Psychological Theories of Crime

One of the most asked question in criminal jurisprudence is why a person commits crime and how this ideology gets developed in mind of an individual. Many great psychologists like Freud etc have shared research on this issue but still many questions remain unanswered.  In total there are five factors that are involved to study psychology of crime. There are three theories and two characteristics amongst these factors.  Factor that affect psychology of crime are based upon Psychodynamic theory, behavior theory, cognitive theory, personality and intelligence.  There is wide scope of research in psychology still left to be discovered.


Why does someone commit crime and at the same time, why crime is present in our society are the two most important questions when we talk about psychological aspect of crime. The Justice system of our society is concerned with such questions and many jurists attempt to answer these questions. In reality it is very difficult to answer why crime is committed. There exist many different theories and explanations as to why crime is committed. One of the primary explanations is based upon psychological theory. The explanation focuses on the association among intelligence, personality, learning, and criminal behavior. Thus, in any discussion concerning crime causation, one must contemplate psychological theories.

When we consider psychological theories of crime we must understand three major theories.  First is psychodynamic theory, which s based upon the notion that early childhood experience of an individual influences his or her likelihood for committing crime.  The second theory is behavioral theory which is based behavior modeling and social learning. It basically an expanded form of Gabriel trade. Third theory is cognitive theory and this theory suggests that perception of an individual and how that perception is manifested affect his or her potential to commit crime. Along with these three theories, theories of personality and intelligence give an insight as to why an individual might commit crime. One should not be limited to only a single explanation.

Charles Goring discovered a relationship between crime and flawed intelligence. In research conducted by Goring it was found that though there was no physical difference between criminals and non criminals however criminals were more likely to be insane, to be unintelligent and to exhibit poor social behavior. It was in 1904 when Gabrial Trade said that individuals learn from each other and try to imitate one another. Gabrial trade carried out his research on 100 individuals and it was found that only 1 out of 100 individual  was creative or inventive while others were prone to imitation.

Psychodynamic Theory

 Psychodynamic theory suggests that personality of an individual is controlled by unconscious mental processes which are formulated in early childhood. Freud gave this theory and said that there are three elements or structures that formulate human personality.(1) the id (2) the ego (3) the super ego. The primitive part of mental makeup that is present at birth in known as the id. It is the id that represents the unconscious biological drives for food, sex and other necessities during one’s lifetime. The pleasure principle says that the id is connected with instant pleasure or gratification. In many cases it has been seen that criminal offenders have no concern for anyone except themselves.  Hence it might be the case that these individuals are driven by instant gratification.

The second element of human personality in the ego and is developed in early phase of life. Best example of development of ego is when demands of children are not complete and children tend to show tantrums. Freud said that ego tends compensate for demands of the id by guiding actions of an individual to keep that individual within the boundary of society. When a person incorporates the moral values and standards of the community, friends, parents etc then the third element of personality develops which is superego. Superego passes judgment on the behavior and actions of individuals and has focus on morality. Ego mediates between the desire for instant gratification and strict morality of superego. Advocates of this theory suggest that an individual commits a crime due to underdeveloped superego. The theory suggests that criminal offenders are frustrated and aggravated. The past events that occurred during their childhood hamper their thoughts.  Weak ego exists because of poor or absence of social etiquette, immaturity and dependence on others. Persons with weak ego are more prone to drug abuse.

Mental Disorders and Crime

Mood disorders are also part of psychodynamic theory of crimes. There are high tendencies of high number of mood disorders which ultimately get converted into rage, depression, narcissism and social cutoff. Conduct disorders exist in children because of which they have difficulty in following rules and behaving in a manner which is socially acceptable. Conduct disorders lead to emotional disorders. Such disorders are usually considered as “trouble,” “bad,” “delinquent” or even “mentally ill” . It is important to understand the development of such disorders. some explanation for such disorder include child abuse, brain damage, genetics, poor schooling performance and even an event which is traumatic can cause such disorder.

