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Crime Causation: Psychological Theories

Family Influences, Individual Influences, More Comprehensive Theories, Conclusions, Bibliography

It is hard to specify distinctively psychological theories of crime. The guiding principle in this entry is that psychological theories focus especially on the influence of individual and family factors on offending. Psychological theories are usually developmental, attempting to explain the development of offending from childhood to adulthood, and hence based on longitudinal studies that follow up individuals over time. The emphasis of such theories is on continuity rather than discontinuity from childhood to adulthood. A common assumption is that the ordering of individuals on an underlying construct such as criminal potential is relatively constant over time.

Psychologists view offending as a type of behavior that is similar in many respects to other types of antisocial behavior. Hence, the theories, methods, and knowledge of other types of antisocial behavior can be applied to the study of crime. Lee Robins popularized the theory that offending is one element of a larger syndrome of antisocial behavior, including heavy drinking, drug-taking, reckless driving, educational problems, employment problems, difficulties in relationships, and so on. This is the basis of the psychiatric classification of antisocial personality disorder. Robins also argued that antisocial personality is obvious early in life and that it tends to persist from childhood to adulthood, with different behavioral manifestations.

Typically, psychological theories may include motivational, inhibiting, decision-making, and learning processes (Farrington, 1993). The most common motivational idea is that people (and especially children) are naturally hedonistic and selfish, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, and hence that children are naturally antisocial. Another classic idea is that people are motivated to maintain an optimal level of arousal; if their level falls below the optimum, they will try to increase it, whereas if it is above the optimum they will try to decrease it. Thus, someone who is bored might seek excitement.

Since offending is viewed as essentially natural, most psychological theories attempt to explain the development of mechanisms that inhibit offending such as the conscience. The conscience is often assumed to arise in a conditioning process (depending on the association between antisocial behavior and the anxiety created by parental punishment) or in a learning process (where the probability of behavior increases or decreases according to parental rewards or punishments). Psychological theories often include cognitive (thinking or decisionmaking) processes that explain why people choose to offend in a particular situation. A common assumption is that offending is essentially rational, and that people will offend if they think that the expected benefits will outweigh the expected costs.

Generally, psychologists are committed to the scientific study of human behavior, with its emphasis on theories that can be tested and falsified using empirical, quantitative data, controlled experiments, systematic observation, valid and reliable measures, replications of empirical results, and so on. Much research in recent years has been carried out within the risk factor paradigm (Farrington, 2000), focusing on the extent to which risk factors such as impulsiveness or poor parental supervision predict offending. This research also investigates possible causal mechanisms or processes that intervene between and explain the link between risk factors and crime.

The following sections discuss the most important categories of risk factors that influence crime: (1) family influences, such as broken homes (associated with attachment theories), poor child-rearing methods (associated with social learning theories), and criminal parents (associated with intergenerational transmission theories); and (2) individual influences such as personality. The most important personality factor in relation to crime is impulsiveness, while the most influential theory of the link between personality and crime is that put forward by Hans Eysenck. A significant theory focusing on impulsiveness was propounded by James Q. Wilson and Richard Herrnstein. The section also examines cognitive theories, which emphasize thinking, reasoning, and decision-making processes. Lastly, this entry describes a more comprehensive theory than those discussed under family and individual influences. The more comprehensive theory includes motivational, inhibiting, decision-making, and learning processes.


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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law