Criminology : the study of crime and behavior


Theories to explain criminal behavior have been around along as recorded history.


Aristotle :  poverty is the parent of revolution and crime.  (An environmental view of the antecedents of crime)


Sir Francis Bacon (1600’s) : “Opportunity makes a thief”   ,  pointing out the power of the situation to affect behavior.


Voltaire & Rousseau (1700’s) :  free will, hedonistic decision making, and the failure of the social contract in producing criminal behavior.  These explanations are at the core of the classical theory of criminology.


According to  classical theory , people choose to behave wrongly when they believe the benefits outweigh the costs.


Classical theorists argued for making fair and proportionate punishment and reforming Draconian punishment.


Our Bill of Rights protection against “cruel and unusual punishment” is a result of this movement’s conceptualization of criminal behavior.


Modern Crime Theories



Positivist School of Criminology :  Emphasizes the understanding of criminal behavior by uncovering factors which account for criminal behavior.


Positivists use the scientific method and empirical data to aid in their understanding of crime.


Psychological Explanations


Biological Explanations


Sociological Explanations


Social – Biological Explanations



              Sociological Theories of Crime



Examines social and cultural forces that contribute to criminal behavior.


Structural Explanation :  certain groups within a society have less opportunities to achieve the goals most valued by a society.


       When individuals are prevented from achieving their goals (prosperity, success, education) through legitimate paths, they turn to illegal methods of reaching these goals.


       Society places demands on people to reach these goals, but limits the methods seen as acceptable for reaching these goals.


Differential Opportunity within society is seen as a key factor contributing to criminal behavior.


Nettler (1974) Rational Crime :  Explains crime as a function of criminal opportunity :

1. Crimes where objects are easy targets for thefts.

2. Crimes associated with legitimate business.

3. Crime as a preferred livelihood.

4. Business which offer illegal services.




       Subcultural Explanations for crime.


       Focus on the discrepancy between societal norms and values and the norms and values of a specific subculture.


Walter Miller (1958) Theory of Focal Concerns . Describes the criminal behavior of lower SES teen age gangs in terms of the values and expected norm of the Gang subculture.


Miller listed 6 basic characteristics which were highly valued by the gang. Since these are highly valued, there is normative pressure for gang members to display these qualities on a regular basis.



Toughness : physical prowess, skill

Smartness : being able to con others

Excitement :  risk and danger

Fate :  Being “lucky”

Autonomy  : freedom from authority


Criminal behavior is directed towards living up to these values ;    Adolescents fight to show they are tough,  steal to demonstrate cunning, crimes show autonomy and love for excitement.


The greater the discrepancy between the dominant culture’s values and the subculture’s values, the more opportunity for norm violating behavior.



              Biological Theories of Crime


Some of the earliest positivists were convinced that criminal behavior was a result of genetic abnormality.



Lombroso : advanced notion of atavism , which stated criminals represented a savage, earlier form of humankind.


Hoorten (1939) :  Claimed to have found important biological differences in criminals and noncriminals.


Burglars have :  short heads, blond hair, and nonprotruding jaws.


Robbers have :  long wavy hair, short ears, and broad faces.


Sheldon (1949) : His Somatic Typology listed three major somatatypes (or body types).


Endomorphs :  Obese, soft, and rounded people. Fun loving and sociable

Mesomorphs : muscular, athletic people. Assertive, vigorous, and bold.

Ectomorph : Tall, thin, and well developed brain.  Introverted, sensitive, and nervous


Sheldon thought that mesomorphs were most likely to become criminals.

Despite the apparent ridiculousness of the above two theories, more recent research has replicated this perceived link between physique and criminal behavior.


Olweus (1995)  : Examined the factors which turn elementary school boys into bullies.


Why ? because boys classified as “bullies” in grades 6-9 (Norway) are four times as likely to be arrested repeatedly as adults, compared to ‘nonbullies’.


Olweus’ prototypical bully :


Physically Stronger,  Hotheaded Temperament


Commonalities in Family Life :


Family lacked warmth


Permissive towards aggressive behavior at home


Physical punishment used as discipline.



The link between overall physique and behavior is probably best explained as creating a different expectation for success within physical conflicts.




                     Genetics and Criminal Behavior


Twin Studies : Researchers examine  both fraternal and identical twins and examine concordance rate for criminal activity.


Concordance Rate : The % of pairs of twins sharing the same behavior.