Children with such disorders behave in more aggressive behavior and they may be cruel to animals.  Other manifestations include fear, initiating fight; using a weapon etc. people with such disorders can force someone for unwanted sexual activity. Causing damage to property, stealing , entering abandon buildings and cars etc are also other manifestation. Children suffering from this disorder may also suffer from anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, drug or alcohol abuse, or attention deficit disorder etc. these problems must be treated otherwise they can have long term impact. Though the treatment for such disorders is difficult but by making patients trust other people and by creating a will to live socially acceptable life can help them

Another disorder found in children is oppositional defiant disorder. It is diagnosed in childhood. Manifestations or characteristics of oppositional defiant disorder include defiance; uncooperativeness; irritability; a very negative attitude; a tendency to lose one’s temper; and exhibiting deliberately annoying behaviors toward peers, parents, teachers, and other authority figures, such as police officers. No known cause of oppositional defiant disorder exists. One theory suggests that these theories begin in children as early as when they are toddlers. Adolescents and small children who develop this disorder might have experienced a difficult time developing independent or autonomous skills and learning to separate from their primary caretaker or attachment figure. Continuation of development issues is considered as one of the factors.

 Mental Illness and Crime

Serious personality disturbance will result in mental disorders. Psychoses are the most serious disturbances. Examples of mental health disorders include bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Bipolar disorders are marked by extreme highs and lows behavior of an individual. A second mental health disturbance is schizophrenia. Due to this disturbance people often exhibit illogical and incoherent thought processes, and they often lack insight into their behavior and do not understand reality. Someone suffering with paranoid schizophrenia also experiences complex behavior delusions that involve wrongdoing or persecution. Individuals with paranoid schizophrenia often believe everyone is out to get them. The research shows that female offenders are considered to have a higher probability of serious mental health symptoms than male offenders. These include symptoms of schizophrenia, paranoia, and obsessive behaviors.

 Behavioral Theory

The second psychological theory which should be considered is behaviorism. This theory believes that human behavior is developed through learning experiences. The important aspect of behavioral theory is the notion that people change their behavior according to the reactions they get from other people to their behavior. In an ideal situation, behavior is supported by rewards and extinguished by negative reactions or punishments. People who analyze behavior consider crimes as learned responses to life’s situations. Social learning theory, is a branch of behavior theory and is the most relevant to criminology. Albert Bandura (1978). Bandura maintains that individuals are not born with an innate ability to act violently. It was suggested that, in contrast, violence and aggression are learned through a process of behavior modeling. In other words, it is the observation of children through which they learn violence. Aggressive acts are analyzed by three primary sources: (1) family interaction, (2) environmental experiences, and (3) the mass media. Children with aggressive parents of aggressive care taker are tend to be more aggressive.

The second source of behavioral problems, environmental experiences, says that even the area in which an individual resides plays an important role in its behavior and research shows that individuals who reside in areas that are crime prone are more likely to display aggressive behavior than those who reside in low-crime areas. There is an absence of conventional behavior. Manifestations of unconventional behavior include the inability to gain employment; drug or alcohol abuse; and failure to obey the local, state, and federal laws.

The third source of behavioral problems is the mass media. Media also plays an important role in criminology. It is suggested that films, video games, and television shows that depict violence are harmful to children. It is considered that they hypothesize children who play violent video games and later inflict physical or psychological damage to someone at school did so because of the influence of the video game. Violence is often acceptable and even celebrated in above mentioned media outlets. Over the past few time there have been many documented cases of professional athletes who engaged in inappropriate behavior.Many children follow these players and they tend to follow the same behavior. Furthermore, consistent media violence desensitizes children and adolescents.

 Cognitive Theory

A third major psychological theory is cognitive theory. This theory has been used significantly to study criminal behavior. Mental processes of individuals are focused in this theory. More important, cognitive theorists try to understand how criminal offenders perceive these thoughts and then mentally represent the world around them. Cognitive theory is related to how individuals solve problems. The first sub discipline in this theory is the moral development which focuses on understanding how people morally represent themselves and rationale the world. The second sub discipline is processing of information. Here, researchers focus on how people acquire, retain, and retrieve information. Ultimately, it revolves around three stages (i.e., acquisition, retention, and retrieval). It is considered that the individual reasoning process is developed in an orderly fashion. Thus, from birth onward an individual will continue to develop.

