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Crime Causation: Psychological Theories

Individual Influences

The Eysenck personality theory. Studies show that antisocial behavior is remarkably consistent over time; or, to be more precise, the relative ordering of individuals is remarkably consistent over time (Roberts and Del Vecchio). Psychologists assume that behavioral consistency depends primarily on the persistence of individuals' underlying tendencies to behave in particular ways in particular situations. These tendencies are termed personality traits, such as impulsiveness, excitement seeking, assertiveness, modesty, and dutifulness. Larger personality dimensions such as Extraversion refer to clusters of personality traits.

Historically, the best-known research on personality and crime was that inspired by Hans Eysenck's theory and personality questionnaires. Eysenck viewed offending as natural and even rational, on the assumption that human beings were hedonistic, sought pleasure, and avoided pain. He assumed that delinquent acts such as theft, violence, and vandalism were essentially pleasurable or beneficial to the offender. In order to explain why everyone was not a criminal, Eysenck suggested that the hedonistic tendency to commit crimes was opposed by the conscience, which he (like Gordon Trasler) viewed as a conditioned fear response.

Under the Eysenck theory, the people who commit offenses have not built up strong consciences, mainly because they have inherently poor conditionability. Poor conditionability is linked to Eysenck's three dimensions of personality, Extraversion (E), Neuroticism (N), and Psychoticism (P). People who are high on E build up conditioned responses less well, because they have low levels of cortical arousal. People who are high on N also condition less well, because their high resting level of anxiety interferes with their conditioning. Also, since N acts as a drive, reinforcing existing behavioral tendencies, neurotic extraverts should be particularly criminal. Eysenck also predicted that people who are high on P would tend to be offenders, because the traits included in his definition of psychoticism (emotional coldness, low empathy, high hostility, and inhumanity) were typical of criminals. However, the meaning of the P scale is unclear, and it might perhaps be more accurately labeled as psychopathy.

A review of studies relating Eysenck's personality dimensions to official and self-reported offending concluded that high N (but not E) was related to official offending, while high E (but not N) was related to self-reported offending (Farrington et al., 1982). High P was related to both, but this could have been a tautological result, since many of the items on the P scale were connected with antisocial behavior or were selected in light of their ability to discriminate between prisoners and nonprisoners. In the prospective longitudinal study of over four hundred London boys, those high on both E and N tended to be juvenile self-reported offenders, adult official offenders, and adult self-reported offenders, but not juvenile official offenders. These relationships held independently of other criminogenic risk factors such as low family income, low intelligence, and poor parental child-rearing behavior. However, when individual items of the personality questionnaire were studied, it was clear that the significant relationships were caused by the items measuring impulsiveness (e.g., doing things quickly without stopping to think). Hence, it seems likely that research inspired by the Eysenck theory mainly identifies the link between impulsiveness and offending.

Since 1990 the most widely accepted personality system has been the "Big Five" or five-factor model. This suggests that there are five key dimensions of personality: Neuroticism (N), Extraversion (E), Openness (O), Agreeableness (A), and Conscientiousness (C). Openness means originality and openness to new ideas, Agreeableness includes nurturance and altruism, and Conscientiousness includes planning and the will to achieve. Because of its newness, the "Big Five" personality theory has rarely been studied in relation to offending. However, in an Australian study, Patrick Heaven (1996) showed that Agreeableness and Conscientiousness were most strongly (negatively) correlated with self-reported delinquency.

Impulsiveness theories. Impulsiveness is the most crucial personality dimension that predicts offending. Unfortunately, there are a bewildering number of constructs referring to a poor ability to control behavior. These include impulsiveness, hyperactivity, restlessness, clumsiness, not considering consequences before acting, a poor ability to plan ahead, short time horizons, low self-control, sensation-seeking, risk-taking, and a poor ability to delay gratification. In the longitudinal study of over four hundred London males, three groups of boys all tended to become offenders later in life: (1) boys nominated by teachers as lacking in concentration or exhibiting restlessness; (2) boys nominated by parents, peers, or teachers as the most daring or risk-taking; and (3) boys who were the most impulsive on psychomotor tests at ages eight to ten. Later self-report measures of impulsiveness were also related to offending. Daring, poor concentration, and restlessness all predicted both official convictions and self-reported delinquency, and daring was consistently one of the best independent predictors (Farrington, 1992).

The most extensive research on different measures of impulsiveness was carried out in another longitudinal study of males (the Pittsburgh Youth Study) by Jennifer White and her colleagues. The measures that were most strongly related to self-reported delinquency at ages ten and thirteen were teacher-rated impulsiveness (e.g., "acts without thinking"), self-reported impulsivity, self-reported under-control (e.g., "unable to delay gratification"), motor restlessness (from videotaped observations), and psychomotor impulsivity. Generally, the verbal behavior rating tests produced stronger relationships with offending than the psychomotor performance tests, suggesting that cognitive impulsiveness (based on thinking processes) was more relevant than behavioral impulsiveness (based on test performance). Future time perception and delay of gratification tests were less strongly related to self-reported delinquency.

