Science: Big strong heart = criminal mind

Minority Report

From the Pre-Crime Division comes this fun bit of news for you bike-riding fitness freaks:

A low resting heart rate in late adolescence is associated with increased risk for violent criminality in men later in life, according to a new study by researchers at Karolinska Institutet and University of Helsinki, Finland.

Low resting heart rate (RHR) has been viewed either as an indicator of a chronically low level of psychological arousal, which may lead some people to seek stimulating experiences, or as a marker of weakened responses to aversive and stressful stimuli, which can lead to fearless behaviour and risk taking.

The researchers found that … men with the lowest RHR (less than or equal to 60 beats per minute) had a 39 percent higher chance of being convicted of violent crimes and a 25 percent higher chance of being convicted of nonviolent crimes.

Until fairly recently, all Swedish men took a physical exam to assess their suitability for military conscription at age 18, giving researchers a huge sample size. Scientists at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm Sweden and the University of Helsinki in Finland compared this data against Sweden’s crime registries, and found drastically higher criminal conviction rates among men with the lowest heart rates.

“Our results confirm that, in addition to being associated with aggressive and antisocial outcomes in childhood and adolescence, low RHR increases the risk for violent and nonviolent antisocial behaviors in adulthood,” the authors conclude.

This correlation between low resting heart rate with violence and aggression has apparently been suspected for some time.

A surprise was finding that those with a low resting heart rate also had a 41% higher rate of getting injured as a result of an assault. In other words, we’re more likely to get in fights. Furthermore, those with low heart rates are 31% more likely to get themselves into an injury-causing traffic collision, probably because we drive like idiots.

Although researchers don’t know the cause, two different theories are given: the Fearlessness Theory, and the Impulsiveness Stimulation Seeking Theory.

According to the Fearlessness Theory, people perceive fear partly as they approach a fear threshold of, for example, 100 beats per minutes. Low heart rate individuals take longer to reach that red line indicating the danger zone than those with a more normal heart rate. They don’t perceive fear, and aren’t fearful of the consequences of riding in close proximity to fast traffic or mouthing off at scofflaw motorists. We’re the “strong and fearless” cyclists as infamously categorized by Roger Geller.

The Impulsiveness Stimulation Seeking Theory says lower RHR individuals need a thrill to bring their heart rates up out of the zombie zone. We run red lights and flout traffic rules so we can feel alive!

According to the JAMA editorial that accompanies the release of this study, growing evidence shows this correlation between heart rate and violence exists for female adults, in children, and even for animals, although causation remains elusive.

My resting heart rates as a middle aged man tends toward the mid-60s these days. What is your resting heart rate? How aggressive are you in traffic? Did you know that before “Minority Report” was a Tom Cruise action flick, it was a a science fiction short story from the 1950s?

The press release with links out to the study and other resources can be found at the Karolinska Institutet website: Low resting heart rate associated with increased violent criminality.


  1. At the age of 47, my RHR is currently 44. I think my friends and co-workers would describe me as placid or phlegmatic. I sometimes get irritated with people but rarely angry.

    I’m sure my RHR was higher when I was a late teen, though; I hiked some and walked a lot, but I didn’t do anything more intense.

    I’m not fazed by cycling in busy traffic; that much is true. I also enjoy fast descents on twisty roads and on gravel roads. When driving, though, I’m fairly patient, and on the Interstate, I prefer to go a bit slower than the average traffic speed, since I find being passed is less stressful than passing.

  2. 48 yo with RHR of 44 BPM… this explains a lot. I thrive on cycling in traffic, taking the lane at the drop of a… lane. Roger Geller has always been my hero (along with Jim Oberstar and Earl Blumenaur). Never saw “Minority Report” – or anything with Cruise in it for that matter. Haven’t U-locked any cars lately, but certainly been known to bitch drivers out a time or two (per day).

    I’d probably deck someone for calling me “phlegmatic.”

    …but I thought it was due to being born and raised in Boston.

  3. At the age of 60 my resting heart rate is around 50, though the last couple of doctor’s visits gave results of 42 bpm. And I’m a timid, risk-averse, non-violent sort of person. In my case, the low RHR is probably genetic, as my father also has a low rate.

    I suspect that the same study done with a more diverse population would not show the correlation—they are likely observing a genetic link between two unrelated traits that are close on a chromosome.

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