Psychological Theories of Crime

John W Clark. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. Sage Publication. 2009.

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.

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).

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 unconscious 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 possible that 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.

Mental Disorders and Crime

Within the psychodynamic theory of crime are mood disorders. Criminal offenders may have a number of mood disorders that are ultimately manifested as depression, rage, narcissism, and social isolation. One example of a disorder found in children is conduct disorder. Children with conduct disorder have difficulty following rules and behaving in socially acceptable ways (Boccaccini, Murrie, Clark, & Comell, 2008). Conduct disorders are ultimately manifested as a group of behavioral and emotional problems in young adults. It is important to note that children diagnosed with conduct disorder are viewed by adults, other children, and agencies of the state as “trouble,” “bad,” “delinquent,” or even “mentally ill.” It is important to inquire as to why some children develop conduct disorder and others do not. There are many possible explanations; some of the most prominent include child abuse, brain damage, genetics, poor school performance, and a traumatic event.

Children with conduct disorder are more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviors toward others (Boccaccini et al., 2008), and they may be cruel to animals. Other manifestations include bullying; intimidation; fear; initiating fights; and using a weapon, such as a gun, a knife, a box cutter, rocks, a broken bottle, a golf club, or a baseball bat. Adolescents with conduct disorder could also force someone into unwanted sexual activity. Property damage may also be a concern; one may observe these children starting fires with the ultimate intent to destruct property or even kill someone. Other unacceptable behaviors associated with conduct disorder include lying and stealing, breaking into an individual’s house or an unoccupied building or car, lying to obtain desirable goods, avoiding obligations, and taking possessions from individuals or stores. Last, children with conduct disorder are more likely to violate curfews despite their parents’ desires. These children also are more likely to run away from home and to be late for or truant from school. There is no question that children who exhibit the above-mentioned behaviors must receive a medical and psychological examination. It is important to note that many children with conduct disorder could very well have another existing condition, such as anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, drug or alcohol abuse, or attention deficit disorder (Siegal, 2008). It is important to recognize that children with conduct disorder are likely to have continuing, long-lasting problems if they do not receive treatment at the earliest onset. Without treatment, these children will not be able to become accustomed to the demands of adulthood and will continue to have problems and issues with a variety of relationships and even with finding and maintaining a job or occupation. Treatment of children with conduct disorder is often considered complex and exigent. It is rarely brief, because establishing new attitudes and behavior patterns takes time. As mentioned previously, early treatment offers a child a greater probability for improvement and for ultimately living a productive and successful life. An important component for the medical doctor or psychological clinician to consider is convincing the child to develop a good attitude, learn to cooperate, trust others, and eliminate fear in their lives. Behavior therapy and psychotherapy may be necessary to help the child learn how to control and express anger. Moreover, special education classes may be required for children with learning disabilities. In some cases, treatment may include prescribed medication, although medicine would ideally be reserved for children experiencing problems with depression, attention, or spontaneity/impulsivity. (For more information on conduct disorder, see

A second example of a disorder found in children is oppositional defiant disorder (Siegal, 2008). This is most often diagnosed in childhood. Manifestations or characterizations 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 (Siegal, 2008). There is no known cause of oppositional defiant disorder; however, there are two primary theories that attempt to explain its development. One theory suggests that problems begin in children as early as the toddler years. It is important to note that adolescents and small children who develop oppositional defiant disorder may have experienced a difficult time developing independent or autonomous skills and learning to separate from their primary caretaker or attachment figure. In essence, the bad attitudes that are characteristic of oppositional defiant disorder are viewed as a continuation of developmental issues that were not resolved during the early toddler years.

