A Primer to Psychological Theories of Crime

Magnifying glass over footprints.

A major emphasis in criminology — the study of crime and criminals — is why people commit crimes. Social and psychological theories of crime are two of the most common perspectives of how criminal activity develops. Psychological theories of crime have been influential in shaping the way society thinks about crime and delinquency and in shaping policies that relate to these issues, according to a literature review from the Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment.

Psychological theories of crime look at individual factors, such as inadequate socialization and negative early childhood experiences, that can result in criminal thinking patterns. The following examples are some of the most common theoretical frameworks within criminology.

Psychological Theories of Crime

Psychodynamic Theory

Psychodynamic or psychoanalytic theory is based in the work of Sigmund Freud, who believed that three central forces shape an individual’s personality: the id represents instinctual needs, the ego represents understood social norms and the superego is learned moral reasoning.

Delinquent behavior is caused by imbalances between the id, ego and superego. Conflict between the three personality components forces an individual to develop defense mechanisms to cope with the conflict. As a result, problematic behavior and delinquency can result. Erik Erikson expanded on Freud’s theory, explaining delinquency as an “identity crisis” that is created by inner turmoil.

Critics of psychodynamic theory point to how it is difficult to test empirically. Some critics note the “circular nature” of this theory — “unconscious manifestations of pathology are ‘inferred from behavior’ and that behavior is interpreted as a symptom of the pathology,” the Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment states.

Behavioral Theory

Behavioral theory argues that behavior is learned. Also referred to as social learning theory, behavioral theory holds that actions are determined largely by life experiences.

A core concept to behavioral theory is conditioning, which refers to a form of learning that involves stimuli and rewards. When a person’s actions are reinforced through conditioning, the behavior is learned. Environment is also a major factor in the development of behaviors.

Edwin Sutherland’s landmark work, Principles of Criminology, introduced the theory that criminal behavior occurs in a cultural conflict where association with criminals increases criminal behavior. The differential association theory was later expanded to include how differential reinforcement of deviant behaviors is also required to explain criminal behavior.

There is “extensive empirical support for the successful application of learning theory principles to modify behavior,” according to the Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment. “Because these principles can be applied to behaviors of all kinds, the learning perspective provides valuable tools for understanding crime and delinquency.”

Cognitive Theory

Cognitive theory is based on the idea that cognitive processes are at the center of behaviors, thoughts and emotions. It is largely based on the work of Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, which emphasizes what people think instead of what they do.

Cognitive theorists have proposed stages of cognitive development that can help explain crime and delinquency. Lawrence Kohlberg refined the work of Jean Piaget, proposing three levels of moral development.

  • The pre-conventional level is common in children and focuses on external consequences that actions may have.
  • The conventional level is common in adolescents and young adults and focuses on society’s views and expectations.
  • The post-conventional level is common in adults over the age of 20 and focuses on the critical examination of human rights and moral principles.

Theorists argue that offenders have failed to develop their moral judgment capacity beyond a pre-conventional level. Other cognitive theories examine delinquency and crime from a life development perspective. Evidence varies for each theory within the cognitive model, and the Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment says that more research is needed to evaluate these theories.

Pursuing a Career in Criminal Justice

Criminology is integral to several professions in criminal justice, including law enforcement, courts, corrections and more. Point Park University’s fully online B.S. in Criminal Justice provides graduates with the knowledge and skills needed to start or advance their criminal justice careers. The program takes place in a fully online learning environment, allowing students to manage their personal and work schedules. And all courses are taught by knowledgeable faculty who have your success in mind.

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