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Crime Causation: Psychological Theories

More Comprehensive Theories

Farrington's (1996) theory of offending and antisocial behavior attempts to integrate propositions from several other theories, and it distinguishes explicitly between the development of antisocial tendencies and the occurrence of anti-social acts. This theory suggests that offending is the end result of energizing, directing, inhibiting, and decision-making processes.

According to this theory, the main long-term energizing factors that ultimately lead to variations in antisocial tendencies are desires for material goods, status among intimates, and excitement. The main short-term energizing factors that lead to variations in antisocial tendencies are boredom, frustration, anger, and alcohol consumption. The desire for excitement may be greater among children from poorer families, for several reasons: excitement is more highly valued by lower-class people than by middle-class ones, poorer children think they lead more boring lives, or poorer children are less able to postpone immediate gratification in favor of long-term goals (which could be linked to the emphasis in lower-class culture on the concrete and present as opposed to the abstract and future).

In the directing stage, these motivations produce antisocial tendencies if socially disapproved methods of satisfying them are habitually chosen. The methods chosen depend on maturation and behavioral skills; for example, a five-year-old child would have difficulty stealing a car. Some people (e.g., children from poorer families) are less able to satisfy their desires for material goods, excitement, and social status by legal or socially approved methods, and so tend to choose illegal or socially disapproved methods. The relative inability of poorer children to achieve goals by legitimate methods could be because they tend to fail in school and tend to have erratic, low status employment histories. School failure in turn may often be a consequence of the unstimulating intellectual environment that lower-class parents tend to provide for their children, and their lack of emphasis on abstract concepts.

In the inhibiting stage, antisocial tendencies can be inhibited by internalized beliefs and attitudes that have been built up in a social learning process as a result of a history of rewards and punishments. The belief that offending is wrong, or a strong conscience, tends to be built up if parents are in favor of legal norms, if they exercise close supervision over their children, and if they punish socially disapproved behavior using firm but kindly discipline. Antisocial tendencies can also be inhibited by empathy, which may develop as a result of parental warmth and loving relationships. The belief that offending is legitimate (and anti-establishment attitudes generally) tend to be built up if children have been exposed to attitudes and behavior favoring offending (e.g., in a modeling process) especially by members of their family, by their friends, and in their communities.

In the decision-making stage, which specifies the interaction between the individual and the environment, whether a person with a certain degree of antisocial tendency commits an antisocial act in a given situation depends on opportunities, costs and benefits, and on the subjective probabilities of the different outcomes. The costs and benefits include immediate situational factors such as the material goods that can be stolen and the likelihood and consequences of being caught by the police, as perceived by the individual. They also include social factors such as likely disapproval by the parents or spouses, and encouragement or reinforcement from peers. In general, people tend to make rational decisions. However, more impulsive people are less likely to consider the possible consequences of their actions, especially consequences that are likely to be long delayed. There is also a learning process that feeds back into the other processes, since people learn from the consequences of their actions.

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