The second theory to explain oppositional defiant disorder focuses on learning. This theory suggests the negative characteristics of oppositional defiant disorder are learned attitudes that demonstrate the effects of negative reinforcement used by parents or persons in authority (Siegal, 2009). It is important to recognize that the majority of symptoms observed in adolescents and children with oppositional defiant disorder also occur, at times, in children without this disorder. Relevant examples include a child who is hungry, tired, troubled, or disobeys/argues with his or her parent. It is important to note that adolescents and children with oppositional defiant disorder often exhibit symptoms that hinder the learning process, lead to poor adjustment in school, and most likely hurt the child’s relationships with others. Some of the symptoms of oppositional defiant disorder include frequent temper tantrums, excessive arguments with adults, refusal to comply with adult requests, questioning rules, refusing to follow rules, engaging in behavior intended to annoy or upset others, blaming others for one’s misbehaviors or mistakes, being easily annoyed by others, frequently having an angry attitude, speaking harshly or unkindly, and deliberately behaving in ways that seek revenge.

In regard to diagnosis, it is often teachers and parents who identify the child or adolescent with oppositional defiant disorder. However, children must be taken to a qualified medical doctor and/or mental health professional who will make an official diagnosis. Doctors will inquire into the history of the child’s behavior, which includes the perspective of all interested parties (i.e., parents and teachers) and will verify the results of any previous clinical observations of the child’s behavior. Psychological testing also may assist in assigning a diagnosis. As always, early detection and treatment are desirable. Actually, early treatment can often prevent future problems.

Oppositional defiant disorder may exist alongside other mental health problems, including mood and anxiety disorders, conduct disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Treatment for children and adolescents with oppositional defiant disorder will be determined by a physician who considers the child’s age, overall health, and medical history. The physician also considers the extent or totality of a child’s symptoms, the child’s tolerance for certain medications or therapies, expectations for the course of the condition, and the opinion or preference of the caretaker or parent. Most important, treatment could include psychotherapy that teaches problem-solving skills, communication skills, impulse control, and anger management skills. Treatment may also be in the form of family therapy. Here, the approach is focused on making changes within the family system with the desired goal of improved family interaction and communication skills. Peer group therapy, which is focused on developing social skills and interpersonal skills, also is an option. The last and least desirable treatment option is medication. (For more information on oppositional defiant disorder, see

Mental Illness and Crime

The most serious forms of personality disturbance will result in mental disorders. The most serious mental disturbances are referred to as psychoses (Siegal, 2008). Examples of mental health disorders include bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Bipolar disorder is marked by extreme highs and lows; the person alternates between excited, assertive, and loud behavior and lethargic, listless, and melancholic behavior. A second mental health disturbance is schizophrenia. Schizophrenic individuals often exhibit illogical and incoherent thought processes, and they often lack insight into their behavior and do not understand reality. A person with paranoid schizophrenia also experiences complex behavior delusions that involve wrongdoing or persecution (Jacoby, 2004). Individuals with paranoid schizophrenia often believe everyone is out to get them. It is important to note that research shows that female offenders appear to have a higher probability of serious mental health symptoms than male offenders. These include symptoms of schizophrenia, paranoia, and obsessive behaviors. At the same time, studies of males accused of murder have found that three quarters could be classified as having some form of mental illness. Another interesting fact is that individuals who have been diagnosed with a mental illness are more likely to be arrested, and they appear in court at a disproportionate rate. Last, research suggests that delinquent children have a higher rate of clinical mental disorders compared with adolescents in the general population (Siegal, 2008).

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).

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 longlasting 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).

Personality and Crime

Personality can be defined as something that makes us what we are and also that which makes us different from others (Clark, Boccaccini, Caillouet, & Chaplin, 2007). Ideally, personality is stable over time. Examinations of the relationship between personality and crime have often yielded inconsistent results. One of the most well-known theories of personality used to examine this relationship is the Big Five model of personality. This model provides a vigorous 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 (Clark et al., 2007). Neuroticism involves emotional stability. Individuals who score high on this domain often demonstrate anger and sadness and have irrational ideas, uncontrollable impulses, and anxiety. In contrast, persons who score low on Neuroticism are often described by others as even tempered, calm, and relaxed. The second domain, Extraversion, is characterized by sociability, excitement, and stimulation. Individuals who score high on Extraversion (extraverts) are often very active, talkative, and assertive. They also are more optimistic toward the future. In contrast, introverts are often characterized by being reserved, independent, and shy (Clark et al., 2007).

