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Three Theories of Criminal Behavior

Updated on June 15, 2016

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Historically, there are three broad theoretical models of criminal behavior:

A) psychological

B) sociological

C) biological

All infer different methods of control, but it is difficult to completely separate the three categories as it is generally accepted that all three of the factors play a role in the expression of behavior. Moreover, psychological science consists of several disciplines including biological psychology and social psychology, so psychological principles could be applied across all three domains.

However, there are some general principles associated with each of these paradigms that would be associated with some specific crime control policies. This results in admittedly narrow definition for each of the categories, but it does simplify the discussion herein.

Psychological Approaches

There a many different psychological models of criminal behavior ranging from early Freudian notions to later cognitive and social psychological models. I cannot review them all here. Instead, I will list the several fundamental assumptions of psychological theories of criminality (and human behavior in general). These are:

  1. The individual is the primary unit of analysis in psychological theories.
  2. Personality is the major motivational element that drives behavior within individuals.
  3. Normality is generally defined by social consensus.
  4. Crimes then would result from abnormal, dysfunctional, or inappropriate mental processes within the personality of the individual.
  5. Criminal behavior may be purposeful for the individual insofar as it addresses certain felt needs.
  6. Defective, or abnormal, mental processes may have a variety of causes, i.e., a diseased mind, inappropriate learning or improper conditioning, the emulation of inappropriate role models, and adjustment to inner conflicts. (Mischel, 1968.)

The last assumption of the psychological model would suggest that a variety of different causes or reasons exist for criminal behavior and that general principles targeted at the individual would be effective for crime control. However, the model also assumes that there is a subset of a psychological criminal type, defined currently as antisocial personality disorder in the DSM-IV and previously defined as the sociopath or psychopath (APA, 2002). This type of criminal exhibits deviant behavior early in life and is associated with self-centeredness, a lack of empathy, and a tendency to see others as tools for their ends. Controls for these individuals would be more extreme and general public policies may not be stringent enough to curb the behavior in this small subset of criminals.

Given these six principles to establish psychological explanations of criminal behavior, we can suggest first that traditional imprisonment, fines, and other court sanctions are based on operant learning models of behavior for crime control. Operant learning models are based on the utilitarian concepts that all people wish to maximize pleasure and minimize pain or discomfort. Skinnerian based social psychological theories of reinforcement and punishment are influential in this model of criminal control although the idea of punishment for crime has a much longer history (Jeffery, 1990). Technically speaking, punishments are any sanctions designed to decrease a specific behavior; thus, fines, jail sentences, etc., are all forms of punishment. However, Skinner himself recognized that punishment was generally ineffective in behavior modification and that reinforcement worked better (e.g., Skinner, 1966).

A caveat should be applied here: Punishment is effective if applied properly, but unfortunately it rarely is applied properly. Punishment needs to be immediate (or as close to the time the offense as possible), inescapable, and sufficiently unpleasant (in fact, the more it is subjectively perceived as harsh, the better). Given the judicial system in the U.S., it would be hard to apply punishment to its maximal effectiveness, thus it is not an effective deterrent, as reflected in the stable homicide rates of states that carry the death penalty. Nonetheless, punishments and sanctions for criminal behavior are based on behavioral psychological principles.

Because harsh forms of punishment do not appear to significantly decrease recidivism rates, other psychological principles have been applied. In terms of cognitive behavioral psychological principles, rehabilitation and relearning, retraining, or educational programs for offenders are forms of psychologically based methods to control crime. These methods are based on the cognitive behavioral methods of teaching an alternative functional response in place of a formally dysfunctional one as opposed to simple punishment. These programs can take place in prisons or outside of the prison and have long been demonstrated to be successful (e.g., Mathias, 1995). So any form of retraining, reeducation, or reentry guidance is based on psychological principles of criminality and reform. However, rehabilitation programs are often rarely implemented in jail or prison. Many of these programs appear to be especially beneficial for drug and alcohol offenders. Likewise, any form education such as the DARE program and recent efforts to curb bullying in schools are based on these methods. In line with this, changing the environment of the offender such as providing more opportunities would be a psychological behavioral principle designed to cut crime.

In line with other psychological methods are policies aimed at maintaining a visible presence of law enforcement and methods to maintain self-awareness in tempting situations. Such methods are preventative. For instance, it has been a well-known social psychological principle that situations that diminish self-consciousness and self-awareness lead individuals to being less restrained, less self-regulated, and more likely to act without considering the consequences of their actions (e.g., Diener, 1979). The simple act of placing mirrors in stores can increase self-awareness and decrease shoplifting. Likewise, the presence of visible law enforcement can cut down on crime. Making sanctions and the consequences for crime well-publicized and available to the public is another psychological method to control crime in this vein.

