Psychological Theories of Crime

6. Behavioral Theory

The second major psychological theory is behaviorism. This theory maintains that human behavior is developed through learning experiences. The hallmark of behavioral theory is the notion that people alter or change their behavior according to the reactions this behavior elicits in other people (Bandura, 1978). In an ideal situation, behavior is supported by rewards and extinguished by negative reactions or punishments. Behaviorists view crimes as learned responses to life’s situations. Social learning theory, which is a branch of behavior theory, is the most relevant to criminology. The most prominent social learning theorist is Albert Bandura (1978). Bandura maintains that individuals are not born with an innate ability to act violently. He suggested that, in contrast, violence and aggression are learned through a process of behavior modeling (Bandura, 1977). In other words, children learn violence through the observation of others. Aggressive acts are modeled after three primary sources: (1) family interaction, (2) environmental experiences, and (3) the mass media. Research on family interaction demonstrates that children who are aggressive are more likely to have been brought up by parents or caretakers who are aggressive (Jacoby, 2004).

The second source of behavioral problems, environmental experiences, suggests 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 (Shelden, 2006). One could argue that high-crime areas are without norms, rules, and customs (Bohm, 2001). Furthermore, 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. Most important, individuals who adhere to conventional behavior are invested in society and committed to a goal or belief system. They are involved in schools or extracurricular activities, such as football, baseball, or Girl Scouts, and often they have an attachment to family (Kraska, 2004).

The third source of behavioral problems are the mass media. It is difficult to discern the ultimate role of the media in regard to crime. Scholars have suggested that films, video games, and television shows that depict violence are harmful to children. Ultimately, social learning theories beckon us to accept the fact that the mass media are responsible for a great deal of the violence in our society. They hypothesize that 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. Important to note that in the above-mentioned media outlets (e.g., video games), violence is often acceptable and even celebrated. Moreover, there are no consequences for the actions of the major players. Professional athletes provide an interesting example of misbehavior without significant consequences. Over the last 50 years, there have been many documented cases of professional athletes who engaged in inappropriate behavior on and off the field. These cases have important implications for the children who observe this behavior. Thus, when a 10-year-old amateur athlete imitates behavior that he has learned by observing professional sports figures, whom does society blame or punish? Substantiating the relationship between the media and violence is the fact that many studies suggest that media violence enables or allows aggressive children or adolescents to justify or rationalize their behavior. Furthermore, consistent media violence desensitizes children and adolescents. A person could argue that viewing 10,000 homicides on television over a 10-year period prevents (i.e., desensitizes) an individual from adjusting to the appropriate psychological response. Thus, when the local news reports about a homicide, does the child or adolescent respond with sorrow or indifference (Jacoby, 2004)? When searching for stimuli that foster violent acts, social learning theorists suggest that an individual is likely to inflict harm when he or she is subject to a violent assault, verbal heckling or insults, disparagement, and the inability to achieve his or her goals and aspirations (Siegal, 2009).