Criminal Genius: A Portrait of High-IQ Offenders - Evan McCuish, 2018


In Criminal Genius: A Portrait of High-IQ Offenders, James Oleson presents an empirical study of highly intelligent adults (≥ 130 IQ points) and the extent of their involvement in crime. To set up the importance of his study, Oleson reviews how the dark figure of crime may be particularly salient for high-IQ offenders. Oleson’s description of research on genius-level historical figures and their involvement in crime, or at least their criminalization by governments or religious institutions, highlights the importance of research on the topic but also illustrates the lack of quantitative research on the intersection of crime and high IQ. This represents the gap that Oleson seeks to address in his own study.

Oleson also describes the political back cloth to research on IQ. Throughout the book, he refers to biosocial criminology as “taboo” (p. 39) and psychological explanations as “disavowed” (p. 39). Although the bulk of early research on crime emerged from sociology, Oleson’s juxtaposition of biosocial and psychological explanations of crime with mainstream criminology is inconsistent with developments in the last five years. The Developmental and Life Course Division is one of the largest divisions within the American Society of Criminology. The division has its own journal, its members have published hundreds of articles on psychological and/or biosocial explanations of crime, and its members are in the process of creating a Biosocial Division. Psychological and biosocial research are very much a part of mainstream criminology.

Some of the biosocial criminology research on IQ is discussed, but Oleson fails to confront discrepancies within the IQ literature. In the front end of the book, geniuses are presented as a group that was prosecuted because of their intelligence; yet in the back end of the book, geniuses are presented as a group that avoided prosecution because of their intelligence. In some sections of the book, Oleson describes research on IQ and crime that shows a negative correlation. In other sections of the book, Oleson describes research on IQ and crime that shows a positive correlation. Oleson notes that “many infamous mass murders and serial killers possess superior intelligence” (p. 15), yet also mentions that the average IQ for serial killers is 94.7. If the average IQ is 94.7, it is difficult to imagine that “many” such offenders possess superior intelligence.

As the principal contribution of the book,Oleson presents an empirical study concerning the intersection of high IQ and crime. Although a range of limitations characterize the sampling strategy, Oleson considers these limitations at length. As this is the first study of high IQ and adult offending, some hurdles in sampling from such a specialized population and finding an appropriate control group should be expected. Oleson’s high-IQ sample, referred to as the index sample (n = 465), included three subgroups: members of high-IQ societies, students of elite universities, and high-IQ prisoners. The control sample (n = 756) consisted of university students. From hisanalyses, Oleson concludes that the non-negative relationship between IQ and crime is remarkable and contrasts with the conclusions of existing research. However, Oleson’s conclusion must be discussed in the context of three limitations: issues of measurement, issues of analysis, and issues of interpretation.

Regarding issues of measurement, Oleson does not distinguish between participants with missing data on offending and participants who reported never offending. Consequently, it is not possible to determine the actual prevalence of offending within the two samples. Oleson’s operationalization of prior offending includes a wide range of behaviors, some of which may not be criminal, or at least not worthy of arrest, in the jurisdictions in which participants lived (e.g., marijuana use, public intoxication, disorderly conduct, eavesdropping, cheating on a test, speeding, attempted suicide). Some behaviors do not conform to their crime category. For example, “sex crimes” include sex in public, solicitation, prostitution, obscene telephone calls, and sexual comments.

Although the inclusion of less serious forms of behavior ensures adequate base rates for statistical comparison, there are likely important differences between the seriously violent offender and the rowdy college student. Indeed, Oleson acknowledges that “given the enormous variation in the 72 measured self-report offenses, simply counting crimes would not suffice” (p. 249). Yet, this is precisely what Oleson does. Although he creates a crime severity index, discusses the development of this index, and includes it in an appendix, none of his analyses weight crimes by their severity. In effect, Oleson offers a strong critique of his own measure of offending but does not address this critique.

Regarding analytic issues, because of different sampling strategies between the index and control samples, the groups’ different demographic profiles imply that multivariate analyses, at the very least, are needed. For some participants, their inclusion in the index sample was predicated on having a criminal history (i.e., the subgroup of prisoners). A similar sampling strategy was not used for the control sample (university students). Given that a subgroup of participants from the index sample was included solely because they had a prior criminal history, and given that the criminal history of this group was likely quite extensive per the author’s qualitative descriptions, it is unsurprising that the prevalence and frequency of offending was not lower compared to the control sample.

Only one multivariate analysis (Table 36) is included in the book. When controlling for the subgroup of prisoners, there is no relationship between IQ and offending. Nevertheless, Oleson commonly describes offending as more prevalent and frequent within the index sample and describes the non-negative relationship between IQ and offending as remarkable. Given that individuals with an IQ of less than 100 (the group included in prior research to illustrate the negative relationship between IQ and crime) were not part of Oleson’s study, the negative relationship between IQ and crime was likely underestimated. Including a subsample of prisoners in the index sample and excluding low-IQ participants make Oleson’s findings less remarkable than described.

Regarding issues of interpretation of findings, Oleson concludes that “the most criminal respondents had higher—not lower—mean IQ scores than the least criminal respondents” (p. 110). In the quoted instance as well as other instances throughout the book, Oleson does not actually statistically compare the index and control samples. In other instances, Oleson presents the index sample as more frequent offenders despite non-significant findings. As well, within dozens of chi-square and descriptive tables, Oleson specifies that the numbers inside the parentheses represent the “average number of offenses reported by those who reported an offense” (p. 98, p. 165). Unfortunately, Oleson misinforms readers about this analysis. By way of illustration, when looking at the prevalence of solicitation within the index sample (p. 163), Oleson argues that individuals involved in solicitation (n = 13) averaged 2.8 such behaviors (see bottom of Table 34). This is incorrect, as “2.8” represents the percentage of the index sample that reported such behavior (13/465 = 2.8 percent) and not the frequency of such behavior. This misinterpretation is repeated in all such tables.

Despite these limitations, Oleson has constructed an exciting dataset and provides useful information on the extent of offending and demographic characteristics of high-IQ individuals. Vignettes in the qualitative portion of the book provide insight into the offending attitudes and motivations of high-IQ offenders, and Oleson’s discussion of IQ and detection avoidance has important theoretical and research implications.