Various forms of criminal profiling are based heavily on psychological principles and represent an effort to either apprehend existing criminals or to identify persons at risk for certain behavior (Holmes & Holmes, 2008). More recently there have been efforts to develop methods to identify individuals at risk for certain forms of deviant behavior including criminal activities based on personality and social variables. These psychological variables can be identified in the school or at the home at an early age and include such disorders as learning disabilities, ADHD, depression, and others. Since many individuals with these problems often go on to demonstrate criminal behavior or have legal problems later efforts to identify and treat these issues are forms of psychological crime control policies (APA, 2002).

Thus, methods of crime control policies based on psychological principles target the individual and attempt to reform or prevent criminal behavior from that perspective. Any policies requiring therapeutic intervention, retraining, or education are psychological in nature. Any policy designed at preventing crime by targeting individuals such as raising consciousness, promoting self awareness, or identifying individuals at risk are also psychological. Likewise, psychologists have long recognized that the best predictor of future behavior is the individual’s past behavior (Mischel, 1968). So policies that are specifically designed to deal with repeat offenders are also based on psychological principles of criminality.

Sociological Approaches

Sociological and psychological principles of criminality are intertwined and technically not independent. As with psychological theories, there are numerous sociological formulations of the cause and control of criminality. We will define sociological notions of criminality as:

  • Attempting to connect the issues of the individual’s criminality with the broader social structures and cultural values of society, familial, or peer group.
  • How the contradictions of all of these interacting groups contribute to criminality.
  • The ways these structures cultures and contradictions have historically developed.
  • The current processes of change that these groups are undergoing.
  • Criminality is viewed from the point of view of the social construction of criminality and its social causes.

Traditional sociological theories proposed that crimes was a result of anomie, a term meaning “normlessness” or a feeling of a lack of social norms, a lack of being connected to society. The term was made popular by Émile Durkheim (1897) who originally used the term to explain suicide. Later sociologists used the term to describe the dissociation of the individual from the collective conscience or the criminality resulting from a lack of opportunity to achieve aspirations or by the learning of criminal values and behaviors. Therefore criminality results from the failure to properly socialize individuals and by unequal opportunities between groups. Durkheim believed that crime was an inescapable fact of society and advocated maintaining crime within reasonable boundaries.

A feature of sociological theories is that society “constructs” criminality. Thus, certain types of human activity are harmful and are judged so by society as a whole. But it is also true that there are other behaviors recognized by society as “criminal” that do not result in harm to others and are therefore criminalized without sufficient ground, these are the so-called “victimless” crimes. These include drug use, prostitution, etc. Therefore, according to this view (if carried to its extreme), 100% of the members of a society are lawbreakers at some point. One of the sociological policy methods of crime control would be to advocate for decriminalization of these victimless crimes or at least a vast reduction in their penalties (Schur, 1965).

An important sociological control would be to increase legitimate opportunities for advancement and obtainment of goods and wealth in areas where these do not exist. Sociological controls targeted at this goal could originate in higher State and Federal levels of government as well as local levels of government and would include programs designed to guarantee equal opportunities to all individuals. Thus, social programs ranging from soup kitchens, job training, educational funding, urban renewal projects and so forth would be in line with sociological policies to control crime (Merton, 1968). Other related sociological controls for crime would consist of organizing and empowering neighborhood residents with projects like neighborhood crime watches, providing law-abiding role models for children in schools and in other venues, providing parental support for working parents, and establishing community centers in downtrodden areas to allow people to learn and engage in positive activities.

Social programs aimed at socializing children properly and providing support for single family homes are also examples of sociological methods to control crime. There are a number of these programs including career academies (small learning communities in low-income high schools, offering academic and career/technical courses as well as workplace opportunities).

Finally, sociological policies to control crime would advocate stronger and harsher penalties for serious crimes such as murder, rape, are more effective law enforcement. Again, sociologists accept the reality that crime is a social phenomenon that will not disappear no matter how many interventions are enacted to control it. Sociologists note that of every 100 felonies committed within the United States, only one is sent to prison. A vast number are unreported and of those that are reported only a small portion goes to trial. If a justice system is to work properly it must be able to rely on its law enforcement system and judicial system to bring to justice and prosecute serious offenders. The purposes of imprisonment include punishment, rehabilitation, deterrence, and selective confinement. All of these should be utilized where appropriate for the individual (Hester & Eglin, 1992).

Biological Approaches

Biological theories of criminality basically purport that criminal behavior is the result of some flaw in the biological makeup of the individual. This physical flaw could be due to...

  1. Heredity
  2. Neurotransmitter dysfunction
  3. Brain abnormalities that were caused by either of the above, improper development, or trauma (Raine, 2002)

Biological theorists would also endorse stricter penalties and better law enforcement techniques for crime control, but there are several methods of crime control that are specific to the biological theories of criminality. I will discuss these briefly here.

