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Book Review | Criminal Genius: A Portrait of High-IQ Offenders

Published onApr 01, 2018
Book Review | Criminal Genius: A Portrait of High-IQ Offenders

James C. Oleson (ed.). Criminal Genius: A Portrait of High-IQ Offenders. University of California Press, 2016; 335 pp.; ISBN: 9780520282421.

Criminology has a long history of attempting to discover and explain what some researchers claim are links between biological characteristics and criminal behavior.  More specifically, some criminologists have explored the potential linkages between IQ and criminal behavior (i.e. see the work of Lombroso, Beaver, and Hirschi, among others). James C. Oleson continues this line of research with his 2016 book Criminal Genius: A Portrait of High-IQ Offenders. Oleson’s work is unique in that it is the first attempt to systematically examine the potential links between individuals with high IQs and criminal behavior. To accomplish this, Oleson uses a mixture of both quantitative and qualitative methods in the form of surveys of highly intelligent individuals as to their criminal activity and qualitative interviews designed to tease out more detailed information on such criminal activity. This review will provide a chapter-by-chapter overview to highlight the most important sections of the book, will then provide a limitations section on the research, and will then provide a discussion of the overall worth of the text. But first, however, Oleson’s text must be discussed regarding the ontological underpinnings from which he presents his argument; as such an understanding is key to understanding the purpose and direction of the book.

It is no secret that there is a great division among criminologists who adhere to biological explanations of crime and those who do not. Such criminologists who reject biocriminology understand the causes of crime to lie in factors of social class, sex, race, in social institutions, or accept a more critical approach to understanding crime and believe crime is a product of conflict among various groups in society. While classical positivist explanations of criminal behavior (especially those grounded in biological explanations of crime) have been criticized and dismissed by many criminologists for many reasons (including methodological flaws in study designs, study implementation, and potential policy implications, among others), biocriminological research is still conducted today. Biological criminology exists today in the form of biosocial criminology, a branch of criminology which aims to bridge biological explanations of crime with environmental explanations [i.e. personality traits like impulsivity have been found to be influenced by genetic factors across different groups of individuals, (University of Cincinnati, 2018)].

Oleson takes a unique approach to his study of high IQ offenders. He specifically states in the text that his aim is to understand the crimes of intelligent individuals by bridging the theoretical lenses of those in the biosocial camp and the critical camp. In doing so, Oleson absolutely identifies statistically significant associations between intelligence and crime, but he couches such an understanding in a critique of how western societies understand and react to the crimes of the highly intelligent, which is designed to appeal to critical criminologists. To make such an argument, Oleson starts the Introduction of the book by inviting the reader to explore our fascination with geniuses, both real [i.e. Theodore Kaczynski (a.k.a. the unabomber)] and imagined (i.e. Walter White from Breaking Bad).  He continues into Chapter 1 by discussing both the scientific definition of genius and traces the development of the idea of genius and IQ over time, stressing the importance many societies have placed on intelligence, tying intelligence to both eminence and infallibility. This is important, as he relates the way we treat the most intelligent people in modern society as incapable of committing crime (see also, Dugdale, 1910; Goddard 1912; and Goddard, 1914). This is assuming that, as Oleson points out, we are even able to get a glimpse into the lives of the most intelligent people of our society, who are often inaccessible, as they have achieved the means to create barriers between themselves and those whom could detect their crimes. Oleson’s major finding of the book is that there is a positive curvilinear relationship between both low IQ and high IQ and the crime categories used by Oleson in his research. Oleson further relates this finding to Reiman’s (2013) message in his The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice that if we want to appreciate and understand some of the most significant crime problems we must look “up” the social class ladder instead of “down”.

