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Crime Causation: Psychological Theories


There are many common features in existing psychological theories of offending (Farrington, 1994). Most theories assume the following: (1) there are consistent individual differences in an underlying construct such as criminal potential or antisocial personality; (2) hedonism or the pursuit of pleasure is the main energizing factor; (3) there is internal inhibition of offending through the conscience or some similar mechanism; (4) methods of child-rearing used by parents are crucial in developing this conscience in a social learning process; (5) where parents provide antisocial models, there can also be learning of antisocial behavior; (6) the commission of offenses in any situation essentially involves a rational decision in which the likely costs are weighed against the likely benefits; and (7) impulsiveness, or a poor ability to take account of and be influenced by the possible future consequences of offending, is an important factor, often linked to a poor ability to manipulate abstract concepts.

Future psychological theories of offending need to be more wide-ranging, including biological, individual, family, peer, school and neighborhood factors, as well as motivational, inhibiting, decision-making, and learning processes. It is plausible to propose sequential models in which, for example, neighborhood factors such as social disorganization influence family factors such as child-rearing, which in turn influence individual factors such as impulsiveness. Existing theories aim to explain all types of offenders, but different theories may be needed to explain occasional or situational offenders as opposed to persistent or chronic offenders with an antisocial lifestyle. However, it is important that theories do not become so complex that they can explain everything but predict nothing.

Theories need to be carefully specified, so that they lead to testable empirical predictions. The emphasis in the past has been on explaining well-known relationships between risk factors and offending rather than on predicting new findings. Future theorists should plan a program of theoretical development where theories and evidence advance together in a cumulative fashion, with the theories guiding the research and the findings leading to a better specification of the theories.

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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