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Psychological Theories of Crime

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Psychological Theories of Crime

Psychological theories of crime see crime as the result of psychodynamic and cognitive factors, such as moral reasoning and differential association. According to this approach, crime is not the result of behavioural learning or biological vulnerabilities but early life experiences and thought patterns.

Psychological Theories of Crime Crime causes Study SmarterPsychodynamic and cognitive factors lead to crime, KG - StudySmarter Originals (Created using Canva, Image from Flaticon)

What is Eysenck’s personality theory, and how can this explain crime?

In Eysenck’s (1964) personality theory, three different components can predict criminality. A personality questionnaire can measure them, and a criminal personality is likely to score high on these components:

  1. Extraversion.
  2. Neuroticism.
  3. Psychoticism.

People with a high level of extraversion need more stimulation from the environment because they are less naturally aroused, which means they are more likely to engage in criminal behaviour to get aroused. They tend to be more outgoing, talkative, and energetic.

For instance, so-called ‘thrill seekers’ may fit into this category. They seek arousal from external sources such as rollercoasters, skydives, extreme sports etc. In a criminal sense, people who steal small items from shops may fit into this category as they do not need to commit a crime but do so because it is ‘fun’.

Neuroticism indicates how stable a person’s personality is. A high neuroticism score would mean that someone is more reactive and volatile, i.e., more impulsive and aggressive and more likely to engage in criminal behaviour.

Violent criminals, for example, often fall into this category because they resort to violence as a quick reaction to stress or anger.

Psychological Theories of Crime Neuroticism StudySmarterNeuroticism, Yzabelle Bostyn - StudySmarter Originals (Created in Canva)

Psychoticism is the degree to which someone is antisocial, aggressive, and uncaring. If a person has a higher level of psychoticism, they are more likely to engage in criminal behaviour.

A famous example of a psychopath is Ted Bundy. Ted Bundy confessed to murdering 30 women in the 1970s. Many attribute his crimes to a lack of emotion combined with intelligence and charm for luring his victims. He was defined as a psychopath because he lacked emotion and empathy while being antisocial and aggressive.

Psychological Theories of Crime Eysenck's Theory of Personality StudySmarterEysenck’s (1964) personality theory, Yzabelle Bostyn - StudySmarter Originals (Created in Canva)

Cognitive theories of crime

Cognitive theories of crime, including differential association theory, focus on faulty thinking and reasoning patterns on behaviour.

Differential association theory

Sutherland proposed the differential association theory in 1939. The theory states that people learn to become criminals through interactions with other delinquents or criminals (friends, peers, family members). Motives for criminal behaviour are learned through the values, attitudes, and methods of others. Sutherland’s theory attempted to explain all types of crime, from burglaries to middle-class ‘white-collar’ crime.

Sutherland’s differential association theory proposes nine key factors that determine how a person becomes an offender:

  1. Criminal behaviour is learned.

  2. Criminal behaviour is learned from interactions with others (communication).

  3. This communication occurs in intimate personal groups, typically in smaller groups for closer interactions (the most influential kind).

  4. The person learns motives, drives, rationalisations, and attitudes.

  5. The person’s interpretation of the law influences learning or accepting criminal behaviour. They know what is right and wrong and decide whether the crime is favourable or unfavourable.

  6. When the number of interpretations favourable to breaking the law exceeds the number of interpretations unfavourable to it (through more contact with people favourable to crime), a person becomes a criminal. Repeated exposure essentially encourages people to commit crimes themselves.

  7. Differential associations may vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity.

  8. Learning criminal behaviour through interactions with others is the same as any other behaviour. Anyone can become a criminal, regardless of background, ethnicity, etc.

Criminal behaviour is an expression of general needs and values.

Psychological Theories of Crime Differential association theory StudySmarterTwo girls talking about taking drugs, Yzabelle Bostyn - StudySmarter Originals

In the interaction above, the girl on the right is considering criminal activity due to her interaction with the girl on the left. This interaction is an example of differential association theory because she learns the criminal behaviour of ‘doing drugs’ and gets the motivation for it from her friend’s experience.

Psychodynamic explanations of crime

The psychodynamic theory focuses on the influence of early life experiences and their impact on adult development and criminal behaviour. Freud’s theory explains criminality as the result of an unbalanced personality (ego, superego, and id).

Blackburn (1993) suggests that a weak, deviant, or overly strong superego leads to criminal behaviour. An inability to distinguish between right and wrong, internalisation of deviant values, or a desire for punishment can all be the cause. According to Freud, the superego no longer keeps in check the id, which an instinctive drive stimulates to commit a crime.

Bowlby’s maternal deprivation hypothesis also supports this theory, stating that children deprived of maternal attachment in childhood suffer from mental abnormalities, delinquency, affectionless psychopathology, depression, and even dwarfism.

Freud also offered the defence mechanism theory in the sense that they all can explain deviant behaviour ( displacement, repression, and denial).

