Psychological Theories of Crime

When examining psychological theories of crime, one must be cognizant of the three major theories. The first is psychodynamic theory, which is centered on the notion that an individual’s early childhood experience influences his or her likelihood for committing future crimes. The second is behavioral theory. Behavioral theorists have expanded the work of Gabriel Tarde through behavior modeling and social learning. The third is cognitive theory, the major premise of which suggests that an individual’s perception and how it is manifested (Jacoby, 2004) affect his or her potential to commit crime.

Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. Early Research
  3. Psychodynamic Theory
  4. Mental Disorders and Crime
  5. Mental Illness and Crime
  6. Behavioral Theory
  7. Cognitive Theory
  8. Personality and Crime
  9. Psychopathic Personality
  10. Intelligence and Crime
  11. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Why do individuals commit crimes? At the same time, why is crime present in our society? The criminal justice system is very concerned with these questions, and criminologists are attempting to answer them. In actuality, the question of why crime is committed is very difficult to answer. However, for centuries, people have been searching for answers (Jacoby, 2004). It is important to recognize that there are many different explanations as to why individuals commit crime (Conklin, 2007). One of the main explanations is based on psychological theories, which focus on the association among intelligence, personality, learning, and criminal behavior. Thus, in any discussion concerning crime causation, one must contemplate psychological theories.

When examining psychological theories of crime, one must be cognizant of the three major theories. The first is psychodynamic theory, which is centered on the notion that an individual’s early childhood experience influences his or her likelihood for committing future crimes. The second is behavioral theory. Behavioral theorists have expanded the work of Gabriel Tarde through behavior modeling and social learning. The third is cognitive theory, the major premise of which suggests that an individual’s perception and how it is manifested (Jacoby, 2004) affect his or her potential to commit crime. In other words, behavioral theory focuses on how an individual’s perception of the world influences his or her behavior.

Also germane to psychological theories are personality and intelligence. Combined, these five theories or characteristics (i.e., psychodynamic, cognitive, behavioral, personality, and intelligence) offer appealing insights into why an individual may commit a crime (Schmalleger, 2008). However, one should not assume this there is only one reason why a person commits crime. Researchers looking for a single explanation should be cautious, because there is no panacea for the problem of crime.

2. Early Research

Charles Goring (1870–1919) discovered a relationship between crime and flawed intelligence. Goring examined more than 3,000 convicts in England. It is important to note that Goring found no physical differences between noncriminals and criminals; however, he did find that criminals are more likely to be insane, to be unintelligent, and to exhibit poor social behavior. A second pioneer is Gabriel Tarde (1843–1904), who maintained that individuals learn from each other and ultimately imitate one another. Interestingly, Tarde thought that out of 100 individuals, only 1 was creative or inventive and the remainder were prone to imitation (Jacoby, 2004).

3. Psychodynamic Theory

Proponents of psychodynamic theory suggest that an individual’s personality is controlled by unconscious mental processes that are grounded in early childhood. This theory was originated by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the founder of psychoanalysis. Imperative to this theory are the three elements or structures that make up the human personality: (1) the id, (2), the ego, and (3) the superego. One can think of the id is as the primitive part of a person’s mental makeup that is present at birth. Freud (1933) believed the id represents the unconsPsychological Theories of Crimecious biological drives for food, sex, and other necessities over the life span. Most important is the idea that the id is concerned with instant pleasure or gratification while disregarding concern for others. This is known as the pleasure principle, and it is often paramount when discussing criminal behavior. All too often, one sees news stories and studies about criminal offenders who have no concern for anyone but themselves. Is it possiblethat these male and female offenders are driven by instant gratification? The second element of the human personality is the ego, which is thought to develop early in a person’s life. For example, when children learn that their wishes cannot be gratified instantaneously, they often throw a tantrum. Freud (1933) suggested that the ego compensates for the demands of the id by guiding an individual’s actions or behaviors to keep him or her within the boundaries of society. The ego is guided by the reality principle. The third element of personality, the superego, develops as a person incorporates the moral standards and values of the community; parents; and significant others, such as friends and clergy members. The focus of the superego is morality. The superego serves to pass judgment on the behavior and actions of individuals (Freud, 1933). The ego mediates between the id’s desire for instant gratification and the strict morality of the superego. One can assume that young adults as well as adults understand right from wrong. However, when a crime is committed, advocates of psychodynamic theory would suggest that an individual committed a crime because he or she has an underdeveloped superego.

In sum, psychodynamic theory suggests that criminal offenders are frustrated and aggravated. They are constantly drawn to past events that occurred in their early childhood. Because of a negligent, unhappy, or miserable childhood, which is most often characterized by a lack of love and/or nurturing, a criminal offender has a weak (or absent) ego. Most important, research suggests that having a weak ego is linked with poor or absence of social etiquette, immaturity, and dependence on others. Research further suggests that individuals with weak egos may be more likely to engage in drug abuse.