Oleson then dedicates Chapter 2 to discussing how he went about setting up his study, discussing how he sampled individuals from three index groups, one from a high IQ society group, one from a prison, and one from elite universities, and one control group from a large urban university. Oleson then discusses how he then performed additional purposive sampling to identify high IQ individuals with criminal backgrounds for qualitative interview sessions. Chapter Three breaks down demographic and personality characteristics of survey respondents, Chapter Four demonstrates the index groups had significantly higher rates of property offenses, white-collar crimes, and professional misconduct (in addition to the fact that for seven of nine crime offense types, the index groups showed higher lifetime prevalence rates), and Chapter Five shows that after analyzing high IQ offender arrest and conviction rates, there is ample support for what has been coined the “differential detection and differential reaction hypotheses” towards high IQ offenders.

In Chapter 6 Oleson provides the results of his interviews with 44 high IQ offenders and uses this data to offer an explanation for high IQ offending. The semi-structured interviews were conducted face-to-face, via telephone, email, or written correspondence. He also gathered what he terms “additional qualitative data” in the form of e-mails, letters, poetry, and other various documents from the interview participants. He then used NVivo qualitative document analysis software to collate the interview transcripts and other documents against the elements of Hirschi’s (1969) model of social bonds. Oleson claims that by testing whether the themes of his interviews and other documents mesh with the four elements of the social bond (attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief), that he can theoretically test as to what explains high IQ crime. Such a deductive approach to qualitative research is problematic because it does not allow the researcher to dig deep into the data before formulating ideas as to what explanations might emerge from the lived experiences of research participants. While theory testing of qualitative data is performed, it can be argued that such efforts are misguided, as qualitative data is not meant to be understood in terms of cause-and-effect, as is quantitative data. Additionally, some of the theories that Oleson himself discusses as emerging from the interviews are completely separate theories than that of social bond theory. In fact, he cites examples of where techniques of neutralization and rational choice theory were used by research participants. Ultimately, he argues that high IQ serves as a risk factor for crime because it interferes with the mechanisms through which social bonds help to control individuals. Perhaps if the data were analyzed as per traditional qualitative data analysis techniques (i.e. identifying themes and further investigating patterns among those themes) then results would likely be different. Oleson himself discusses 12 potential limitations of the study (most of which are related to the quantitative aspect of the study (i.e. low response rate, the personality inventory was not distributed to the control group, etc.). Oleson identifies several problems with the qualitative aspect of the research. He notes specifically that control group participants were not included in the interviews, that there was a lack of standardization of the qualitative research due to the hodge podge of documents used in analysis and the methods used to conduct interviews, as well as the fact that this book was written 20 years after the data was originally collected.

Overall, Oleson provides an interesting look into a previously, rarely explored area of criminological inquiry. Oleson is able to shed light on the existence of high crime rates among some of the most intelligent members of US society, and as such, the relationship between crime and IQ is largely curvilinear (although differential trends exist based on individual crime categories, of course). Olson’s mixed methods approach works from a quantitative perspective, however, the qualitative aspect of his work suffers for those reasons mentioned above. One cannot fit theoretical explanations into predetermined typologies without first digging into the data. However, despite such flaws, Oleson does raise serious questions related to research on the crimes committed by high IQ individuals. How do we go about further exploring the relationships between crime and high IQ and what causes high IQ individuals to commit crime when such individuals are largely inaccessible? If further research works to establish strong linkages between high IQ and crime then how does that work from a legal standpoint considering our criminal law exists based on the assumption that individuals engage in rational thought (with certain exceptions of course)? And finally, if high IQ individuals exist along an intelligence continuum an equal number of standard deviations from “normal”, then should high IQ individuals be afforded the same legal protections as intellectually disabled individuals?


Dugdale, R. (2010). The Jukes: A study in crime, pauperism, and heredity (4th ed.). New York: NY: G.P.    Putnam’s Sons.

Goddard, H.H. (1912). The Kallikak family: A study in the heredity of feeblemindedness. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Goddard, H.H. (1914). Feeble mindedness: Its causes and consequences. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Hirschi, T. (1969). Causes of delinquency. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Reiman, J. & Leighton, P. (2013). The rich get richer and the poor get prison: Ideology, class, and criminal justice (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

University of Cincinnati. (2018). How biosocial criminology can help solve crimes. Retrieved from

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