7. Cognitive Theory
A third major psychological theory is cognitive theory. In recent years, significant gains have been made in explaining criminal behavior within the cognitive theory framework. Here, psychologists focus on the mental processes of individuals. More important, cognitive theorists attempt to understand how criminal offenders perceive and mentally represent the world around them (Knepper, 2001). Germane to cognitive theory is how individuals solve problems. Two prominent pioneering 19th-century psychologists are Wilhelm Wundt and William James. Two subdisciplines of cognitive theory are worthy of discussion. The first subdiscipline is the moral development branch, the focus of which is understanding how people morally represent and reason about the world. The second subdiscipline is information processing. Here, researchers focus on the way people acquire, retain, and retrieve information (Siegal, 2009). Ultimately, scholars are concerned with the process of those three stages (i.e., acquisition, retention, and retrieval). One theory within the cognitive framework focuses on moral and intellectual development. Jean Piaget (1896–1980) hypothesized that the individual reasoning process is developed in an orderly fashion. Thus, from birth onward an individual will continue to develop. Another pioneer of cognitive theory is Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–1987), who applied the concept of moral development to criminological theory. Kohlberg (1984) believed 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.
Stage 1 is concerned about obedience and punishment. This level is most often found at the grade levels of kindergarten through fifth grade. During this stage, individuals conduct themselves in a manner that is consistent with socially acceptable norms (Kohlberg, 1984). This conforming behavior is attributed to authority figures such as parents, teachers, or the school principal. Ultimately, this obedience is compelled by the threat or application of punishment. Stage 2 is characterized by individualism, instrumentalism, and exchange. Ultimately, the characterization suggests that individuals seek to fulfill their own interests and recognize that others should do the same. This stage maintains that the right behavior means acting in one’s own best interests (Kohlberg, 1984).
The conventional level of moral reasoning is often found in young adults or adults. It is believed that individuals who reason in a conventional way are more likely to judge the morality of actions by comparing those actions to societal viewpoints and expectations (Kohlberg, 1984). The third and fourth stages fall under this level of development. In Stage 3, the individual recognizes that he or she is now a member of society. Coinciding with this is the understanding of the roles that one plays. An important concept within this stage is the idea that individuals are interested in whether or not other people approve or disapprove of them (Kohlberg, 1984). For example, if you are an attorney, what role does society expect you to play? Tangentially, what role does the clergy hold in society? It is important to note that perception is germane to this stage as well. Ultimately, the literature suggests this is where a “good” boy and girl attempts to ascertain his or her standing or role within society. With respect to stage four, the premise is based on law and order. In this stage, individuals recognize the importance of laws, rules, and customs. This is important because in order to properly function in society, one must obey and recognize the social pillars of society. Ultimately, individuals must recognize the significance of right and wrong. Obviously, a society without laws and punishments leads to chaos. In contrast, if an individual who breaks the law is punished, others would recognize that and exhibit obedience. Kohlberg (1984) suggested that the majority of individuals in our society remain at this stage, in which morality is driven by outside forces.
Stages 5 and 6 exist at the postconventional level. Stage 5 is referred to as the social contract. Here, individuals are concerned with the moral worth of societal rules and values, but only insofar as they are related to or consistent with the basic values of liberty, the welfare of humanity, and human rights. Fundamental terms associated with this stage are majority decision and compromise. Stage 6 is often termed principled conscience. This stage is characterized by universal principles of justice and respect for human autonomy. Most important to criminal justice and criminology is the notion 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 predicated on the notion that people use information to understand their environment. When an individual makes a decision, he or she engages in a sequence of cognitive thought processes. To illustrate, individuals experience an event and encode or store the relevant information so it can be retrieved and interpreted at a later date (Conklin, 2007). Second, these individuals search for the appropriate response, and then they determine the appropriate action. Last, they must act on their decision. There are some vital findings regarding this process. First, individuals who use information properly are more likely to avoid delinquent or criminal behavior (Shelden, 2006). Second, those who are conditioned to make reasoned judgments when faced with emotional events are more likely to avoid antisocial behavioral decisions (Siegal, 2008). Interestingly, an explanation for flawed reasoning is that the individual may be relying on a faulty cognitive process; specifically, he or she may be following a mental script that was learned in childhood (Jacoby, 2004).A second reason that may account for flawed reasoning is prolonged exposure to violence. A third possibility of faulty reasoning is oversensitivity or rejection by parents or peers. Contemplating the consequences of long-lasting rejection or dismissal is likely to produce damage to an individual’s self-esteem. Research has demonstrated that individuals who use violence as a coping mechanism are substantially more likely to exhibit other problems, such as alcohol and drug dependency (Piquero & Mazarolle, 2001).