The psychology of crime: reasons why some individuals are more susceptible to breaking the law.


Why do individuals commit crimes? At the same time, why is crime present in our society? The criminal justice system is very concerned with these questions, and criminologists are attempting to answer them. In actuality, the question of why crime is committed is very difficult to answer. However, for centuries, people have been searching for answers 1. It is important to recognize that there are many different explanations as to why individuals commit crime2. One of the main explanations is based on psychological theories, which focus on the association among intelligence, personality, learning, and criminal behavior. Thus, in any discussion concerning crime causation, one must contemplate psychological theories.

When examining psychological theories of crime, one must be cognizant of the three major theories. The first is psychodynamic theory, which is centered on the notion that an individual’s early childhood experience influences his or her likelihood for committing future crimes. The second is behavioral theory. Behavioral theorists have expanded the work of Gabriel Tarde through behavior modeling and social learning. The third is cognitive theory, the major premise of which suggests that an individual’s perception and how it is manifested affect his or her potential to commit crime. In other words, behavioral theory focuses on how an individual’s perception of the world influences his or her behavior.

Also germane to psychological theories are personality and intelligence. Combined, these five theories or characteristics (i.e., psychodynamic, cognitive, behavioral, personality, and intelligence) offer appealing insights into why an individual may commit a crime (Schmalleger, 2008). However, one should not assume.

Psychodynamic Theory

Proponents of psychodynamic theory suggest that an individual’s personality is controlled by unconscious mental processes that are grounded in early childhood. This theory was originated by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the founder of psychoanalysis. Imperative to this theory are the three elements or structures that make up the human personality: (1) the id, (2), the ego, and (3) the superego. One can think of the id is as the primitive part of a person’s mental makeup that is present at birth. Freud (1933) believed the id represents the unconscious biological drives for food, sex, and other necessities over the life span. Most important is the idea that the id is concerned with instant pleasure or gratification while disregarding concern for others. This is known as the pleasure principle, and it is often paramount when discussing criminal behavior. All too often, one sees news stories and studies about criminal offenders who have no concern for anyone but themselves. Is it possible that these male and female offenders are driven by instant gratification? The second element of the human personality is the ego, which is thought to develop early in a person’s life. For example, when children learn that their wishes cannot be gratified instantaneously, they often throw a tantrum suggested that the ego compensates for the demands of the id by guiding an individual’s actions or behaviors to keep him or her within the boundaries of society.

The ego is guided by the reality principle. The third element of personality, the superego, develops as a person incorporates the moral standards and values of the community; parents; and significant others, such as friends and clergy members. The focus of the superego is morality. The superego serves to pass judgment on the behavior and actions of individuals.

The ego mediates between the id’s desire for instant gratification and the strict morality of the superego. One can assume that young adults as well as adults understand right from wrong. However, when a crime is committed, advocates of psychodynamic theory would suggest that an individual committed a crime because he or she has an underdeveloped superego.

In sum, psychodynamic theory suggests that criminal offenders are frustrated and aggravated. They are constantly drawn to past events that occurred in their early childhood. Because of a negligent, unhappy, or miserable childhood, which is most often characterized by a lack of love and/or nurturing, a criminal offender has a weak (or absent) ego. Most important, research suggests that having a weak ego is linked with poor or absence of social etiquette, immaturity, and dependence on others.

Research further suggests that individuals with weak egos may be more likely to engage in drug abuse.

Mental Disorders and Crime

Within the psychodynamic theory of crime are mood disorders. Criminal offenders may have a number of mood disorders that are ultimately manifested as depression, rage, narcissism, and social isolation. One example of a disorder found in children is conduct disorder. Children with conduct disorder have difficulty following rules and behaving in socially acceptable ways.

Conduct disorders are ultimately manifested as a group of behavioral and emotional problems in young adults. It is important to note that children diagnosed with conduct disorder are viewed by adults, other children, and agencies of the state as “trouble,” “bad,” “delinquent,” or even “mentally ill.” It is important to inquire as to why some children develop conduct disorder and others do not. There are many possible explanations; some of the most prominent include child abuse, brain damage, genetics, poor school performance, and a traumatic event.

Mental Illness and Crime

The most serious forms of personality disturbance will result in mental disorders. The most serious mental disturbances are referred to as psychoses. Examples of mental health disorders include bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Bipolar disorder is marked by extreme highs and lows; the person alternates between excited, assertive, and loud behavior and lethargic, listless, and melancholic behavior. A second mental health disturbance is schizophrenia. Schizophrenic individuals often exhibit illogical and incoherent thought processes, and they often lack insight into their behavior and do not understand reality. A person with paranoid schizophrenia also experiences complex behavior delusions that involve wrongdoing or persecution. At the same time, studies of males accused of murder have found that three quarters could be classified as having some form of mental illness. Another interesting fact is that individuals who have been diagnosed with a mental illness are more likely to be arrested, and they appear in court at a disproportionate rate. Last, research suggests that delinquent children have a higher rate of clinical mental disorders compared with adolescents in the general population.

Behavioral Theory

The second major psychological theory is behaviorism. This theory maintains that human behavior is developed through learning experiences. The hallmark of behavioral theory is the notion that people alter or change their behavior according to the reactions this behavior elicits in other people. In an ideal situation, behavior is supported by rewards and extinguished by negative reactions or punishments.

Behaviorists view crimes as learned responses to life’s situations. Social learning theory, which is a branch of behavior theory, is the most relevant to criminology. Most prominent social learning theorist is Albert Bandura. Bandura maintains that individuals are not born with an innate ability to act violently. He suggested that, in contrast, violence and aggression are learned through a process of behavior modeling.

In other words, children learn violence through the observation of others. Aggressive acts are modeled after three primary sources:

(1) family interaction,

(2) environmental experiences, and

(3) the mass media.

Ultimately, social learning theories beckon us to accept the fact that the mass media are responsible for a great deal of the violence in our society. They hypothesize that children who play violent video games and later inflict physical or psychological damage to someone at school did so because of the influence of the video game.

Important to note that in the above-mentioned media outlets (e.g., video games), violence is often acceptable and even celebrated. Moreover, there are no consequences for the actions of the major players. Professional athletes provide an interesting example of misbehavior without significant consequences.

Psychopathic Personality

Antisocial personality, psychopathy, or sociopath are terms used interchangeably (Siegal, 2009). Sociopaths are often a product of a destructive home environment. Psychopaths are a product of a defect or aberration within themselves. The antisocial personality is characterized by low levels of guilt, superficial charm, above-average intelligence, persistent violations of the rights of others, an incapacity to form enduring relationships, impulsivity, risk taking, egocentricity, manipulativeness, forcefulness and cold-heartedness, and shallow emotions. Other dynamics that may contribute to the psychopathic personality is a parent with pathologic tendencies, childhood traumatic events, or inconsistent discipline. It is important to note that many chronic offenders are sociopaths. Thus, if personality traits can predict crime and violence, then one could assume that the root cause of crime is found in the forces that influence human development at an early stage of life.

Intelligence and Crime

Some common beliefs are that criminals and delinquents possess low intelligence and that this low intelligence causes criminality. As criminological research has advanced, scholars have continued to suggest that the Holy Grail is causality. The ability to predict criminals from non-criminals is the ultimate goal. The ideology or concept of IQ and crime has crystallized into the nature-versus-nurture debate.


The relationship between psychology and criminal behavior is significant. For centuries, scholars have been attempting to explain why someone commits a crime. This research paper examined the role of psychodynamic theory as developed by Sigmund Freud. Included here are the roles of the id, ego, and superego in criminal behavior. This was followed by a discussion of mental disorders and crime. Under examination here were conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. Through both disorders, we learned that children possess many characteristics associated with delinquency and adult criminality, ultimately concluding that treatment is a necessity and early intervention is paramount.


15 Dabney, D. (2004). Crime types: A text/reader. Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.

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