Dizygotic Twins : Fraternal Twins


Monozygotic Twins : Identical Twins


Discordant Monozygotic Twins : Identical Twins who were raised apart.


DiLalla and Gorresman (1990)  : did a metanalysis of 4 decades of twin research into criminality


Concluded the average concordance rate for fraternal twins was 22% and for identical twins, 51%.


Influence of heredity is higher for property crime than it is for violent crime. (Cloninger & Gottesman, 1987)


Adoption Study of Cloninger et al (1982) : Examining children whose biological parents were criminals, Crime rate for children was 4 times greater if bio. Parents were criminals, 2 times greater if adopted parents were criminals (12% and 6%, respectively)


Psychological Theories of Crime




Freud : Rejected the “degeneration” theory popular at the turn of the 19th century.


Freud thought criminal behavior is representative of an ID that operates unchecked by the ego and the super-ego.


Freud states that improper resolution of the Oedipal conflict (in which the son must learn to identify with the father, instead of having sex with his mother)


Criminals suffer from enormous guilt, and perform criminal acts in order to get punished, which will temporarily relieve them of their guilt feelings.



Other psychoanalytic positions on the origin of crime


Alexander : Criminals ignore the “reality principle”, which is responsible for the delaying of gratification.


Bowlby (1953) Criminal activity is a substitute for love and affection.  Bowlby thought that disruptions in the mother-son bond were at the root of most criminal careers.




Do Criminals Think Differently than ‘normal’ people ?


Yochelson & Samenow (1976, 1984) have studied the cognitive styles of criminals to look for patterns or aberrations in how they process information.


These researchers believe thought patters are more important than biology or environment in determining who becomes a criminal.


Yochelson & Samenow described the criminals in their research sample as being ‘master manipulators’, compulsive liars, people in control of their own behavior.


They claim that criminal thinking had an internal logic and is consistent, but is erroneous and irresponsible.

A serious discrepancy exists between a criminals view of reality and societies shared view of reality.


They developed this profile based on one-n-one interviews with hardened and psychologically disturbed criminals. (limited generalizability)




Personality Defects as Explanations for Criminal Behavior.


Maybe criminals are just not nice people.


Psychopaths :  people who engage in frequent, repetitive criminal activity.  Psychopaths are manipulative and deceitful, seem to lack any social conscience.  Psychopaths show little remorse when caught.  Psychopaths are superficial, arrogant, and seem unable to learn from experience.


Antisocial Personality Disorder :  a psychopathic diagnosis much more commonly assigned to men.


Psychopaths commit only a small percentage of all crime, but a disproportionate amount of violent crime


Possible Causes of Psycopathy:


Reduced Anxiety : Psychopaths have very low levels of anxiety, may prevent formation of cause and effect relations with respect to negative outcomes.


Unable to Inhibit Behavior : psychopaths suffer from  an executive function decrement, which leaves them ill-prepared to plan-out and execute behavior while being aware of the possible consequences.


Stimulation Seeking : desire physiological arousal and seeks arousal in non approved ways.

              Social Learning Theory of Crimes


Observational, or vicarious learning is key to picking up criminal behavior.


Bandura (86) :  Claims that violent role models exist in home, media, and subcultures (gangs)


According to Bandura, Most human behavior is learned by observing others model a particular behavior.


Bandura (1973)  Aggression : A Social Learning Approach


Family Influence : Discipline provides vivid examples of coercion and aggression as a means of control and conflict resolution.  Child Abuse and verbal abuse of spouses and also expressions of family aggression.


Subcultural Influences : certain subcultures (teenage gangs) promote aggression and value certain antisocial acts.


Symbolic Models : Media provides a steady diet of violence. Average child sees 8000 murders and a 100,000 other violent acts by the time they turn 18.

Heroes must typically resort to violence in order to resolve conflict.


A combined Model of Criminal Behavior


Examining biological, sociological, and psychological theories of criminal behavior, we can develop a cross-discipline approach to the development of criminal behavior.


Four Categories under consideration :



Distal Antecedents  : Biological, psychological and environmental factors which can predispose an individual towards criminal behavior


Early Indicators ; because antisocial behavior is stable across time, some signal are given very early. Conduct Disorder, ADHD, and oppositional defiant disorder are 3 early indicators.


Developmental Processes : How early delinquency is dealt with can help determine whether an individual reforms or continues criminal conduct.


Maintenance Variables : If short term payoff seem more profitable than possibility of punishment, criminal behavior will continue.  Polarization effects

also contribute