This is a long-standing debate amongst psychologists, criminologists, and sociologists. Some argue that when a person is born it is already determined that they will become a criminal. They suggest that some biological, physiological, or personality traits are already determined which will influence that person towards criminality.
Others argue that a child is born as a ‘tabula rasa’ which means blank slate. They argue that a child learns ways of behaving as they develop. They say that there are many different ways that a child learns as they grow and form an idea about how they should behave in the world.
The idea that criminals had distinct features was first proposed by Lombroso in the 1870s. He became convinced that criminals are an earlier evolutionary version of humans. He decided, after years of study, that you could tell a criminal by the shape of their face and the excessive length of their ape-like arms.
Lombroso suggested that criminals had distinct features such as large ears or an upturned nose. He suggested that thieves were more likely to have a flattened nose. Furthermore, he suggested that murderers are likely to have an aquiline nose like the beak of a bird of prey. Although this early work was quickly discredited, it was the beginning of investigations into whether criminals had distinct biological features such as different brain patterns to non-criminals.
The field was revolutionised in the 1980s by the invention of brain scanning devices. Professor Raine was amongst the first to investigate the brains of violent murderers. Raine and his colleagues scanned the brains of hundreds of murderers and found that they all had similar brain patterns. There was reduced activity in the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain which controls emotional impulses, and overactivation of the amygdala, the area which generates our emotions. This means that the brains were more prone to rage and anger. They are also less able to control their behaviour.
Raine found that all those who had this specific brain activation pattern suffered childhood abuse. It is possible that as a result of the abuse, the brain became damaged which results in more aggression. However, others pointed out that some people suffered abuse in childhood who did not go on to offend or be violent.
A breakthrough came in 1993 with a family in the Netherlands where all the men had a history of violence. Fifteen years of painstaking research revealed that they all lacked the same gene.
This gene produces an enzyme called MAOA, which regulates the levels of neurotransmitters involved in impulse control. If you lack the MAOA gene you are predisposed to violence. Whether the gene is triggered or not depends crucially on what happens to you in childhood.
So it seems that a genetic tendency towards violence, together with an abusive childhood, is a killer combination – murderers are both born and made.
One psychological theory that is used to explain criminality is Cognitive-Behavioural theory. This is based on the idea that cognitive processes influence thoughts and emotions. Psychologists such as Kohlberg and Piaget proposed that we learn levels of moral development. As we grow up we learn what is acceptable or unacceptable through socialisation. Kohlberg proposed that children follow a pattern of evolving and learning the various levels of moral reasoning throughout childhood. These stages are linked to the child’s age and ability to learn and reason.
Other psychological theories of crime look at individual factors, such as inadequate socialization and negative early childhood experiences, learned behaviours, personality and mental health disorders that can result in criminal thinking patterns. Psychological explanations of crime propose that a person’s thought processes and characteristic ways of dealing with the world can better explain criminality.
Psychodynamic or psychoanalytic theory is based on the work by Sigmund Freud. He suggested that we had 3 components which shaped our personality. We each have an Id, Ego, and Superego within our psychological makeup. The Id represents instinctual needs, the Ego represents understood social norms and the Superego is learned moral reasoning. According to psychodynamic theory, criminal and deviant behaviour are caused by imbalances between the Id, Ego and Superego. But it is almost impossible to measure and test each of these components to determine how they influence behaviour.
Learning theories suggest that actions are determined largely by life experiences. Learning theories suggest that we learn through ‘conditioning’. This means that when we perform a particular behaviour it can either bring about a positive or negative response. A positive response would result in a positive experience meaning the behaviour would be likely to be repeated. Behaviour may also bring about a negative response. This means that the person would have a negative experience and the behaviour is not likely to be repeated and avoided in future.
Other psychological theories suggest that a person’s personality, or some kind of psychiatric disorder, may contribute to the likelihood of engaging in criminal activities. Theories of psychopathy are popularly used to describe more serious and violent delinquent acts. However, the term psychopathy is not a medically recognised term. This personality type is more often referred to as Antisocial Personality Disorder within the medical community.
Other personality types have also been suggested to be linked to criminal and deviant behaviour. Eysenck’s Trait Personality theory suggests that we each develop certain traits and that we can be high or low on these traits. Eysenck found that soldiers’ answers in a controlled study seemed to link naturally with one trait or another, suggesting that there were several different personality traits which were being revealed by the soldier’s answers. Eysenck found that behaviour could be represented by three dimensions: Introversion / Extroversion (E); Neuroticism / Stability (N); Psychoticism (P).
Extraverts are sociable and crave excitement and change, and thus can become bored easily. They are more likely to take risks and be thrill-seekers. Whereas Introverts, on the other hand, lie at the other end of this scale, being quiet and reserved. They are already over-aroused and shun sensation and stimulation. Higher levels of Extroversion have been linked to criminality.
In conclusion, then, it is clear that there are many theories which can be used to explain criminality. Each of these theories has value in understanding behaviour and explores distinct aspects of behaviour, personality, and the environment. However, we are complex creatures who have biological tendencies and different personalities. We learn at different rates and in different ways and interact with our environment in different ways.
Taken individually, these theories of why people commit crimes cannot fully explain all types of crime and criminality. It is generally accepted that the environment, our biological makeup, and psychological factors all have a part to play in criminal behaviour. Therefore, several theories must be drawn upon to fully explain criminal and deviant behaviour.