Individual Trait Theory of Criminology: Factors & Biases

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  • 0:01 Criminology
  • 0:46 Trait Theory
  • 2:55 Influence on Social Policy
  • 4:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Ever wonder what makes a criminal mind different from yours? In this lesson, we'll delve into the individual trait theory of criminology, which tries to explain and treat criminal behavior based on personality traits.


Rob's brother Adam is in jail for robbing a store and hurting someone in the process. Rob is sad about this, but also curious about why Adam would turn to a life of crime. They're brothers, so why would Adam end up a criminal, while Rob remained a law-abiding citizen?

Criminology is the study of crime and punishment. It tries to answer questions like the one Rob is asking, about why some people commit crimes and others don't. There's no easy answer to that question, but there are many different theories about what causes crime. Let's take a look at one such theory, the individual trait theory of criminology, and how it influences social policy in America.

Trait Theory

Rob is confused as to why his brother Adam would end up a criminal, while Rob is a nice, non-criminal guy. What's different about the two of them?

The individual trait theory of criminology, sometimes called the trait theory of criminology, says that people commit crimes because of certain personality traits. A personality trait is just a stable part of a person's character, like how extroverted he is.

Rob has definitely noticed that there are some differences in his personality and Adam's. For example, Rob is much more calm and laid-back than Adam is. Adam also tends to seek out danger and excitement more than Rob does: while Adam likes to go skydiving and surfing, Rob likes to hang out on the couch with a book.

Usually, criminologists look at personality traits like psychosis or neuroticism or danger seeking behaviors. But in theory, any personality trait may be the cause of criminal behavior, according to trait theory. The point is that there is something that is a stable part of personality that predisposes a person to become a criminal.

But what causes those traits to manifest in a person? Adam and Rob grew up in the same house, ate the same food, and have a lot of the same genes. So why would their personalities be so different?

In psychology, personality (and many other things) is a combination of a person's genetics and biology (often referred to as nature) and a person's environment (often referred to as nurture). For example, though Adam and Rob have a lot of the same genetics, they don't have exactly the same DNA, so perhaps Adam just inherited a gene that makes him more uptight and danger seeking. In addition, though they grew up in the same house, they have slightly different relationships with their parents, which could have affected Adam's personality. So his nature (the genes) and his nurture (his relationship with his parents) could combine in complex ways to make Adam different from Rob.

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