The third domain is Openness, referring to individuals who have an active imagination, find pleasure in beauty, are attentive to their inner feelings, have a preference for variety, and are intellectually curious. Individuals who score high on Openness are willing to entertain unique or novel ideas, maintain unconventional values, and experience positive and negative emotions more so than individuals who are closedminded. In contrast, persons who score low in Openness often prefer the familiar, behave in conventional manners, and have a conservative viewpoint (Clark et al., 2007).

The fourth domain is Agreeableness. This domain is related to interpersonal tendencies. Individuals who score high on this domain are considered warm, altruistic, soft-hearted, forgiving, sympathetic, and trusting. In contrast, those who are not agreeable are described as hard-hearted, intolerant, impatient, and argumentative.

Conscientiousness, the fifth domain, focuses on a person’s ability to control impulses and exercise self-control. Individuals who score high on Conscientiousness are described as organized, thorough, efficient, determined, and strong willed. In addition, those who are conscientious are more likely to achieve high academic and occupational desires. In contrast, people who score low on this domain are thought to be careless, lazy, and more likely assign fault to others than to accept blame themselves (Clark et al., 2007).

One personality study discovered that the personality traits of hostility, impulsivity, and narcissism are correlated with delinquent and criminal behavior. Furthermore, research conducted by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck during the 1930s and 1940s identified a number of personality traits that were characteristic of antisocial youth (Schmalleger, 2008). Another important figure who examined the criminal personality is Hans Eysenck (1916-1997). Eysenck identified two antisocial personality traits: (1) extraversion and (2) neuroticism. Eysenck suggested that individuals who score at the ends of either domain of extra-version and neuroticism are more likely to be self-destructive and criminal (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1985). Moreover, neuroticism is associated with self-destructive behavior (e.g., abusing drugs and alcohol and committing crimes).

Psychopathic Personality

Antisocial personality, psychopathy, or sociopath are terms used interchangeably (Siegal, 2009). Sociopaths are often a product of a destructive home environment. Psychopaths are a product of a defect or aberration within themselves. The antisocial personality is characterized by low levels of guilt, superficial charm, above-average intelligence, persistent violations of the rights of others, an incapacity to form enduring relationships, impulsivity, risk taking, egocentricity, manipulativeness, forcefulness and cold-heartedness, and shallow emotions (Jacoby, 2004). The origin may include traumatic socialization, neurological disorder, and brain abnormality (Siegal, 2008). Interestingly, if an individual suffers from low levels of arousal as measured by a neurological examination, he or she may engage in thrill seeking or high-risk behaviors such as crime to offset their low arousal level. Other dynamics that may contribute to the psychopathic personality is 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 (Siegal, 2008).

Intelligence and Crime

Criminologists have suggested for centuries that there exists a link between intelligence and crime (Dabney, 2004). Some common beliefs are that criminals and delinquents possess low intelligence and that this low intelligence causes criminality. As criminological research has advanced, scholars have continued to suggest that the Holy Grail is causality. The ability to predict criminals from noncriminals is the ultimate goal. The ideology or concept of IQ and crime has crystallized into the nature-versus-nurture debate (Jacoby, 2004).

The nature-versus-nurture debate is a psychological argument that is related to whether the environment or heredity impacts the psychological development of individuals (Messner & Rosenfield, 2007). Science recognizes that we share our parents’ DNA. To illustrate, some people have short fingers like their mother and brown eyes like their father. 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 on the prison population has consistently shown that inmates typically score low on IQ tests (Schmalleger, 2008). In the early decades of the 20th century, researchers administered IQ tests to delinquent male children. The results indicated that close to 40% had below-average intelligence (Siegal, 2008). On the basis of these data and other studies, some scholars argue that the role of nature is prevalent. However, can researchers assume a priori that heredity determines IQ, which in turn influences an individual’s criminal behavior? One criticism of this perspective is the failure to account for free will. Many individuals in our society believe in the ability to make choices. Last, there are many individuals who have a low IQ but refrain from committing crime.

