Hands behind back in hand cuffs, representing people who commit crime

Why do people commit crimes and what is a ‘typical criminal’? There is little doubt that some commit a crime such as shoplifting out of desperation, especially when food is concerned. Yet the same crime also attracts the attention of organised gangs who steal to order and cost stores hundreds of millions each year. The same crime but carried for different motives; one for survival, the other to make as much money as possible for as little work as possible. If caught, should each be treated the same as they committed the same crime?

Criminal Behavior Theories:

Various people have forwarded theories to explain why some people became criminals.

Demonology Theory

A demon with its mouth wide open consuming a distressed man next to it, depicting demonology

The oldest known explanatory model of behaviour is that of demonology.  It used to be thought that criminal behaviour was the result of a possessed mind and/or body and the only way to exorcise the evil was usually by some torturous means. The key was a focus on the individual rather than his or her environment or any social forces.

Cesare Lombroso’s Anthropological Theory

Cesare Lombroso

Cesare Lombroso

Cesare Lombroso was an Italian criminologist who in 1876 promoted the theory of ‘anthropological determinism’ that essentially stated that criminality was inherited and that someone “born criminal”‘ could be identified by physical defects, which confirmed a criminal as savage. Lombroso believed that by studying someone’s physical features, you could identify a potential criminal. Lombroso’s criteria for this were:

A large jaw, forward projection of jaw, low sloping foreheads;  high cheekbones, flattened or upturned nose; handle-shaped ears; large chins, very prominent in appearance; hawk-like noses or fleshy lips; hard shifty eyes, scanty beard or baldness and insensitivity to pain. Lombroso finally concluded that a criminal would have long arms.

Twelve male criminals with various physical features, all of which Cesare Lombroso believed people who commit crime possess

Examples of Physiognomy of Criminals, According to Cesare Lombroso

Lombroso’s studies of female criminality began with measurements of females’ skulls and photographs in his search for “atavism“. He concluded that female criminals were rare and showed few signs of “degeneration” because they had “evolved less than men due to the inactive nature of their lives”.  Lombroso argued it was the females’ natural passivity that withheld them from breaking the law, as they lacked the intelligence and initiative to become criminal.

Six Females criminals with various physical features, all of which Cesare Lombroso believed people who commit crime possess

Examples of Physiognomy of Russian Female Offenders, According to Cesare Lombroso

Sigmund Freud’s Psychological Theories

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud

Overdeveloped Superegos

Sigmund Freud had his own views on what makes a criminal. Freud proposed that much deviance resulted from an excessive sense of guilt as a result of an overdeveloped superego.  Persons with overdeveloped superegos feel guilty for no reason and wish to be punished in order to relieve this guilt they are feeling and committing crimes is a method of obtaining such desired punishment and relieving guilt.  In effect, a person commits the crime so that they can get punished and thus relieve guilt – the guilt comes before the crime. According to this view, crime is not the result of a criminal personality, but of a poorly integrated psyche.

The Pleasure Principle

Woman eating a big piece of chocolate cake from one hand with another piece in opposite hand, representing pleasure principle

Freud also identified the “pleasure principle”; that humans have basic unconscious biological urges and a desire for immediate gratification and satisfaction.  This includes desires for food, sex, and survival. Freud believed that if these could not be acquired legally, people would instinctively try to do so illegally. Freud also believed that people have the ability to learn in early childhood what is right and what is wrong and though we may have an instinctive nature to acquire what we desire, such nature can be controlled by what is learned in our early years. He believed that people primarily get moral principles as a young child from their parents and that if these were missing because of poor parenting, that child would grow up into being less able to control natural urges to acquire whatever is needed.

August Aichhorn’s Theory

August Aichhorn

August Aichhorn

August Aichorn is probably the best known neo-Freudian in criminology.  Aichorn felt that there were three predisposing traits that had to be present before the emergence of a life of crime: the desire for immediate gratification, placing greater desire on one’s personal desires over the ability to have good relationships with other people and a lack of guilt over one’s actions.

Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory

Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura

According to Albert Bandura’s theory, delinquent and criminal behaviour is learned via the same psychological processes as any other behaviour: through learned and repeated exposure to rewards (reinforcements) that support the behaviour.  On the flip side, behaviours that received no support or negative reactions are not learned and therefore will not recur. Bandura believes that people observe others’ behaviours and decide whether or not to adopt them.

Yochelson‐Samenow’s Theory

Stanton Samenow

Stanton Samenow

Samuel Yochelson

Samuel Yochelson

Yochelson and Samenow put forward the theory of free will to explain criminal behaviour. This has five points to it:

  • 1. The roots of criminality lie in the way people think and make their decisions
  • 2. Criminals think and act differently than other people, even from a very young age.
  • 3. Criminals are, by nature, irresponsible, impulsive, self-centred, and driven by fear and anger.
  • 4. Deterministic explanations of crime result from believing the criminal who is seeking sympathy.
  • 5. Crime occurs because the criminal wills it or chooses it, and it is this choice they make that rehabilitation must deal with.

In August 2011, some major cities in England experienced riots and looting.

Firemen emerging from the shadows facing a vehicle on fire during London, England Riots in August 2011

2011 England Riots

The immediate explanation was that English cities were infested with ‘feral gangs of youths’ – a perception gained from the clips shown on television. However, while many of those prosecuted were young, they were not exclusively young. Also they were not always from broken homes or from a background of deprivation or unemployment. Some of those caught, prosecuted and imprisoned had professional qualifications and/or worked within professions such as teaching – the media highlighted the example of a teaching assistant sent to prison whose primary task in his school was to coach youngsters on acceptable behaviour.

It is probably impossible to say what a typical criminal is – even if a ‘typical criminal’ exists. While there is a common perception that a criminal is from a broken home, has suffered a deprived childhood, lacks a good education etc, that would not include the likes of Dr Harold Shipman, Bernie Madoff or the recent cases of former Members of Parliament (both MP’s and Lords) who were sent to prison for breaking the law. 

Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex