Psychological Theories of Criminality

psychological theories of criminality

Every human being operates through a physiological and psychological system. Human knowledge, from the dawn of civilization, has attempted to extend its inquiry into unfolding physiological as well as psychological rules governing how the human body and mental system function.

The human body is visible, allowing for clinical experiments to understand biology, detect physiological problems, and find solutions. However, the entire psychological process is highly abstract, making clinical experiments less feasible compared to physiology.

Nearly all religions and philosophies attempt to explain the human mind, spirit, and their associated phenomena, but they differ substantially from one another due to the abstract nature of the psychological process.

The Scope of Psychology: Understanding the Mind

Psychology, in particular, is the study of human faculties such as personality, reasoning, thought, intelligence, learning, perception, imagination, memory, and creativity. There are two major branches of psychological theories: cognitive and behavioral.

Cognitive theories primarily focus on the human mind, exploring mental forces as key elements influencing human activities. These theories seek to explain human behavior in terms of internal feelings such as anger, frustration, desire, and despair, asserting that internal mental processes influence all external activities.

Behavioral theorists attempt to understand the operation of internal factors within the context of social reality.

Interplay of Social and Biological Factors in Psychology

Certain social factors can affect or modify internal mental processes, which, in turn, can reinforce or discourage behavior. There is no clear dividing line between these two theories; they often overlap.

Some psychologists have identified the biological origins of mental functioning, attempting to correlate certain behaviors and thought processes with genetic or neurological factors, earning them the title of psychophysiologists.

Others consider environmental factors so significant that they appear to have a stronger connection with sociological theories.

Demonology and Earlier Explanations

In earlier times, demonology was the most popular explanation of criminal behavior. Before the development of more scientific theories of criminal behavior, individuals were thought to be possessed by good or evil spirits, which caused good or evil behavior.

Medieval Beliefs and Practices in Treating Criminal Behavior

Medieval people believed that undesirable behavior could not be changed unless the evil spirit was banished.

A treatment device called trephining was used to dispel the evil spirit. During the treatment process, a crude stone was employed to cut a hole in the skull of a person thought to be possessed by the devil. There is evidence that some people survived the surgery, but exorcism was the more common treatment for evil spirits, involving the use of horrible concoctions, prayers, and making strange noises.

Transition to Physical Punishments

Later on, people believed that the only way to drive out the devil was to insult them or make the body an unpleasant place for them to inhabit. This was done through flogging and other forms of corporal punishment.

Witchcraft and the Death Penalty in the Fifteenth Century

During the latter part of the fifteenth century, people believed that some individuals voluntarily collaborated with the devil, leading society to impose the death penalty for alleged witchcraft.

Scientific Advancements and the Shift in Understanding Criminal Behavior

In the eighteenth century, scholars began to develop knowledge about human anatomy, physiology, neurology, general medicine, and chemistry.

These findings replaced the demonological explanation of criminal behavior and influenced the fields of psychology and psychiatry until 1915. By the turn of the twentieth century, many psychological theories arose to explain criminal behavior in different types of people.

Psychoanalysis and Criminality

Psychiatry is the specialized field of medicine regarding the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental problems.

Psychoanalysis is a branch of psychiatry that flourished under the guidance of Sigmund Freud, who developed a personality theory and various treatment methods for curing different psychological disorders. Psychiatry considers every human to possess a unique personality, which can be fully understood through individual case studies.

Psychoanalytic View on Human Behavior and Criminality

Psychoanalysts explain human behavior in terms of active inner forces. They believe that certain mental conflicts, of which the criminal may be unaware, give rise to delinquent behavior.

An inner conflict between conscience and instinct perpetually exists in every human being. The triumph of instinctual traits leads to activities that are not accepted by society.

Most people learn to control their instincts, but for some, the conflict remains unresolved in a socially acceptable way, leading to expressions of behavior not approved by society and penal laws.

For these individuals, criminality is considered an outward sign of psychological disorder, just as pain is an indication of physical disease.

Sigmund Freud’s Influence on Psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is the primary exponent of modern psychoanalysis, which has flourished based on his scholarly writings. He spent the majority of his life in Vienna and published most of his famous works between 1900 and 1939.

His theories have profoundly influenced various fields, including philosophy, literature, psychology, sociology, and criminology, as they frequently invoke his findings to explain human behavior.

