Psychological Theories of Crime: Assumptions & Weaknesses

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  • 0:04 Criminology
  • 1:00 Psychological Theories
  • 3:48 Criticisms
  • 5:26 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.

What makes you or me different from a criminal offender? Watch this lesson to find out more about the psychology behind crime, including the four basic aspects of psychological theories of crime and some common criticisms of them.


Amy's childhood friend Rory is in jail. Amy can't believe how different she and Rory are. Where she feels guilty even when she tells a white lie, Rory can lie all day and not feel the slightest bit of shame. Whereas Amy is calm and relaxed, Rory tends to fly off the handle at anything and can be very violent. Amy wonders how they could have ended up so different.

Criminology is the study of crime and punishment. Criminologists try to answer the questions, 'why do people commit crimes?' and 'what makes criminals different from the rest of us?'

There's no easy answer for why Rory decided on a life of crime, or why he and Amy ended up so different from each other, but there are several theories. Let's look closer at psychological theories of crime, including some of their key features and some of the criticisms of them.

Psychological Theories

When Amy goes to visit Rory, she's reminded of all the differences between them. He's in jail for a violent crime, and doesn't even feel sorry. It's like he doesn't really understand that what he did was wrong.

Psychological theories of crime say that criminal behavior is a result of individual differences in thinking processes. There are many different psychological theories, but they all believe that it is the person's thoughts and feelings that dictate their actions. As such, problems in thinking can lead to criminal behavior. Take Rory, for example, he doesn't believe that what he did was wrong, which was what led him to act out in the first place.

There are four basic ideas when it comes to psychological theories of crime. These general assumptions are that crime is a result of:

1. Failures in psychological development

Some people run into trouble because they didn't develop, or grow, the way that others normally do. For example, Rory has an underdeveloped conscience. Whereas Amy hears a little voice inside her reminding her what is right and wrong, Rory just does what he wants and doesn't think about right or wrong. This is an example of what happens when someone has an issue with psychological development.

2. Learned behaviors of aggression and violence

If someone is surrounded by violence and aggression, they are more likely to become violent and aggressive themselves, because they have learned that those behaviors are okay. For example, Rory comes from a very abusive household, and his violent parents taught him that it's normal to work out your frustrations by being violent against others.

3. Inherent personality traits

There are some characteristics that criminals tend to share with each other, and some psychologists believe that there are certain personality traits that predispose someone towards criminal behavior. For example, even as a baby, Rory liked to seek out dangerous and exciting activities. Amy is happy to stay at home with a book; that's enough excitement for her. But, Rory likes danger, which could lead him to act recklessly and perhaps in criminal ways.

4. Relationship of criminality to mental illness

Some people with psychological disorders end up committing crimes. While this isn't the case for all people with mental illness, there are a higher-than-normal percentage of criminals with mental illness. For example, Rory has been diagnosed with a personality disorder, which means that he feels less empathy than other people.

All of these psychological factors could have an effect on someone like Rory, who then ends up a criminal.

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