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Criminology: Intellectual History

Psychological Theories

The earliest psychological approaches to crime were based on Sigmund Freud's (1870–1937) psychoanalytic theory, which divided the human personality into id, ego, and superego. The id (the Latin word for "it") described all the instinctual drives that come from our biological heritage. The "ego" (Latin for "I") is the rational and conscious self that mediates between the drives of the id and the restraints of the superego. The "superego" consists in the restraints on behavior ("conscience") that children internalize as a result of their great love for and attachment to their parents. Criminality largely was explained as a failure of the superego, a consequence of a failure to form healthy and loving attachments to parents. Later theories of crime were based on behavioral psychology, as originating in the work of B. F. Skinner (1904–1990). In Skinner's view, all human behavior is the product of its consequences—its rewards and punishments. In this approach, criminal behavior is acquired and retained if people experience rewards from it, and it is abandoned if they experience punishments. Somewhat later, social learning theory expanded Skinner's behavior theory to include social rewards and punishments, such as the approval or disapproval of family and friends. It also expanded the ways in which behavior can be acquired to include learning through observation of what other people do, including observations in the media, particularly television.

Mental illness does not cause very many crimes, but mentally ill people occasionally commit crimes that are extreme or bizarre, and thus highly publicized. Thus, the public might get the impression that mental illness is a major cause of crime. In addition, following the closing of most mental institutions in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, many mentally ill people began to be sent to prisons and jails because they were troublesome and appeared threatening and because there was no other way to remove them from the community. One particular personality disorder—antisocial personality disorder—has been found in many studies to be associated with criminality. However, the official criteria for diagnosing this disorder include the commission of crimes and crime-like behavior. Thus, it is not entirely clear whether this personality disorder is a cause of crime or whether the term "antisocial personality disorder" is just a fancy label that psychiatrists use to describe people who are criminals. Current psychological research focuses on impulsivity (a tendency to engage in high levels of activity, to be easily distracted, to act without thinking, and to seek immediate gratification) rather than antisocial personality as a personality characteristic associated with criminality.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCriminology: Intellectual History - Early Thinking About Crime And Punishment, The Middle Ages, The Renaissance, Classical Criminology, Positivist Criminology