Case Study: A bio-behavioural reward dominance theory review of edward ‘Ned’ Kelly

A bio-behavioural reward dominance theory review of Ned Kelly

Case Study: A bio-behavioural reward dominance theory review of edward ‘Ned’ Kelly

There are many theories available to criminologists to help explain, measure and attempt to understand criminal behaviour and the occurrence of crimes. This essay will take an in-depth look at one of these theories, the bio-behavioural reward dominance theory and seek to apply this to the case study of Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly, a noteworthy pre-federation Australian criminal, and his crime of murder. Firstly, it will cover the major components of the theory and how they are defined, as well as what, if any, major assumptions are taken. It will then identify the case study subject in more detail and expand on the unique bio-behavioural differences of Kelly that are attributed to increased criminal risk factors. This essay will draw evidence of these behavioural markers from both his early criminal activity and non-criminal activity and use empirical research to support the link of these bio-behavioural differences and criminal activity. It will then examine how these behavioural traits link to crime and explore the key crime committed under the lenses of reward dominance theory. Before concluding, this essay will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the reward dominance theory and discuss what possible shortcomings there might be. It will then conclude by summarising the bio-behavioural markers that show how reward dominance theory applies to Kelly’s act of committing murder.

Reward dominance theory suggests that criminal activity is controlled by a person’s behavioural activation system (BAS), the portion of the brain responsible for behavioural responses to rewards, being stronger or more controlling than their behavioural inhibition system (BIS), the portion of the brain responsible for the opposite, the inhibition of responses to punishments. These mirrored structures form the basis of the brain’s motivational system which coordinates risk vs reward calculations. The BAS is linked to positive emotions including satisfaction, gratification and happiness, and is chemically associated with dopamine neurotransmitters (Grove & Wilmoth, 2003), Whereas the BIS is linked to negative emotions including apprehension, trepidation, and fear and chemically associated with serotonin (Walsh & Bolen, 2012). For example, a person’s BAS is activated when that person perceives that something ideal for them can be achieved by acting in a certain way. When someone has an overactive BAS, it can be associated with addictive behaviour, including alcohol or other substance abuses, as well as increased risk-taking behaviour or other impulsive actions, and conduct disorders. As their BAS takes over and they exhibit behaviour that is not inhibited by ideas of fear of loss or is spurred by the desire for the release of more dopamine. It is theorised that this leads to miscalculations in the offender’s assumptions, causing them to either underestimate the consequences associated with their actions or overestimate the payoff from their criminal activity (Goldberg & Fischoff, 2000). One large assumption of this theory is that most people’s BAS and BIS systems work in tandem and level out, but that this is not the case in people who exhibit criminal tendencies. We can see physical evidence of this theory in the manifestation of low self-control and other non-conformist behaviours, which are explained in further detail below.

The subject of this case study is Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly, a pre-federation Australian male criminal born June 1855 to a farming family in Beveridge Victoria, and deceased November 1880 in Melbourne. Born to two parents, John Kelly and Ellen Quinn Kelly, he was one of eight children the couple had. John Kelly, his father, passed away when Kelly was aged 12 years old, leaving Kelly as the eldest male. Kelly had an unusual amount of police attention in his early years, including having run-ins from the age of 14 and into his early adult years for an alleged assault, stock theft, and association with outlaws (State Library of Victoria, 2019). From 18 arrests charged against his family, less than half resulted in convictions (National Library of Australia, 2019; Aubrey, 1953). However, the crime examined in this essay is the murder of three police officers, Constables Lonigan and Scanlan, and Sergeant Kennedy, which occurred in 1878. While Kelly is notorious amongst pop culture for his other acts that occurred after these murders and his subsequent outlawing, this incident is selected for examination due to it being arguably the first step in Kelly’s major criminal activity. These murders were committed when Kelly was 23 years old. Before examining how this crime fits the reward dominance theory, we will first look at Kelly’s precursor behaviour.