Psychological Theories of Crime - Key takeaways

  • There are three dimensions to Eysenck’s personality theory: neuroticism, psychoticism, and extraversion.

  • If someone has high levels of neuroticism, psychoticism, and extraversion, they are more likely to engage in criminal behaviour. Differential association theory states that criminal behaviour is learned through interactions with others.

  • According to Sutherland’s differential association theory, nine key factors influence whether someone commits criminal acts.

  • Psychodynamic explanations of criminality suggest that early life experiences and imbalanced personalities shape criminals. The id, ego, and superego abnormalities are associated with criminal behaviour. Blackburn indicates that results from the weak, deviant, or over-hardened superego, as it fails to keep the instinctual, criminal urges of the id in check.

Frequently Asked Questions about Psychological Theories of Crime

Psychological, biological, and social.

Psychoanalysis, Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Ecological, Humanism, and Evolutionary.

This theory views crime as the result of psychological characteristics such as personality, early life experiences, ego and thought patterns. 

Psychological theories of crime see crime as the result of psychodynamic and cognitive factors, such as moral reasoning and differential association. According to this approach, crime is not the result of behavioural learning or biological vulnerabilities but early life experiences and thought patterns.

Psychoanalysis, Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Ecological, Humanism, and Evolutionary.

Final Psychological Theories of Crime Quiz

Question

Who proposed differential association theory and when?

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Answer

Sutherland proposed this theory in 1939.

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Question

What does differential association theory state?

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Answer

People learn to become offenders through interactions with others (friends, peers, family members). Criminal behaviours are learned through other people’s values, attitudes, methods, and motives.

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How can the theory explain why crime is more prevalent in certain communities?

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Perhaps the people are all learning from each other in some aspect, or the community’s general attitude is ‘pro-crime’.

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How can the theory explain why convicts after their release from prison frequently continue offensive behaviour?

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Often, in prison, they have learned how to improve their ‘technique’ through observational learning and imitation, or even through direct learning from one of the other prisoners.

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Question

What were the six most significant risk factors for criminal activity at age 8–10, according to Farrington et al. (2006)?

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Answer

  1. Crime in the family
  2. Impulsivity
  3. Low IQ and low school attainment
  4. Poverty
  5. Poor parenting

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Question

What is a strength and weakness of Farrington et al. (2006) study?

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Answer

The study shows support for differential association theory; however, some of the factors can also be due to genetics.

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Question

What were the findings of the Osborne and West (1979) study?

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Answer

Osborne and West (1979) compared family criminal records and found that when a father had a criminal record, 40% of sons also had a criminal record by age 18, compared with 13% of sons of fathers who did not have a criminal record. 

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Question

What conclusions can be drawn from the Osborne and West (1979) study?

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This finding suggests that children learn criminal behaviour from their fathers in families with a convicted father through differential association. However, one could also argue that genetics could be to blame since convicted fathers and sons share the genes that predispose them to criminality.

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Question

How do Akers’ (1979) findings support differential association theory?

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Answer

Akers (1979) surveyed 2500 male and female adolescents. They found that differential association and reinforcement accounted for 68% of the variance in marijuana use and 55% of the variance in alcohol use.

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Question

What are the two strengths of differential association theory?

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Answer

The strengths of differential association theory are that it can explain different types of crimes and crimes committed by people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. It has also changed people’s view of crime from individual (genetic) factors to social factors.

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Why was changing people’s views on crime from blaming individual (biological) factors to social factors a major point?

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This has real-world applications as a person’s environment can be changed, but genetics cannot.

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What are the weaknesses of differential association theory?

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  • The research on it is correlational, thus we do not know if interactions and associations with others are the real cause of crimes.
  • The theory does not explain why criminality decreases with age.
  • The theory is hard to empirically measure and test.
  • It can account for less severe crimes such as burglary but cannot explain crimes such as murder. Lastly, biological factors are not taken into account.

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What were the findings of Newburn (2002)?

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Answer

Newburn (2002) found that people under the age of 21 commit 40% of crimes and that many offenders stop committing crimes when they get older.

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Question

Give an example of why the theory is hard to measure and test.

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Answer

Sutherland states that when the number of interpretations favourable to breaking the law exceeds the number of interpretations unfavourable (through more contact with people who favour the crime), a person becomes a criminal. However, it is hard to empirically measure this. How do we accurately measure the number of favourable/unfavourable interpretations a person has experienced their whole life?

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Question

The differential association theory does not take biological factors into account. What model may better explain offensive behaviour?

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Answer

Diathesis-stress model

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Question

What is moral reasoning?


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Moral reasoning is the process by which an individual draws upon their own value system to determine whether an action is right or wrong.

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What are cognitive distortions?


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Cognitive distortions are faulty, biased and irrational ways of thinking that mean we perceive ourselves, other people and the world inaccurately and usually negatively.