Psychosurgery: Brain surgery to control behavior has rarely been applied to criminal behavior. Certainly much more common between the 1930’s to the late 1970’s there were over 40,000 frontal lobotomies performed. Lobotomies were used to treat a wide range of problems from depression, to schizophrenia. However, while widely discussed as a potential treatment for criminal behavior a perusal of the literature could not find a court ordered case for a lobotomy as a sentence for a convicted criminal Lobotomies were also used for people who were considered an annoyance because the demonstrated behaviors characterized as moody or they were children who were defiant with authority figures such as teachers. The lobotomy involves separating the prefrontal cortex from the rest of the brain either surgically or in the case of the transorbital lobotomy with a sharp ice-pick like instrument that was inserted in the eye socket between the upper eyelid and the eye. In this method the patient was not anesthetized, not even children. The psychiatrists hit the end of the instrument with a hammer to disconnect the nerves in the frontal lobe of the brain. Afterwards behaviors were changed, but at a high price as you can imagine. Today the lobotomy has fallen out of favor due medications used to control behavior, although some view the use of medications as equivalent to a lobotomy (e.g., see Breggin, 2008). Psychosurgery appears to be an option that will most likely not be put into use due to the stigma associated with it.

Chemical methods of control: The use of pharmacological treatments to try to control crime has been ongoing in two major areas: chemical castration for sex offenders and pharmacological interventions for drug or alcohol addicts. However, addicts can stop the medication and return to use. Sex offenders are closely monitored and there is some evidence that this policy has been efficacious. Sometimes mentally ill people in the criminal justice system been ordered to take medications to treat their mental illness. Other pharmacological interventions to control crime seem plausible and are being investigated, but do not appear to have been widely used.

Others: Deep brain stimulation is used for some disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, but has yet been investigated for criminal behavior. Biological theorists have advocated changes in diet to deal with criminality (Burton, 2002) and better relations between parents. There is also the famous genetic XYY combination that was once thought to be a marker for a criminal type, but as it turned out these individuals were found to be less intelligent or more likely to have learning difficulties as opposed to being criminal types. While there are many studies indicating a connection between antisocial personality disorder or criminal behavioral and heredity, there are no policies being implemented to advocate for selective breeding, genetic testing etc. for criminals. I do not yet envision a policy of genetic testing for criminals as the variables are not stable enough in order to predict with set of gene combinations are predictive of a biological criminal type (Rutter, 2006) although this is certainly a possibility.

If the biological model of criminality has any significant effect on policy outside the use of chemical castration for sex offenders, it would be the policy that certain forms of criminal behavior or certain individuals may not be rehabilitated and the advocacy for harsher and stricter imprisonments or even executions are viable methods of control in these instances. The issue for the community is how to recognize a significant biological contribution to criminal behavior since genetic testing is unreliable and there are no other physical markers of criminality. It seems that currently in the absence of very harsh crimes like murder and rape one must be recognized as a repeat offender before we can acknowledge a possible innate tendency towards criminality. By that time the damage, which is often irreparable, is done. Perhaps the answer lies in stricter probation and parole practices for first-time offenders. However, this policy is expensive and tax payers may not support it. The policy mandating convicted sex offenders to be monitored over their lifetime and certain restrictions placed on them is a result of the acknowledgment of a biological predisposition to engage in this crime and therefore traditional forms of treatment or remediation do not appear to be effective. Similar policies might follow with habitual criminal offenders based on the biological theories of criminality.


American Psychiatric Association (APA, 2002). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.

Breggin, P.A. (2008). Brain disabling treatments in psychiatry: Drugs, electroshock, and the psychopharmaceutical complex. (2nd Edition) New York: Springer University Press.

Burton, R. (2002). The Irish institute of nutrition and health. In Diet and criminality. Retrieved June 17, 2011, from

Diener, E. (1979). Deindividuation, self-awareness, and disinhibition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(7), 1160-1171.

Durkheim, Emile (1897) [1951]. Suicide: A study in sociology. New York; The Free Press.

Hester, S. & Eglin, P. (1992). A sociology of crime. London: Routledge.

Holmes, R. M., & Holmes, S. T. (2008). Profiling violent crimes: An investigative tool (Fourth Edition). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc.

Jeffery, R. C. (1990). Criminology: An interdisciplinary approach. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Mathias, R. (1995). Correctional treatment helps offenders stay drug and arrest free. NIDA notes, 10 (4).

Merton, Robert K. (1968). Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: Free Press.

Mischel, W. (1968). Personality and assessment. New York: Wiley.

Raine, A. (2002). The biological basis of crime. In J.Q Wilson & J. Petrsilia (Eds.) Crime:Public policies for crime control. Oakland: ICS Press.

Rutter, M. (2006). Genes and Behavior: Nature-Nurture Interplay Explained. Boston: Blackwell.

Schur E. (1965) Crime without victims. Englewood: Cliffs.

Skinner, B. F. (1966). The phylogeny and ontogeny of behavior. Science, 153, 1204– 1213.


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    • StephenCowry profile image

      StephenCowry 4 years ago

      The hub you have here contains informative details. Sometimes we need to know how criminals behave so we can understand them somehow. I just wish that criminals still have conscience to somehow stop them from doing bad things.

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