Those who enter the criminal justice field quickly learn that understanding criminology theories for why people turn to crime is key to reducing crime rates and making society safer. After three decades of research, three major psychological theories of crime have emerged: psychodynamic theory, behavioral theory and cognitive theory. 

Learning these criminology theories and how to put them into practice is a component of an online Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice degree program. For many students, understanding why people commit crimes is one of the major reasons they want to enter the criminal justice field. 

What Influences Behavior in Criminals? 

The three major criminal theories have emerged after decades of research on the criminal mind. The psychodynamic theory centers on a person’s early childhood experience and how it influences the likelihood for committing crime. Behavioral theory focuses on how perception of the world influences behavior. And cognitive theory focuses on how people manifest their perceptions can lead to a life of crime. 

Psychodynamic Theory  

This theory largely comes to us from the mind of noted psychologist Sigmund Freud. He argued that everyone has instinctual drives (called the “id”) that demand gratification. Moral and ethical codes (called the “superego”) regulate these drives, and adults later develop a rational personality (called the “ego”) that mediates between the id and superego. Based on this idea, criminal behavior is seen primarily as a failure of the superego. 

More generally, psychodynamic theory sees criminal behavior as a conflict between the id, ego and superego. This conflict can lead to people developing problematic behavior and delinquency. The challenge with this theory is it is difficult to test. 

Behavioral Theory 

This theory revolves around the idea that human behavior develops through experience. Specifically, behavioral theory focuses on the idea that people develop their behavior based on the reaction their behavior gets from those around them. This is a form of conditioning, where behavior is learned and reinforced by rewards or punishment. 

So, if a person is in the company of those who condone and even reward criminal behavior – especially a figure of authority – then they will continue to engage in that behavior. For example, social learning theorist Albert Bandura maintains individuals are not born with an innate ability to act violently. He instead suggests people learn violent behavior through observing others. Typically, this comes from three sources: family, environmental experiences and the mass media. 

Cognitive Theory  

Cognitive theory focuses on how people perceive the world and how this perception governs their actions, thoughts and emotions. Most cognitive theorists break down the process into three levels of what is called “moral development.”  

  • Pre-conventional level. This involves children and how they learn the external consequences of their actions. 
  • Conventional level. This involves teens and young adults, who begin to base behavior on society’s views and expectations. 
  • Post-conventional level. In those over the age of 20, the focus is more on judging the moral worth of societal values and rules and how they relate to values of liberty, human welfare and human rights 

In the area of crime, cognitive theorists argue that criminals do not develop moral judgment  beyond a pre-conventional level. 

All three of these criminology theories undergo constant scrutiny and revision, but they provide the foundations upon which current ideas are based. These theories are one of the most interesting aspects of criminology learned by those who enter a criminal justice degree program.