A key aspect of the bio-behavioural theory of reward dominance is that the combination of an overactive BAS and hindered BIS can lead a person to take actions that have an increased risk to themselves, either physically, emotionally, or reputationally. Some key examples of this type of behaviour appear in Kelly’s case. At age 11, Kelly saved 7-year-old Richard Shelton from drowning in Hughes Creek, Victoria. Given that in modern-day Australia 25% of all drowning deaths occur in creeks, rivers, and streams this act would not have been without some increased risk to Kelly’s safety (Peden & Queiroga, 2014). For his bravery, Shelton’s parents conferred unto Kelly a gold embroidered green sash (The Sydney Morning Herald, 2001). While Kelly’s motivations for saving the drowning boy are unknown and should not be speculated, the importance of the result of the act can be. Given that Kelly was wearing this sash 12 years later, under his armour during his fateful clash with police officers that he expected would result in his death instead of his capture, it can be said that sash and recognition of it, was significant to him. Another example of this increased risk-taking behaviour is documented when Kelly entered a 20 round bare-knuckle boxing match against Isiah Wright, an associate of one of his sisters (Jones, 2008; Kieza, 2017). A boxing match of this type would result in an incredible physical risk, and since there was no prize other than reputation gained and to settle an imaginary score, it appears that his search for dopamine releasing activities strongly controlled Kelly’s behaviour.

Kelly’s behaviour is further aligned with the reward dominance theory by his known public drunkenness and bouts of excessive drinking (Kenneally, 1929). One incident is fortuitous in its foreshadowing of Kelly’s main crime of murder. A drunken altercation leads to a confrontation with a police constable, who sometime later Kelly would go on to shoot, which involved him resisting arrest and quarrelling with several other police officers in a shop front after a drunken bender (Australian Town and Country Journal, 1880). A review of the anhedonia hypothesis by Roy A. Wise (2008) discusses the role that dopamine plays in conditioning a person’s responses to certain actions and their synaptic memory and learning. That the release of dopamine into the brain strengthens the desire to repeat that action, is a core principle of substance abuse (Volkow, Fowler, Wang, Swanson, & Telang, 2007). It is therefore highly logical to assume that a subject beholden to reward dominance theory and their overactive BAS, who excessively partakes in alcohol consumption, would suffer from substance abuse/addiction. As dopamine plays a huge part of how people predict rewards for their behaviour (Wise, 2008), and repeated overstimulation of dopamine from an overactive BAS can hamper decision making and cause impulse control impairments (Di Chiara & Bassareo, 2007), it appears well established that Kelly’s actions are suited to the bio-behavioural reward dominance theory. Horvath and Zuckerman (1993) showed that ‘behaviour and sensation seeking to be strong predictors of risky behaviour, particularly in areas of criminal behaviour’. Now that Kelly’s susceptibility for criminal activity has been ascertained through his behaviour of increase risk-taking and conduct disorder tendencies, his main crime can now be evaluated.

Known as the Stringybark Creek police murders, the deaths of Constables Lonigan and Scanlan, and Sergeant Kennedy occurred in 1878 when Kelly was 23 years old (State Library of Victoria, 2019). The incident occurred in two parts, firstly Kelly and his gang came upon the police camp and found Lonigan and one other constable, McIntyre. Kelly killed Lonigan almost immediately, and McIntyre surrendered. Sometime later, when the other police officers returned to the camp, McIntyre induced them to surrender as they were surrounded, however as they went running, Kelly shot them dead (Kerang Times and Swan Hill Gazette, 1878). The murder of these police officers marked the first crime of this type for Kelly and his associates and ultimately ended up in their status of being outlawed, which was a legal status at the time that allowed anyone to shoot them on sight (Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly, 1865). Earning this status would have increased the level of risk of both incarceration or death considerably for Kelly, as even simple acts of travelling or purchasing goods would have an inherent possibility of capture or death. Through interviews given at the time, it is clear that Kelly was a well-spoken individual and a man of presence. It is unlikely he would optionally choose to set out on a course that would end in his death unless he miscalculated the risk vs reward of his actions. As they had the upper hand in the confrontation, Kelly could have disarmed and de-horsed the officers and easily escaped. Instead, their sensation-seeking decisions set them on an incredibly risky path.

