10 minute read

Crime Causation: Psychological Theories

Family Influences

Broken homes and attachment theories. Psychologists have approached broken homes and attachment theories from a broad range of perspectives. Psychoanalytic theories emphasized the importance of loving relationships and attachment between children and their parents. These theories suggested that there were three major personality mechanisms: the id, ego, and superego. The id contained the instinctual, unconscious desires (especially sexual and aggressive) with which a child was born. It was governed by the pleasure principle, seeking to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. The ego, which was the seat of consciousness, developed out of the id by about age three. The ego tried to achieve the desires of the id while taking account of the reality of social conventions, and hence could delay immediate gratification in favor of long-term goals. Children would only develop a strong ego if they had a loving relationship with their parents.

The superego developed out of the ego by about age five, and contained two functions, the conscience and the ego-ideal. The conscience acted to inhibit instinctual desires that violated social rules, and its formation depended on parental punishment arousing anger that children then turned against themselves. The ego-ideal contained internalized representations of parental standards, and its formation depended on children having loving relationships with their parents. According to psychoanalytic theories, offending resulted from a weak ego or a weak superego, both of which followed largely from low attachment between children and parents. These ideas inspired counseling and social work approaches, trying to rehabilitate offenders by building up warm relationships with them.

Most studies of broken homes have focused on the loss of the father rather than the mother, because the loss of a father is much more common. In agreement with attachment theories, children who are separated from a biological parent are more likely to offend than children from intact families. For example, in a birth cohort study of over eight hundred children born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, Israel Kolvin and his colleagues discovered that boys who experienced divorce or separation in their first five years of life had a doubled risk of conviction up to age thirty-two (53 percent as opposed to 28 percent).

However, the relationship between broken homes and delinquency is not as simple as that suggested by attachment theories. Joan McCord (1982) conducted an interesting study in Boston of the relationship between homes broken by loss of the biological father and later serious offending by boys. She found that the prevalence of offending was high for boys from broken homes without affectionate mothers (62 percent) and for those from unbroken homes characterized by parental conflict (52 percent), irrespective of whether they had affectionate mothers. The prevalence of offending was low for those from unbroken homes without conflict (26 percent) and—importantly—equally low for boys from broken homes with affectionate mothers (22 percent). These results suggest that it might not be the broken home that is criminogenic but the parental conflict that often causes it. They also suggest that a loving mother might in some sense be able to compensate for the loss of a father.

Modern theories of the relationship between disrupted families and delinquency fall into three major classes. Trauma theories suggest that the loss of a parent has a damaging effect on a child, most commonly because of the effect on attachment to the parent. Life course theories focus on separation as a sequence of stressful experiences, and on the effects of multiple stressors such as parental conflict, parental loss, reduced economic circumstances, changes in parent figures, and poor child-rearing methods. Selection theories argue that disrupted families produce delinquent children because of preexisting differences from other families in risk factors, such as parental conflict, criminal or antisocial parents, low family income, or poor child-rearing methods.

Hypotheses derived from the three theories were tested in the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development (Juby and Farrington), which is a prospective longitudinal survey of over four hundred London males from age eight to age forty. While boys from broken homes (permanently disrupted families) were more delinquent than boys from intact homes, they were not more delinquent than boys from intact high-conflict families. Overall, the most important factor was the post-disruption trajectory. Boys who remained with their mother after the separation had the same delinquency rate as boys from intact low-conflict families. Boys who remained with their father, with relatives, or with others (e.g., foster parents) had high delinquency rates. It was concluded that the results favored life-course theories rather than trauma or selection theories.

Child-rearing methods and learning theories. Many different types of child-rearing methods predict a child's delinquency. The most important dimensions of child-rearing are supervision or monitoring of children, discipline or parental reinforcement, and warmth or coldness of emotional relationships. Of all these child-rearing methods, poor parental supervision is usually the strongest and most replicable predictor of offending, typically predicting a doubled risk of delinquency. This refers to the degree of monitoring by parents of the child's activities, and their degree of watchfulness or vigilance. Many studies show that parents who do not know where their children are when they are out of the house, and parents who let their children roam the streets unsupervised from an early age, tend to have delinquent children. For example, in the classic Cambridge-Somerville study in Boston, poor parental supervision in childhood was the best predictor of both violent and property offending up to age forty-five (McCord, 1979).

Parental discipline refers to how parents react to a child's behavior. It is clear that harsh or punitive discipline involving physical punishment—sometimes approaching physical abuse—predicts a child's delinquency. In a follow-up study of nearly seven hundred Nottingham children, John and Elizabeth Newson found that physical punishment at ages seven and eleven, predicted later convictions; 40 percent of offenders had been smacked or beaten at age eleven, compared with 14 percent of nonoffenders. Erratic or inconsistent discipline also predicts delinquency. This can involve either erratic discipline by one parent, sometimes turning a blind eye to bad behavior and sometimes punishing it severely, or inconsistency between two parents, with one parent being tolerant or indulgent and the other being harshly punitive.

Cold, rejecting parents also tend to have delinquent children, as Joan McCord (1979) found more than twenty years ago in the Cambridge-Somerville study. In a 1997 study, McCord concluded that parental warmth could act as a protective factor against the effects of physical punishment. Whereas 51 percent of boys with cold, physically punishing mothers were convicted in her study, only 21 percent of boys with warm, physically punishing mothers were convicted, similar to the 23 percent of boys with warm, nonpunitive mothers who were convicted. Similar results were also obtained for fathers.

Apart from attachment theories, most theories that examine the link between child-rearing methods and delinquency are learning theories. One of the most influential early learning theories was propounded by Gordon Trasler. Trasler's theory suggested that when a child behaved in a socially disapproved way, the parent would punish the child. This punishment caused an anxiety reaction, or an unpleasant state of physiological arousal. After a number of pairings of the disapproved act and the punishment, the anxiety became conditioned to the act, and conditioned also to the sequence of events preceding the act. Consequently, when the child contemplated the disapproved act, the conditioned anxiety automatically arose and tended to block the tendency to commit the act, so the child became less likely to do it. Hence, Trasler viewed the conscience as essentially a conditioned anxiety response. This response might be experienced subjectively as guilt.

Trasler emphasized differences in parental child-rearing behavior as the major source of disparity in criminal tendencies or in the strength of the conscience. According to Trasler, children were unlikely to build up the link between disapproved behavior and anxiety unless their parents supervised them closely, used punishment consistently, and made punishment contingent on disapproved acts. Hence, poor supervision, erratic discipline, and inconsistency between parents were all conducive to delinquency in children. It was also important for parents to explain to children why they were being punished, so that they could discriminate precisely the behavior that was disapproved.

Trasler argued that middle-class parents were more likely to explain to children why they were being punished and more likely to be concerned with long-term character-building and the inculcation of general moral principles. This approach was linked to the greater facility of middle-class parents with language and abstract concepts. In contrast, lower-class parents supervised their children less closely and were more inconsistent in their use of discipline. Therefore, lower-class children committed more crimes because lower-class parents used less effective methods of socialization.

More recent social learning theories (e.g., Patterson) suggested that children's behavior depended on parental rewards and punishments and on the models of behavior that parents represent. Children will tend to become delinquent if parents do not respond consistently and contingently to their antisocial behavior and if parents themselves behave in an antisocial manner. These theories have inspired the use of parent training methods to prevent delinquency.

Intergenerational transmission theories. Criminal and antisocial parents tend to have delinquent and antisocial children, as shown in the classic longitudinal surveys by Joan McCord in Boston and Lee Robins in St. Louis. The most extensive research on the concentration of offending in families was carried out in the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development. Having a convicted father, mother, brother, or sister predicted a boy's own convictions, and all four relatives were independently important as predictors (Farrington et al., 1996). For example, 63 percent of boys with convicted fathers were themselves convicted, compared with 30 percent of the remainder. Same-sex relationships were stronger than opposite-sex relationships, and older siblings were stronger predictors than younger siblings. Only 6 percent of the families accounted for half of all the convictions of all family members.

There are several possible theories (which are not mutually exclusive) for why offending tends to be concentrated in certain families and transmitted from one generation to the next. First, the effect of a criminal parent on a child's offending may be mediated by genetic mechanisms. In agreement with this, twin studies show that identical twins are more concordant in their offending than are fraternal twins (Raine). However, the greater behavioral similarity of the identical twins could reflect their greater environmental similarity. Also in agreement with genetic mechanisms, adoption studies show that the offending of adopted children is significantly related to the offending of their biological parents. However, some children may have had contact with their biological parents, so again it is difficult to dismiss an environmental explanation of this finding.

In a more convincing design comparing the concordance of identical twins reared together and identical twins reared apart, William Grove and his colleagues found that heritability was 41 percent for childhood conduct disorder and 28 percent for adult antisocial personality disorder. Hence, the intergenerational transmission of offending may be partly attributable to genetic factors. Crime cannot be genetically transmitted because it is a legal construct, but some more fundamental construct such as aggressiveness could be genetically transmitted. An important question is how the genetic potential (genotype) interacts with the environment to produce the offending behavior (phenotype). David Rowe (1994) argued that genetic influences should always be estimated in studying the links between family factors and delinquency.

An alternative theory focuses on assortative mating; female offenders tend to cohabit with or get married to male offenders. In the Dunedin study in New Zealand, which is a longitudinal survey of over one thousand children from age three, Robert Krueger and his colleagues found that sexual partners tended to be similar in their self-reported antisocial behavior. Children with two criminal parents are likely to be disproportionally antisocial. There are two main classes of explanations concerning why similar people tend to get married, cohabit, or become sexual partners. The first is called social homogamy. Convicted people tend to choose each other as mates because of physical and social proximity; they meet each other in the same schools, neighborhoods, clubs, pubs, and so on. The second process is called phenotypic assortment; people examine each other's personality and behavior and choose partners who are similar to themselves.

Other intergenerational transmission theories focus on the intergenerational continuity in exposure to multiple risk factors, on direct and mutual influences of family members on each other, and on risk factors that might intervene between criminal parents and delinquent children (such as poor supervision or disrupted families). It seems likely that both genetic and environmental factors are involved.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCrime Causation: Psychological Theories - Family Influences, Individual Influences, More Comprehensive Theories, Conclusions, Bibliography