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What did Kohlberg base his theory of moral reasoning on?


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Kohlberg's theory is based on a series of moral dilemmas.

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Question

Select the following statement that is true:


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Answer

Criminals have a lower level of moral reasoning than non-criminals


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Question

What does Kohlberg call the first 2 stages of his moral reasoning model?


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The first stage is the pre-conventional level. The second is the conventional reasoning level. 

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What is the pre-conventional level characterised by?


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The pre-conventional level is characterised by the need to avoid punishment and the seeking of personal gain.


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 In 1973, Chandler's research showed that criminals tend to be ego-centric. By contrast, what did he find about non-criminals?

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Chandler found that non-criminals are more prone to honesty, generosity and non-violence.

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Question

True or false: we all experience cognitive distortions.


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True. We all experience cognitive distortions, especially when taken by surprise. However, criminals tend to experience them much more often.


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What are two examples of cognitive distortions?


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Hostile attribution bias and minimisation are two examples of cognitive distortions.

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Question

Schonenberg and Justye (2014) showed images of ambiguous facial expressions to offenders and non-offenders. What did they find?


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They found that the offenders were significantly more likely to interpret the expressions as hostile than the non-offenders.

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Dodge and Frame (1982) also worked on hostile ambiguity bias. Select the following statement that is true:


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Answer

They believed this tendency began in childhood

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What did Gibbs call Kohlberg's 'pre-conventional' and 'conventional' levels?


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 Gibbs labeled the pre-conventional and conventional levels as immature and mature.

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Question

Thornton and Reid criticised the moral reasoning explanation, because they thought it depended on which variable?


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They thought it depended on the crime committed. They found that people who committed crimes for financial gain (eg, robbery), were more likely to be motivated by pre-conventional moral reasoning than those who committed un-reasoned crimes like assault.

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What is one of the big drawbacks of cognitive explanations?


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Cognitive explanations are 'after' the fact, they can only describe what's happened, do not explain it.

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Question

Select the following statement that is true:

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Answer

Eysenck's theory is halfway between a biological explanation and a psychological explanation of crime.

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Define a psychological explanation.

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Answer

Psychological explanations shift the focus away from biological causes of crime to social and psychological influences.

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Question

What could the psychological and social influences on behavior be? Name as many as you can think of.


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Answer

Answers could include: dysfunctional learning environments, the influence of the family, cognitive factors and personality.

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Question

 According to Eysenck, which 3 measures does the criminal personality score highly on?


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Answer

Extraversion, neuroticism and psychoticism.

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Question

Which year did Eysenck come up with his theory of criminal behavior?


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Answer

1947

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Question

Where does Eysenck say all our personality types come from?


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Answer

Our nervous system.

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Question

Describe the characteristics of an extrovert.


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Extroverts have an underactive nervous system. So, they seek excitement and stimulation, and are more risk-taking. They also tend not to condition easily and don't learn from their mistakes.

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Describe the characteristics of someone neurotic.


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Neurotic people are nervous, jumpy, and over-anxious. Their general instability makes their behavior hard to predict.

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What did the 1977 Eysenck and Eysenck study find?


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Answer

On measures of psychoticism, extraversion and neuroticism, criminal men scored higher than control men over all ages.

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Question

How did David Farrington dispute the Eysenck and Eysenck findings?


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Answer

He found that though criminals measured higher on P, on E and N they were not scoring higher than non-criminals.

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Question

What does EEG measure?


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Answer

EEG measures cortical arousement.

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How does a low EEG measure make us doubt the psychological basis of Eysenck's claim?


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Answer

It found very little difference between extroverts and introverts, which questions the E dimension.

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Question

What were the 5 dimensions in John Dingam's Five Factor Model?


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Answer

Extraversion, conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness and agreeableness.

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Question

Why does the existence of cultural differences between findings invalidate Eysenck's theory?


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Answer

Cultural differences mean that Eysenck's theory is not generalizable.

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Question

How else could we criticize the measuring of personality traits?


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Answer

Our personalities change depending on the situations we find ourselves in, so maybe personality isn't a stable identity that can be measured and reduced to a 'score'.

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Question

What kind of non-criminal behaviour could be linked to extraversion?

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Answer

Thrill seeking.

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Why might thrill-seekers be linked to extraversion? 

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Answer

They seek arousal from external sources such as rollercoasters, sky dives, extreme sports, etc.

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Question

What kind of crime might be linked to extraversion?

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Answer

Petty theft.

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Question

Why might petty theft be linked to extraversion?

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Answer

People who steal small items from shops may fit into this category as they do not need to commit a crime but do so because it is ‘fun’.

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Question

What type of crime would neuroticism lead to? 

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Answer

Violent crime.

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Question

Why might neuroticism lead to violent crime?

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Answer

Violent criminals are often neurotic because they turn to violence as a quick reaction to stress or anger.

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