Freud did not extensively write about criminality; rather, he presented a theory to explain all human behavior, which was later used to explain criminal behavior.

Freud’s Theory of Personality: Id, Ego, and Superego

Freud identified three elements of personality – the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is the most basic and primitive part of personality, akin to animal instincts.

It encompasses all fundamental biological drives, such as physical consumption, entertainment, and sexuality. It is illogical to seek only pleasure and disregard morality.

Desire is its driving force, and its ultimate goal is bodily pleasure. The id represents the unsocialized and unrestrained portion of personality in the unconscious mind. It lacks a sense of reality and seeks immediate gratification.

Every human is born with the id, and it remains functional throughout life, albeit repressed and expressed in various ways due to the operation of the ego and the superego. As Freud described it:

“Id is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality; what little we know of it we have learned from our study of the dream work and of the construction of neurotic symptoms, and most of that is of a negative character and can be described only as a contrast to the ego.

We approach the id with analogies: we call it chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations.

We picture it as being open at its end to somatic influences and as there taking up instinctual needs that find their physical expression in it, but we cannot say in what substratum.

It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.

The logical laws of thought do not apply in the id, and this is true above all of the law of contradiction. Contrary impulses exist side by side, without canceling each other out or diminishing each other: at most, they may converge to form compromises under the dominating economic pressure towards the discharge of energy… The id, of course, knows no judgments of value: no good and evil, no morality.”

The Ego’s Role in Personality

The ego does not exist at birth but develops with the acquisition of outward reality learning. It serves to control and repress the unreasonable desires of the id. The irrational id constantly attempts to fulfill its biological drives, but the ego makes it aware of the surrounding social reality. Sometimes, giving in to the id’s desires can lead to punishment or unpleasant consequences, as society does not endorse the fulfillment of all id’s desires and imposes social sanctions. The ego is the conscious part of personality responsible for controlling the animal instincts (id) of humans. In Freud’s words:

“The ego is, after all, only a portion of the id, a portion that has been expediently modified by the proximity of the external world with its threat of danger… The ego must, on the whole, carry out the id’s intentions; it fulfills its task by finding out the circumstances in which those intentions can best be achieved.

The ego’s relation to the id might be compared with that of a rider to his horse. The horse supplies the locomotive energy, while the rider has the privilege of deciding on the goal and guiding the powerful animal’s movement.

But only too often there arises between the ego and the id the not precisely ideal situation of the rider being obliged to guide the horse along the path by which it itself wants to go… We are warned by a proverb against serving two masters at the same time.The poor ego has things even worse… No wonder that the ego so often fails in its tasks. Its three tyrannical masters are the external world, the super-ego, and the id… Thus the ego, driven by the id, confined by the super-ego, repulsed by reality, struggles to master its economic task of bringing about harmony among the forces and influences working in and upon it… If the ego is obliged to admit its weakness, it breaks out in anxiety—realistic anxiety regarding the external world, moral anxiety regarding the super-ego, and neurotic anxiety regarding the strength of the passions in the id.”

The Superego and Moral Development

Most of a person’s mind remains unconscious, and the superego primarily operates in the unconscious realm of personality. It functions mainly on an unconscious level but contains conscious elements related to morality.

In Freud’s literature, a human with a conscience is represented by the superego and symbolizes an ideal individual. Conscience represents ideals and maintains a balance between the id and the ego.

Children typically receive essential guidance from their parents regarding the direction they should take in their future lives. After birth, mothers assume full responsibility for their children, and parents do everything to ensure proper physical and mental development.

Parents are the most beloved, respected, and feared figures in a child’s life. The individuals with whom children have their earliest and closest relationships are their parents, and their values and teachings shape a child’s mindset.

Children’s likes and dislikes often align with those of their parents. Parents play a crucial role in determining a child’s behavior patterns.

The superego primarily develops from parental authority, as parental praise and admonitions provide children with an understanding of expected and unacceptable behaviors.

The formation of the superego begins as children internalize their parents’ values and teachings, leading to the development of an inner set of rules and values. If a child’s behavior and thoughts align with the direction of the superego, the child experiences pride.

However, if the child disobeys the superego’s instructions, guilt feelings arise. This inner conflict compels the child to follow the superego’s rules, and when behavior and thoughts deviate from these rules, feelings of guilt persist. This ongoing conflict shapes an individual’s conscience.

