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Criminal Behavior

The focus of Criminal behavior study is to understand offender better and answer questions like: who criminals are, why do they commit an offence (In order to define ways of preventing criminal), how do they think, what do they do (in order to predict their future actions and assist investigation in catching offenders).


Andrews & Bonta, 1998 offered four general definitions of criminal behavior that will fit all the types of it. These four areas include the following types of act:

  1. Prohibited by law and are punished by the state
  2. Considered to be violation moral or religious code and is believed to be punishable by a Supreme Spiritual being such as God
  3. Violate norms of society or traditions and are believed to be punishable by community
  4. Acts causing serious psychological stress or mental damage to a victim, but is somewhat affordable for offender (referred as “Psychological criminal behavior” ).

From the all stated above a general definition of criminal behavior can be stated as “Any kind of antisocial behavior, which is punishable by law or norms, stated by community,” therefore, it is very difficult to define it, because the acts, being considered as violation at one point of time now is accepted by community.

It is important to distinguish Delinquency from criminal act. The first one refers to acts, that are prohibited by social norms, while the second one is violation of existing laws defined by a state.

This field includes studying of risk factors and measuring crime in order to assist in prevention meres.

A risk factor in criminality is anything in a persons psychology, what will somewhat increase possibility, that he/she will get involved in a criminal activity. These may include behavior disorder, lack of education, media influence, poor personal temperament, low IQ, antisocial beliefs, influence of society or a poor integration in it, poor parenting, etc… You can learn more about these factors in causes and theories of criminal behavior.

Criminal behavior usually is measured by arrests and charges, self-reported offences (which is believed by some to be more accurate), actual crime rates, which are usually obtained by governmental organs. By using this kind of information crime reports are generated, which helps to generally categorize crimes by type and offender characteristics such as gender, age, race and location. 

Causes of criminal behavior

The reasons behind criminal behavior can vary a lot in each particular case, but still they can be grouped in two main categories – genetics and environment.

When in the mid 19th century the  question about the causes of criminal behavior was raised, a lot of psychologists were insisting that the only reason is genetics. They even considered that a person’s inclination to criminal could be measured according to the parents mental condition, i.e. if they had some even minor mental problems theirs son/daughter was more likely to become a criminal. The scientists had their versions of solving a problem, but is it fair if the people with higher risk of committing a crime would not be allowed by the state and society to live normally and have children?

As the time passed more and more researches and experiments were held and modern approach to this question is that of course genetics is really important reason behind criminal behaviour, but the environment is also as important as it. This includes the family the child is born and raised in, the example parents and family can give them, the social status they have, education, etc.

Nowadays the psychologists and criminalists agree that what drives a person to criminal behavior is really complex and complicated mechanism, involving a lot of factors. We can imagine a child, who was born in a “criminal” family (mother is schizopreniac, father is rapist and murderer) but after he got an education and a job there is nothing antisocial in his behaviors. It proves that solely genetics can’t determine one’s inclination to the criminal.

So, it is impossible to predict a person’s “criminality” according to some specific factors, but we can still highlight some circumstances and apply a person to a “relatively higher criminal risk group”.

  • Financial problems, or starvation – this is especially common problem in third world countries. When a person has to struggle every day just to get food to survive, the probability that they become thieves is high.
  • Low social status – when one is bullied because of it, they may easily become aggressors and fight back against the whole society.
  • Genetics – some genetical mental disorders, itself, includes increased aggression.
  • Etc.


Theories of criminal behavior

In order to find the best ways to handle and prevent crime, examining  why do people commit crime is very important. Many theories have appeared and are appearing since beginning of this study seeking to find the best solutions for this problem. Those theories are continuing and will always influence forensic/criminal psychologist’s work. I will write a brief review of basic and other more or less popular theories of criminal behavior. Though these theories are eventually modified, I will try to be as accurate as possible.

Three broad models of criminal behaviors are the following: psychological,  sociological and biological models. Actually, it is difficult to completely separate them and it is generally accepted, that all of them play a role in the interpretation of behavior. Though psychological principles can be applied across all the three models, they all have some specific ones, which would help in implementing across different crime control policies.

Psychological Approaches

There are several fundamental assumptions, that are common for all the psychological approaches to criminal behavior. These are the following:

  • The individual is the primary unit of analysis. (Individual human  being is considered to be responsible for acts he/she conducted)
  • Personality drives behavior within individuals, because it is the major motivational element.
  • Crimes can result from abnormal, dysfunctional or inappropriate mental processes within the individual’s personality.
  • An individual may have purpose of criminal behavior if it addresses certain felt needs.
  • Normality is generally defined by social consensus, that is, what is considered as “typical,” “normal,” or “acceptable” by the majority of individuals in a certain social group.
  • Defective or abnormal, mental processes may be caused by a variety of factors such as diseased mind, inappropriate learning or improper conditioning, the emulation of inappropriate role models, and adjustment to inner conflicts.

In short, crime control policy based on psychological principles targets individuals and tries to prevent criminal behavior from this point.  Any policy aimed at preventing crime by targeting persons such as training, education, promotion of self-awareness, rehabilitation, resocialization or identification risks of criminal behavior are psychological in nature.  In addition, psychologists have long recognized that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior of the individual (Mischel, W. 1968).

Sociological Approaches

In this approach scientists are examining criminal behavior from a sociological point of view. The majority of sociological theories believe, that the criminal behavior mainly is influenced by combination of social surrounding, political and economic factors.

Offenders are not necessarily viewed as bad people, these theories trend to look at social context of a person’s situation, examining his race, neighborhood, intelligence, education, family, political and media influence, income level, job and career, childhood history to determine why did he/she become criminal.There are many different theories seeking to explain criminal behavior such as: Social Structure Theory (which itself consists of Social disorganization, Strain and Cultural deviance theories) differential association, theory of anomie, neutralization theory, Social Control Theory and many others.

The key idea of Differential association theory, created by Edwin H. Sutherland is, that criminal behavior is learned through communication with other people. Though that interaction Values, techniques and attitude to things is learned, that motivates future behavior and in the following case it is criminal act. Indeed, the more a person sees delinquent acts, which are not criticized by the surrounding community, the higher is the chance of him/her committing such act.

According to social control theory, if  social bounds of a person is weak, he/she will more likely conduct a criminal act, because people care what others thinks of them and try to conform with social expectations because of their attachment to others.

Biological Approaches

Biological theories purport, that criminal behavior is caused by some flaw in individual’s biological makeup. According to Raine Study, the causes may be Heredity, Neurotransmitter dysfunction and brain abnormalities, which could be caused either by the first two or trauma. Many theories are sharing biological approaches such as: Trait and psychodynamic trait theories, Lombroso’s Theory, Y Chromosome Theory and others.

There are several types of crime control, which involve artificial interference in human biology such as Psychosurgery, chemical methods of control, brain stimulation and others.

Psychodynamic therapy was developed by Sigmund Freud in the late 1800’s and has then become a significant theory in the history of criminality (Siegel, 2005). Freud believed, that every individual carries “residue of the most significant emotional attachments of our childhood, which then guides our future interpersonal relationships” (Siegel, 2005) The theory is a three-part structure consisting of the id, the ego and the super ego. The id is considered the underdeveloped of primitive part of our markup. It controls our need for food, sleep and other basic instinct. This part is purely focused on instant gratification. The ego controls the id by setting up boundaries. The superego is the change of judging the situation through morality (Siegel, 2005)

Psychodynamic theorists believe that personality of offenders is id-dominated. Which means, that when they lose control of the ago their id of instant gratification takes over.  Other problems causing control of the ego are poor social skills, excessive dependence on others, immaturity, etc.

Others believe, that offenders are moved by unconscious need to be punished by their previous sins. Consequently, “crime is a manifestation of feelings of oppression and people’s inability to develop the proper psychological defense and rationales to keep these feelings under control” (Siegel).

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  1. http://sociology.about.com/od/Deviance/a/Sociological-Explanations-Of-Deviant-Behavior.htm
  2. Mischel, W. (1968). Personality and assessment. New York: Wiley.
  3. Siegel larry j. (2005). criminology the core second edition. Thomson

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