in white collar criminals constituted the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (Brodmann area 11). This region has been associated with good decision-making, sensitivity to the future consequences of one’s actions, and the generation of skin conductance responses 39,40
. This structural advantage is again broadly consistent with the better executive functioning, skin conductance orienting, arousal, and attention observed in white-collar criminals. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is additionally involved in the monitoring of the reward value of stimuli, and learning and remembering what stimuli are rewarding 41
. Functional imaging studies have shown that it is the anterior region of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex that is specifically associated with abstract rewards, particularly money 41
. In contrast, less abstract and more fundamental rewards (such as taste) are processed in the more posterior regions of this ventromedial area 42
. White collar criminals had increased cortical thickness in the anterior but not posterior ventromedial region (see ). As such, increased cortical thickness in the anterior region of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex gives rise to the hypothesis that white-collar criminals are particularly driven by abstract monetary rewards as opposed to less abstract rewards.
A third area of increased cortical thickness consisted of the ventro-lateral premotor area of the precentral gyrus (BA 6). This sub-region is involved in monitoring performance and decision-making, planning and programming of movements, and facilitating and inhibiting motor actions depending on the behavioral context 43,44
. In addition to these motor control functions, the premotor area has also been implicated in the ability to understand the intentions of others’ actions 45
and social perception 46
. The ventro-lateral region of the premotor area also constitutes a part of the inferior frontal junction involved in response inhibition and task switching 47
. While we had not anticipated group differences in this region and while such structural findings should consequently be treated with caution, they are nevertheless broadly consistent with the hypothesis of adept executive functioning and social cognition in white collar criminals.
A fourth area of increased cortical thickness consists of the inferior region of somatosensory cortex (BAs 1,2,3). The somatic marker hypothesis of decision-making argues that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex receives information from the somatosensory cortex in which both past and present bodily states are continuously represented 48
. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex in turn is argues to be an integral component of a neural emotional mechanism that uses somatic markers to guide good decision-making 48,49
. Consequently, increased somatosensory cortical thickness combined with increased ventromedial thickness, increased electrodermal orienting, and better executive functioning may be broadly explicable in the context of the somatic marker theory that has recently been applied to economic decision-making 49
. Unlike conventional criminal offenders who are hypothesized to have somatic marker deficits and poor decision-making skills 21, 39, 48
, white-collar criminals may instead be characterized by relatively better
Fifth, white-collar criminals compared to matched controls showed increased cortical thickness in a broad area of the temporal-parietal junction that included the right posterior superior temporal gyrus (BA 41,42) and the right inferior parietal lobule (BA 39, 40, 43), including the angular gyrus (BA 39) and the supramarginal gyrus (BA 40). The right temporal-parietal junction is centrally involved in both social cognition and orienting, including the ability to process social information, perspective-taking, theory-of-mind, and executive control tasks 50,51
. The temporal-parietal junction is also involved in orienting directing attention to external events of interest, and facilitating appropriate responses to these events 50
. Because Brodmann areas 41 and 42 also constitute primary auditory cortex, increased cortical thickness in the temporal-parietal junction may both help account for the better electrodermal orienting to auditory stimuli shown by white-collar criminals, and lends support to the hypothesis that they may be characterized by better social perspective-taking and the ability to read others which may place them at an advantage in an occupational context for the perpetration of white collar crimes.
Because the WCST has been traditionally viewed as reflecting dorsolateral prefrontal functioning, one might expect white collar criminals to show increased cortical thickness of this region. However, more recent functional imaging research on the WCST has delineated a much more complex neural circuit underlying task performance that extends well beyond dorsolateral prefrontal regions, involving a much broader fronto-temporal-parietal system. Specifically, the right orbitofrontal cortex (inhibition of previously acquired rules), the inferior frontal gyrus (executive working memory), and the temporal-parietal junction (detection of errors and utilization of feedback) are all activated by the WCST, with such activation being predominantly in the right hemisphere 52
. The fact that white collar criminals demonstrated increased cortical thickness in all these right hemisphere cortical regions provides a degree of convergence between these cortical thickness increases and enhanced executive functioning in white collar offenders.
Limitations of this study should be clarified. First, the control group was matched with the white-collar criminals on general criminal offending to control for the fact that white-collar criminals also commit non-white collar crimes 15
. While it is critically important to conduct such a control for general level of offending, it remains to be seen how these two groups differ to non-criminal controls. This initial study needs to be replicated and extended by examining a four group design (non-criminal controls, blue collar crime only, blue and white collar, white collar crime only) to further establish whether white collar criminals have brain superiorities compared to normal controls, although we recognize that such a complex design has never been undertaken to date even in the social sciences. Second and relatedly, it could be argued that rather than white-collar criminals having structural and functional brain superiorities
compared to controls, the criminal controls have diminished
neurocognitive functioning and brain structure. Such a counter-interpretation however cannot account for the fact that white collar criminals had an equivalent level of blue collar “street” criminal offending compared to controls; this should lead to the prediction that white collar offenders should show neurocognitive and brain deficits, yet this was not the case. Third, this study does not include white-collar criminals who are convicted of major fraud or high-profile crimes, and consequently findings cannot be generalized to these populations. Fourth and relatedly, the self-report method for assessing white collar crime has inevitable limitations, although it also has a distinct advantage over official crime reports in accessing the “dark figure” of white collar crime. Fifth, prospective longitudinal studies are required to assess whether structural brain superiorities precede the onset of offending, or conversely whether the better executive functioning required of white collar crime results in later brain changes. Sixth, given the relatively robust finding of increased right ventromedial prefrontal cortical thickness in white collar criminals, future studies of these offenders could usefully extended neurocognitive testing to include measures more reflective of this neural region, and assess whether structure and function measures covary. Finally, while the observed neurocognitive, psychophysiological, and brain structural characteristics may make some individuals better equipped to perpetrate white collar offending in workplace, these advantages do not confer criminality per se, as indicated by the fact that the control group with equal levels of blue collar crime lack these characteristics.