Criminal Psychology: A Summary

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Psychologists approach the job of explaining negligent and criminal behaviour by focusing on one’s personality. They particularly examine the processes by which various behaviours and their respective restraints can be learned. These processes are often conceived as the interaction of biological tendencies and social happenings. One of the commonly supported theories is The Deterrent Theory, formulated by two philosophers – Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham. Deterrence theory is a belief that the threat of punishment can and will prevent people from committing a crime. 

This theory is based on the assumption that individuals have free will and are rational in their thinking, which will create fear of the punishment that follows when one commits a crime. Two cases were identified; in the first case, an individual learns through the process of associative learning which means they link a certain behaviour pattern with a painful stimulus. In the second case, an individual learns through imitative learning and hence avoid criminal activity as they know the consequences that follow. Beccaria’s Doctrine focuses on four general principles- Equality: all offenders to be treated equally, Liberty: only the law can decree punishment for crime and nobody is to be deprived of public protection, Utilitarianism: better to prevent crimes than punish people for it/any law should be of the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people, HumanitarianismPunishment should be fair but humane.


The limitations of this doctrine are that it fails to acknowledge individual differences, motivations, and situational circumstances; and the punishment should be interdisciplinary as it has an interrelationship with power, knowledge, and the body affected. Another theory discussed plenty is The Strain Theory which was first introduced by Emile Durkheim. This theory states that social structures within the society may pressurize an individual to commit a crime. Two propositions were central to Durkheim’s thesis – Social organization is necessary to keep undesirable human tendencies in check. Second, where social order breaks down and social norms lose their influence, anomie develops and crime increases significantly (Durkheim, 1951, cited in Wright & Fox, 1978, pp. 135–6). Despite the theory’s conceptual limitations it gained wide support and is still of importance.

According to Merton’s strain theory, anomie (a social condition where there is a disintegration of the values and norms that were previously common to society) is not the problem of an individual but the result of structural factors. Refining Merton’s Strain theory, Robert Agnew further says that the strain is caused by failure and are identifiable in three generic forms – strain caused by failure to achieve positively valued goals, the strain caused by the removal of positively valued stimuli from the individual, and strain caused by the presentation of negative stimuli (Agnew & White, 1992). Agnew’s theory comprises cognitive, behavioural, and adaptations to strain to acknowledge that each individual has a different ability to cope with stress, depending on peer influence, past experiences, and more. Durkheim’s and Merton’s thoughts about anomie have had a major impact on sociological criminology. 

While the anomie theory tries to explain the connection between social conditions and deviance, it does not explain why particular human beings commit precise crimes, or why maximum young people who have engaged in crime eventually become law-abiding adults (Siegel, Brown & Hoffman, 2013). Nor does it effectively explain violent crimes such as assault, rape, and homicide (Barkan, 2011). It has also been criticized for now not addressing middle-class and white-collar crime (Hirschi & Gottfredson, 1987). With these and many more ongoing developments, the anomie/strain standpoint will most likely keep attracting more following.

Criminal psychology has often ascribed that some individuals are more vulnerable to commit a crime. However, there is no substantial proof as to what the triggers may be. Circumstantial situations or coming from a financially weaker section of the society are the common assumptions made in most theories and in general as well. These theories have neither been proven right nor wrong due to the distinct findings while experimenting the same. 

Biologically we can say that the physical and mental state of an individual creates different circumstances as to how a person reacts and to what lengths they can go to express a certain emotion. The choices that an individual makes helps construct an idea as to the social and situational interventions that influenced the individual to do the same. Crime is mostly assumed to be committed in the heat of the moment which is not completely incorrect but crime may involve comprehensive planning in most cases. Society has an immense amount of influence when it comes to criminals. Often the disparity between an individual, the society and its social cultures becomes the reason for originating law offenders. 

The psychologists have labelled them in three one-of-a-kind categories. The first category of individuals is those who are psychologically disturbed criminals who commit more crime because of their intellectual depravity or emotional stability. Secondly, there are people who due to their sociological conditions have a negative impact on their mental prerequisites which motives them to enter the criminal world. Lastly, there are some hardened criminals who have embraced criminal activity as an ordinary way of life. However, through the above analysis, most of the psychologists believe that there are certain criminals who are far more prone to committing a crime in society.

Criminal Psychology - The Law Communicants
Criminal Psychology – The Law Communicants


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