There have been many theories put forward to explain the link between impulsiveness and offending. One of the most popular theories suggests that impulsiveness reflects deficits in the executive functions of the brain, located in the frontal lobes (Moffitt). Persons with these neuropsychological deficits will tend to commit offenses because they have poor control over their behavior, a poor ability to consider the possible consequences of their acts, and a tendency to focus on immediate gratification. There may also be an indirect link between neuropsychological deficits and offending that is mediated by hyperactivity and inattention in school and the resulting school failure. A related theory suggests that low cortical arousal produces impulsive and sensation-seeking behavior.

James Q. Wilson and Richard Herrnstein (1985) also proposed an important criminological theory focusing on impulsiveness and offending, which incorporated propositions from several other psychological theories. Their theory suggested that people differ in their underlying criminal tendencies, and that whether a person chooses to commit a crime in any situation depends on whether the expected benefits of offending are considered to outweigh the expected costs. Hence, there is a focus on cognitive (thinking and decision-making) processes.

The benefits of offending, including material gain, peer approval, and sexual gratification, tend to be contemporaneous with the crime. In contrast, many of the costs of offending, such as the risk of being caught and punished, and the possible loss of reputation or employment, are uncertain and long-delayed. Other costs, such as pangs of conscience (or guilt), disapproval by onlookers, and retaliation by the victim, are more immediate. As with many other psychological theories, Wilson and Herrnstein (1985) emphasized the importance of the conscience as an internal inhibitor of offending, suggesting that it was built up in a social learning process according to whether parents reinforced or punished childhood transgressions.

The key individual difference factor in the Wilson-Herrnstein theory is the extent to which people's behavior is influenced by immediate as opposed to delayed consequences. They suggested that individuals varied in their ability to think about or plan for the future, and that this factor was linked to intelligence. The major determinant of offending was a person's impulsiveness. More impulsive people were less influenced by the likelihood of future consequences and hence were more likely to commit crimes.

In many respects, Gottfredson and Hirschi's (1990) theory is similar to the Wilson-Herrnstein theory and typical of psychological explanations of crime because it emphasizes individual and family factors as well as continuity and stability of underlying criminal tendencies. Despite their sociological training, Gottfredson and Hirschi castigated criminological theorists for ignoring the fact that people differed in underlying criminal propensities and that these differences appeared early in life and remained stable over much of the life course. They called the key individual difference factor in their theory "low self-control," which referred to the extent to which individuals were vulnerable to the temptations of the moment. People with low self-control were impulsive, took risks, had low cognitive and academic skills, were self-centered, had low empathy, and lived for the present rather than the future. Hence, such people found it hard to defer gratification and their decisions to offend were insufficiently influenced by the possible future painful consequences of offending. Gottfredson and Hirschi also argued that between-individual differences in self-control were present early in life (by ages six to eight), were remarkably stable over time, and were essentially caused by differences in parental child-rearing practices.

Cognitive theories. While most psychologists have aimed to explain the development of offenders, some have focused on the occurrence of offending events. The most popular theory of offending events suggests that they occur in response to specific opportunities, when their expected benefits (e.g., stolen property, peer approval) outweigh their expected costs (e.g., legal punishment, parental disapproval). For example, Ronald Clarke and Derek Cornish outlined a theory of residential burglary that included the following influencing factors: whether the house was occupied, looked affluent, had bushes to hide behind, had a burglar alarm, contained a dog, and was surrounded by nosy neighbors. This rational choice theory has inspired situational methods of crime prevention.

The importance of reasoning and thinking processes is also emphasized in other psychological theories of offending, for example in the moral development theory of Lawrence Kohlberg. According to this theory, people progress through different stages of moral development as they get older: from the preconventional stage (where they are hedonistic and only obey the law because of fear of punishment) to the conventional stage (where they obey the law because it is the law) to the postconventional stage (where they obey the law if it coincides with higher moral principles such as justice, fairness, and respect for individual rights). The preconventional stage corresponds to rather concrete thinking, whereas abstract thinking is required to progress to the postconventional stage. Clearly, the developing moral reasoning ability is related to the developing intelligence.

The key idea of moral reasoning theory is that moral actions depend on moral reasoning. Specifically, the theory posits that offenders have poor powers of moral reasoning and are mainly stuck in the preconventional stage. There is a good deal of evidence that offenders indeed show lower levels of moral reasoning than nonoffenders, and some institutional treatment programs have been designed to improve moral reasoning ability.

Some theories of aggression focus on cognitive processes. Rowell Huesmann and Leonard Eron put forward a cognitive script model in which aggressive behavior depends on stored behavioral repertoires (cognitive scripts) that have been learned during early development. In response to environmental cues, possible cognitive scripts are retrieved and evaluated. The choice of aggressive scripts, which prescribe aggressive behavior, depends on the past history of rewards and punishments, and on the extent to which children are influenced by immediate gratification as opposed to long-term consequences. According to Huesmann and Eron, the persisting trait of aggressiveness is a collection of well-learned aggressive scripts that are resistant to change.

There are other cognitive social learning theories that emphasize the role of modeling instructions, thought processes, and interpersonal problem-solving strategies (e.g., Bandura). The individual is viewed as an information-processor whose behavior depends on cognitive processes as well as on the history of rewards and punishments received in the past. Robert and Rosslyn Ross explicitly linked offending to cognitive deficits, arguing that offenders tended to be impulsive, self-centered, concrete rather than abstract in their thinking, and poor at interpersonal problem solving because they failed to understand how other people were thinking and feeling. Cognitive-behavioral skills training programs for offenders are based on these ideas.

Additional topics

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