Zuckerman (2007) equates sensation-seeking behaviour with general deviance and feelings of anathema to law abidance. Baldwin (1985) raises that thrill and adventure seeking is perceived at its most rewarding in delinquents in their early twenties, and further addresses that illegal behaviour provides a strong fulfilment for sensation seeking. Kelly in his act of the Stringybark Creek police murders fits all of this framework. Additionally, people with extensive histories of trauma have larger susceptibility to the risk of behaving violently compared to people with less traumatic histories (Heide & Solomon, 2006). Given the kind of upbringing Kelly had, as well as the attention from local police and the physical traumas associated with hard labour penal sentences,  as well as how individuals have behavioural differences that characterise their vulnerability or susceptibility to the likelihood of committing a crime (Burt & Simons, 2013). It is evident that Kelly would be motivated strongly by his BAS and desire for dopamine release as a possible way to escape harsh realities or to find meaning in early Australian life. However, there are some potential issues with this overall argument which are covered below.

There are two major weaknesses in using reward dominance theory to evaluate Kelly’s behaviour. Firstly, reward dominance theory fails to consider all impacts on the individual that the environment they are in might have. Cartwright (2000) describes the idea of nature via nurture as the evolution of the nature vs nurture argument. That a person’s characteristics and behaviour are the results of their experience interacting with their environment, however, reward dominance theory might not take enough environmental factors into account. In Kelly’s case, the harassment his family has arguably received from the police might have engendered feelings of persecution. Kelly remarks in his manifesto known as the Jerilderie Letter that he felt the police at the Stringybark Creek camp were there to hunt him down (Kelly, 1879). While the letter would be heavily biased and is opposed by similar evidence from the surviving constable, it could be argued that the actions of the police establishment might have been conducive to a mindset of paranoia in Kelly. If that is the case, his actions might have occurred for a different reason than reward dominance theory might dictate.

Secondly, the lack of conclusive proof of BAS and BIS systems in action. Walsh (2008) discusses the severely heightened costs of studies to locate and quantify BAS and BIS system interaction compared to traditional sociological studies. Moreover, these types of roadblocks limit the amount of evidence available and artificially bottleneck the volume of new studies being conducted due to funding issues. Additionally, trying to retroactively apply a modern theory of criminal behaviour to a criminal and crime that occurred 141 years previously, means that there will be many logistical issues. While great care has been taken to ensure accuracy and validity with the recounting of facts in this essay, the circumstances of Kelly’s crimes are heavily romanticised by our modern society. This will undoubtedly have had some impact in pushing through certain biases in the literature and reporting of these events. There is also the concern that even with firsthand accounts, these would not be impartial and would be subject to some level of bias. Bio-behavioural theories such as reward dominance theory are strengthened by being able to measure and quantify chemical reactions or brain activity in subjects to prove a point. However, since Kelly has long since passed on, it is impossible to do any tests, and therefore we must match his behavioural markers with that of other study participants which makes viewing these crimes all conjecture after the fact.

This paper has reviewed the Stringybark Creek murders committed by Kelly through the view of the bio-behavioural reward dominance theory. It has explained the theory in summary detail and then taken a precursory look at Kelly’s early life and formative criminal acts leading up the occurrence of these murders to identify evidence of Kelly’s dopamine seeking behaviour which leads him to take increased risks. Once established, this increased risk-taking behaviour is then linked through empirical research such as Zuckerman (2007)’s evidence of delinquency and risk-taking, or Baldwin (1985)’s evidence of risk-taking vs rewards. The evidence presented has reasonably established Kelly’s likely overactive behavioural activation system behaviour as the leading factor for his criminal activity. Furthermore, this paper has highlighted the results that repetitive dopamine seeking behaviour has on the brain as further evidence for why Kelly might have escalated his activity. However, everything presented here is not irrefutable evidence, and two major flaws with the reward dominance theory have also been briefly discussed. In summary, this paper presents the formative acts of Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly and his first crime of murder and proof enough to accept these as the acts of a reward dominance theory motivated individual.

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