It was believed by Kohlberg that individuals pass through stages of moral development. Most important to his theory is the notion that there are levels, stages, and social orientation. The three levels are Level I, preconventional; Level II, conventional; and Level III, postconventional. With respect to the different stages, Stages 1 and 2 fall under Level I. Stages 3 and 4 fall under Level II, and Stages 5 and 6 fall under Level III.Most important factor for criminal justice and criminology is the ideology that laws are valid only if they are based on or grounded in justice.

It is important to recognize that justice is subjective. Thus, Kohlberg argued that the quest for justice would ultimately call for disobeying unjust laws. He suggested that individuals could progress through the six stages in a chronological fashion. Important for criminology is that Kohlberg suggested that criminals are significantly lower in their moral judgment development.The next subdiscipline is the information-processing branch. This area is works on the notion that people use information to process and analyze their environment. When an individual makes a decision, he or she engages in a sequence of cognitive thought processes.

 Personality and Crime

Personality was defined by Clark, Boccaccini, Caillouet, & Chaplin as something that makes us what we are and also that which makes us different from others. Ideally, personality is stable and same over time. Examinations relation between personality and crime has often yielded inconsistent results. Big five model of personality is one of the most well-known theories of personality used to examine this relationship. This model provides a structure into which most personality characteristics can be categorized. This model suggests that five domains account for individual differences in personality: (1) Neuroticism, (2) Extraversion, (3) Openness, (4) Agreeableness, and (5) Conscientiousness.

Antisocial personality, psychopathy, or sociopath is some terms which are used interchangeably. Sociopaths are those who deal with destructive home environment. Psychopaths deal with a defect or aberration within themselves. The antisocial personality is seen as low levels of guilt, superficial charm, above-average intelligence, persistent violations of the rights of others, incapacity to form enduring relationships, impulsivity, risk taking, egocentricity, manipulativeness, forcefulness and cold-heartedness, and shallow emotions. The origin of these issues may include traumatic socialization, neurological disorder, and brain abnormality.

If an individual suffers from low levels of arousal as measured by a neurological examination, then the individual might engage in thrill seeking or high-risk behaviors such as crime to offset their low arousal level. Other reasons that may contribute to the psychopathic personality are a parent with pathologic tendencies, childhood traumatic events, or inconsistent discipline. It is important to note that many chronic offenders are sociopaths. Thus, if personality traits can predict crime and violence, then one could assume that the root cause of crime is found in the forces that influence human development at an early stage of life

 Intelligence and Crime

Criminologists suggest that there exists a link between intelligence and crime. Some common beliefs are that criminals and delinquents possess low intelligence and that this low intelligence causes criminality. The nature-versus-nurture debate is a psychological argument that is related to whether the environment or heredity impacts the psychological development of individuals. Science recognizes that we share our parents’ DNA. However, the question remains: Where do individuals get their love of sports, literature, and humor? The nature-versus-nurture debate addresses this issue.

With respect to the nature side, research conducted on the prison population has consistently shown that inmates typically score low on IQ tests. But there are many individuals who have a low IQ but refrain from committing crime. With respect to nurture theory, advocates suggest that intelligence is not inherited. There is some recognition of the role of heredity; however, emphasis is placed on the role of society (i.e., environment). Scholars have suggested that low IQ increases the likelihood of criminal behavior through its effect on school performance. It was argued that a child with a low IQ will perform poorly in school. In turn, this school failure is followed by dropping out. Given the poor school performance, a child is left with very few options. This ultimately leads to delinquency and adult criminality.


The relationship between psychology and crime has still not been identified completely. The above mentioned three theories and factors like personality and intelligence play an important role in determining the psychological aspect of criminal behavior. It is the responsibility of State to provide adequate environment for an individual to live. Personal factors and experiences play more imp role in developing the mindset of a criminal. What we need to consider is how to provide a safe and healthy environ to any individual right from the time of birth and just in case their occurs any event that may traumatize someone then adequate treatment must be there so that mental development of that individual is not hampered. The debate of nature vs nature is a never ending one but we need to consider how we can provide safe atmosphere and how other factors also can be improved so as to avoid any chance of criminal thought.  



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