Critically Consider Two Psyshological Theories Of Crime

Essay, Research Paper


What is crime? Crime is an act of immoral and harmful behaviour. As crime is prohibited by the criminal law it is seen as an act against society. People who study crime are called criminologists. Criminology has many theories, which are based on biology, sociology and psychology. As we are looking at the psychology side of criminology, this again has many different theories to explain the way criminals behave.

There are various theories and explanations that have been used to account for the behaviour of criminals. Some of these theories include biological, psychoanalytic and social learning. The two I aim to look at and consider are biological and the social learning theories.

All of the theories attempt to explain criminal behaviour all represent part of the classic psychological debate of the nature versus the nurture debate. This being that behaviour is a result of our heredity of the environment. Then this being in relation to crime, are we born bad or made bad? Do we choose to go out and commit crime or do we have a built in program to go out and commit crime.

When we talk about the biological side of it we are talking about how our genes set limits on our behaviour, and the environment will limit these developments. A biological theory is some times called behaviour genetics, as this is what the psychologist is studying. As I have mentioned in the introduction the classic side of crime is based on the nature and nurture debate. Arguments about the importance of hereditary components of behaviour centre on the nature-nurture controversy whether the characteristic patterns of behaviour shown by an individual are learned or innate. At one extreme it is held that genetic distinctions differentiate humans into types, and at another behaviourists claim that environment and training shape ability and character. It is, however, likely that both genetic and environmental factors play equally important roles in determining behavioural and psychological characteristics. The methods which have been used to study the genetics of behaviour include, among others, selective breeding of animals and twin studies. In selective-breeding experiments, researchers interbreed high- or low-scoring animals. Experiments on rats have shown that it is possible to breed a strain with a particular ability or lack of a particular ability. However if the rats are reared in a poor environment, then those from the able strain perform as poorly and as badly as those of the less able strain. Twin studies are probably the best-known method of studying the genetic basis of behaviour in humans. Since identical twins share the same genes, differences between them may be ascribed to the effects of environment. Thus human fostering of identical twins who are brought up apart provides an opportunity to study the effects of environment. Studies of both identical and non-identical twins show that the higher the degree of relationship between individuals, the higher the correlation of intelligence test scores. While this indicates that genetic factors play an important role in determining intelligence, there is also an important environmental component. A study by Rowe and Osgood (1984) in the USA found that in middle-class families identical twins had more similar intelligence than non-identical twins did, whereas in disadvantaged working-class families there was no such difference, implying that heredity plays a far smaller role in an impoverished environment.

Do all criminals have the same shape to their body? Well if we believe that people are born criminal then we should assume that all criminals have the same shape. Psychologist Sheldon (1942) has described three very basic body s types these he believes are the bases of particular personalities. These results and theories are taken from his study, which he carried out, on a large group of males who were in a rehabilitation institution. He rated their body type and came up with the following links to the persons body type and their personality. Ectomorphs these being thin and bony and were introverted and restrained. Endomorphs these were large and heavy and are very sociable and relaxed. Finally we have mesomorphs who are broad and muscular and they are very aggressive and adventurous. These are the ones that Sheldon suggests are more likely to be criminally inclined.

However his work has been criticised on the grounds of methodological and on the grounds he rated the body types of his subjects himself. We all tend to stereo type criminals due to way of thinking. People will often say when reading or watching television he/she looked like a criminal. All of this stereotyping is caused by media influence, television. Films and television make all criminals be seen as if they come from the same stable, this is to make it easier so that we recognise them.

As I have menaced above about some of the studies that have been carried out, if we look more closely at one study that was carried out by Rowe and Osgood in 1984 which is examining the influences of crime on three factors. The factors that they believe to be an influence are genetic variation, type of twin pair and their environment. All of these will affect both twins, on how they may cope with a broken home, peer pressure, the environment that is specific to the individual. Rowe and Osgood after their study concluded that genetic factors accounted for over 60% per cent of the factors involved in the relationship with the twins. The environment did count for 20% and peer pressure on the individual accounted for the other 20%. (Criminal behaviour) All of these factors go to make up how psychologists will examine and determine a large part in the significant role on criminal behaviour. All these genetic theories also can be explained in the terms of human physiology, which can be broken down into three areas and summarised into the central nervous system, autonomic nervous system and hormonal physiology.

Here I am going to look at and examine how two of them can explain criminal behaviour. The human brain and Nervous systems are the most complex systems and parts of the human body. Scientists are still learning about these parts of the body. The CNS or central nervous system consists of the brain and spinal cord. Any study conducted on these parts of the CNS is concerned with the function and transmission of information. Green in 1970 found six neurotransmitters however he recently discovered there are about twenty to thirty more involved in the brain. His study found the two main neurotransmitters that are related to the aggression and violence. These two if in low levels can lead the person to crime due to his lack of ability to control these feelings and emotions. However not all criminals have low levels of these neurotransmitters, there are other out side factors that can effect the person.

Hormonal physiology is the study on how hormones can effect the behaviour of a person. There have been many different studies looking at the relationship between hormonal and criminal behaviour. One of great interest is that of the sex hormone testosterone. These hormones have a role in the sexual differentiation and behaviour. One psychologist Thiession 1990 makes a point that evidence suggests that normal levels of testosterone at our sexual maturity are associated with violence in committing rape. This is however not instrumental in causing rape. Even though hormones can be involved in the make up of criminals so also can be the learning process, this being we do things which are passed on from our parents, elders and so on. This process is called the learning process, there are theories based on how this will effect a criminal.

The learning approach will consider the forces within the environment that will causes the individual to display criminal behaviour. The learning theory represents very contrasts to that of the psychobiological approaches how view such behaviour as being internally determined. Sutherland suggested one of the first and earliest theories.

Sutherland in (1939) expressed in his theory of differential association. In his theory he states that behaviour is learned including crime, we learn by association with other people. This learning takes place within close personal groups; this will include any techniques to carry out crime and attitude to commit crime. Sutherland believes that this learning crime is no different to any on the other things we learn. Such as that which is based on social learning.

Social learning is mainly associated with that of observational learning. With observational learning this is mainly within the family. Bandura (1977) suggests that there are three aspects that are important in the learning of behaviour. One being that of external learning, two being vicarious learning that of observing other peoples behaviour and finally three that of self learning that which will motivate use to behave in the same way in the future. People will also learn behaviour via the television, peer group and that of the cinema. Through out our lives we learn to behave through that of reinforced/ punished which can be done through internally or externally. This will determine our behaviour in the future.

The two theories we have looked at both seem to believe that must people who turn to crime are born with a gene to make them commit crime or that we learn how to be a criminal by others including our peers. If we believed that then all people who carried the criminal gene would be able to be pin pointed at birth, there by allowing the law enforcement agencies to track them and control them before them have the chance to commit crime. As for that crime is learnt then people who have committed crime in the past would be stopped from having children, so that they as parents could not teach them. There may be some links to these two theories, but however not all criminals will fall neatly into this package. There will be people out there who will commit crime for all sorts of different reasons.

To conclude people who turn to crime will commit it for all sorts of very different reasons. If people believed what is stated in all the theories about crime then this would make policing a very easy job. However this is not the case and not all criminals will look the same and act the same. There maybe some links to how and why people tun to crime in these theories, but however not all criminals will fit in to the theories. No matter if the person is from that of the biological or learning theories the majority of people will be able to link the problems to that of the environment, peer pressure or that of their place and standing in society.


Hawowers, J (1998) Applying Psychology to crime London Hodder & Stoughton


Hawowers, J (1998) Applying Psychology to crime London Hodder & Stoughton


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