With respect to nurture theory, advocates ground themselves on the premise 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). To demonstrate, parents are a major influence on their children’s behavior. At an early age, parents read books; play music; and engage their children in art, museum, and sporting events. Some parents spend no quality time with their children, and these children are believed to perform poorly on intelligence test. Other groups important in a child’s nurturing are friends, relatives, and teachers. Ultimately, the child who has no friends or relatives and drops out of school is destined for difficult times. Research has demonstrated that the more education a person has, the higher his or her IQ.

The nature-versus-nurture debate will continue. The debate has peaks and valleys. For years, the debate subsides, and this is followed by years of scrutiny and a great deal of attention. One of two major studies that highlighted this debate was conducted by Travis Hirschi and Michael Hindelang (1977). These scholars suggested that low IQ increases the likelihood of criminal behavior through its effect on school performance. This argument seems some-what elementary. Their argument is 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 (Hirschi & Hindelang, 1977). This ultimately leads to delinquency and adult criminality. Support of this position has been wide-spread. Furthermore, it is important to note that U.S. prisons and jails are highly populated with inmates who only have an average of eighth-grade education. At the same time, these same inmates at the time of their offense were unemployed.

The second nature-versus-nature study that warrants attention was conducted by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray (1994). In their book The Bell Curve, these scholars suggested individuals with a lower IQ are more likely to commit crime, get caught, and be sent to prison. Importantly, these authors transport the IQ and crime link to another level. Specifically, they suggested that prisons and jails are highly populated with inmates with low IQs; however, what about those criminals who actions go undetected? Through self-reported data, the researchers discovered that these individuals have a lower IQ than the general public. Thus, research concludes those criminal offenders who have been caught and those who have not have an IQ lower than the general population (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994).


The relationship between psychology and criminal behavior is significant. For centuries, scholars have been attempting to explain why someone commits a crime. This chapter examined the role of psychodynamic theory as developed by Sigmund Freud. Included here are the roles of the id, ego, and superego in criminal behavior. This was followed by a discussion of mental disorders and crime. Under examination here were conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. Through both disorders, we learned that children possess many characteristics associated with delinquency and adult criminality, ultimately concluding that treatment is a necessity and early intervention is paramount.

Discussed next was the role of mental illness and crime. Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are two of the most serious disorders. Research suggests that there is a correlation between individuals with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and delinquency and/or criminal behavior. The second major psychological theory is behaviorism. As previously mentioned, behavioral theory suggests human behavior is fostered through learning experiences. At the forefront of this theory is the premise that individuals change their behavior according to reactions from others. In the real world, there exists the assumption that behavior is reinforced via rewards and eliminated by a negative reaction or punishment. Social learning theory, which is a branch of behavior theory, is the most relevant to criminology. Moreover, the most prominent social learning theorist is Albert Bandura.

The third psychological theory examined is cognition. Here, an importance of mental processes of individuals is examined. A discussion followed on how individuals perceive and mentally represent the world. Furthermore, how do individuals solve problems? Two important subdisciplines examined were Kohlberg’s moral development theory and information-processing theory. Ultimately, we can conclude that criminal offenders are poor at processing information and evaluating the world around them. The next major topics discussed were personality and intelligence. Concerning personality, we learned that personality can be measured via the domains of Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness. We learned that Extraversion and Neuroticism are related to criminal behavior. Last, the intelligence debate has existed for centuries, and data demonstrate that individuals with a low IQ are more likely to engage in criminal behavior. Important to the discussion of intelligence and IQ is school performance. Research studies that have examined future delinquency and adult criminality have consistently demonstrated the link between the two. In reality, it is not difficult to understand why a person who fails or drops out of school is limited in his or her career or future options. Occupations that have desirable salaries often require a high school degree as well as a bachelor’s or master’s degree. In sum, when citizens and scholars attempt to understand why people commit a crime, recognition must be given to psychological theories. Not doing so would be a serious error in judgment.