Trajectory Theory: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:02 Pathway to Delinquency
  • 0:46 Trajectory Theory
  • 6:03 Being Dealt a Bad Hand
  • 6:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Leanne White

Leanne has a master's degree and an independent licensure in chemical dependency counseling. She has extended experience in corrections and post-secondary education.

How does someone become a criminal? According to trajectory theory, there are multiple pathways to crime. This lesson will explore the pathways that put children at risk for engaging in delinquent behavior.

Pathway to Delinquency

In a society, there are two categories: those people who follow the law and those who don't. Have you ever wondered what the difference is between the two or what influences a child to turn away towards delinquency? Does it have something to do with their childhood or type of parenting? Possibly it has to do with their genetic make-up or even their gender.

There are many theories that explain why and how people become criminals. The majority of theories pinpoint one factor as the reasoning behind why some people exhibit more criminal behavior than others. For example, choice theory views criminal behavior as a choice, whereas trait theory believes criminality is born within the person.

Trajectory Theory

Contrary to most theories, trajectory theory suggests there isn't just one factor that encourages delinquent behavior, but rather multiple pathways to crime. Furthermore, trajectory theory believes there are certain paths (trajectories) that direct a person toward delinquent behavior quicker and at a higher rate than other trajectories.

Possible trajectories toward delinquency include:

  • Biological
  • Psychological
  • Sociological
  • Behavioral
  • Environmental

Let's first take a look at biological trajectories. Heredity and brain abnormalities have been thought to predict delinquency, as well as gender. Males are more likely to engage in delinquent behavior than females. There's actually a pool of research as to why, but it's thought that males have higher rates of aggression and certain types of mental disorders that are linked to delinquency.

Here's a case study exploring this perspective. Jack's dad has been in and out of prison his entire life. Jack's mother has kept him from knowing his dad for this reason. She thought that if he didn't know his father then he wouldn't follow in the father's footsteps. His mother has worked hard to provide a healthy and stable upbringing for Jack and his siblings. At the age of 14, Jack begins engaging in delinquent behavior. His mother wonders if he has inherited his father's criminal-like tendencies.

Now let's take a look at psychological trajectories. Certain mental disorders and types of personalities have been linked to higher rates of delinquency. Studies have shown that depression, anxiety, aggression, ADHD, and low intelligence are all highly correlated with delinquency.

Let's now take a look at another case study. Since the age of three, John has exhibited aggressive behavior. In pre-school, he would hit, bite, and display inappropriate aggression toward his classmates. The aggression followed him into grade school and middle school, where it caused him problems with his peers. By high-school, he was regularly getting into fights and eventually ended up getting arrested for assault.

Next, let's take a closer look at sociological trajectories. Low socioeconomic status, including poverty, low-income neighborhoods, and lack of resources, are all trajectories toward delinquency. Furthermore, a child's social surrounding can predict delinquency. Social surrounding refers to home environment, as well as peers. Researchers believe those with weak social relationships, whether it be within the family or with friends, are more likely to exhibit criminal behavior than those who have strong relationships. It's believed this is because when adolescents care about what others think of them, they're less likely to commit criminal acts.

Here's a case study for the sociological perspective. Ben was an only child and moved around a lot as a child. He was never at a school for more than two years. Because of this, he never took the time to make friends because he knew he wouldn't be there long. Due to being an only child, his parents working full-time, and not having any strong friendships, he never worried about what others thought of him. As a result, Ben may be at a higher risk for getting into trouble.

Now let's look at behavioral trajectories. Some believe adolescents and adults who engage in criminal behavior exhibit predictive behaviors as young as the age of three. Impulsiveness, aggression, lack of empathy, and violence are all behaviors that can manifest early on and have been linked to a future of criminal behavior. Behavior patterns are behaviors that are ingrained within us, and - once established - it's extremely difficult to change them. These behaviors follow toddlers into adolescence and can heavily influence delinquent behavior.

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