As Freud explained:

“The super-ego applies the strictest moral standard to the helpless ego, which is at its mercy; in general, it represents the claims of morality, and we realize all at once that our moral sense of guilt is the expression of the tension between the ego and the super-ego… Young children are amoral and possess no internal inhibitions against their impulses striving for pleasure. The part which is later taken on by the super-ego is played to begin with by an external power, by parental authority.

Parental influence governs the child by offering proofs of love and by threatening punishments, which are signs to the child of the loss of love and are bound to be feared on their own account.

This realistic anxiety is the precursor of the later moral anxiety… The super-ego seems to have made a one-sided choice and to have picked out only the parents’ strictness and severity, their prohibiting and punitive function, whereas their loving care seems not to have been taken over and maintained… The installation of the super-ego can be described as a successful instance of identification with the parental agency.

The fact that speaks decisively for this view is that this new creation of a superior agency within the ego is most intimately linked with the destiny of the Oedipus complex so that the super-ego appears as the heir of that emotional attachment which is of such importance for childhood… In the course of development, the super-ego also takes on the influences of those who have stepped into the place of parents—educators, teachers, people chosen as ideal models.”

Balancing Id, Ego, and Superego in Criminal Behavior

The ego serves to balance the desires of the id with the repression sought by the superego. The id’s desires often cannot be fulfilled due to the constant surveillance of the superego.

Therefore, the ego transforms these desires into forms acceptable to the superego, often through sublimation or displacement. This conversion of the id’s desires into socially acceptable forms satisfies both the id and the superego.

Psychoanalysts argue that criminals are individuals who cannot channel their desires in ways approved by the superego.

They lack the ability to balance the demands of the id and the superego, leading to insufficient development of their conscience. This ethical weakness sets them apart from other members of society.

When an individual wishes or does something that goes against the superego’s standards, they may experience guilt. This guilty feeling prompts the individual to seek punishment to absolve themselves of guilt.

This cycle can lead an individual to commit a crime, get caught, and subsequently receive punishment. Repeatedly, this process forms a vicious circle, eventually resulting in the individual becoming a habitual criminal.

Psychoanalytic explanations attempt to elucidate human behavior in terms of inner processes and conflicts.

They view unresolved inner conflicts and emotional instability as the primary causes of deviant behavior, especially criminal activities, with environmental factors playing a secondary role in delinquency. However, psychoanalytic theories are highly abstract, making it challenging to validate them with empirical data.

Normal Criminals, Extroversion, and Neuroticism

Psychoanalysis, in most cases, deals with abnormal criminals whose behavioral problems may be attributed to their inner conflicts. Normal criminality may also be explained with the aid of psychoanalysis.

For a normal offender, the whole personality, including the superego, is criminal. They are normal offenders because they have no conflict between the superego and the rest of the personality.

Their environment and upbringing, presumably, are such that these people regard crime as normal and acceptable. They have no guilty feelings for their criminal activities.

For some people, their profession, like burglary or thievery, is considered as a crime by the rest of society. This gives the impression that society is not homogeneous and consists of many sub-cultures.

Jung’s Contribution and Critique of Freud

Jung was basically a follower but later became a critic of Freud. He popularized the idea that extroversion and introversion may play a part in criminality. Extroverted people are characterized by a hysteric condition, i.e., by violent emotions.

Introverted people, on the contrary, are apprehensive and obsessive. “In 1947, Jung said that there was a continuance from introversion to extroversion and that everybody could be placed somewhere along the spectrum.”

Recidivism: Introversion vs. Extroversion

Recidivism is explained in terms of introversion and extroversion. Some maintain that introverts have a better ability to learn social norms, so they are less likely to become recidivists.

This proposition is flawed in that, as introverts can promptly learn lawful behavior given in the penal institution, similarly, they have the ability to re-learn antisocial behavior after their release. It is worth mentioning that there are both extrovert recidivists and introvert recidivists.

Eysenck’s Theory on Personality and Crime

Individuals, as Eysenck starts, are genetically given certain learning abilities, and these abilities are conditioned by environmental stimuli. If people get the opportunity to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, crime will ensue as a natural and rational choice.

To Eysenck, a combination of biological and social factors causes the individual to shape his/her personality. The individual’s learning ability, Eysenck maintains, is affected by two main dimensions to each personality.

The first one is extroversion. Starting from extroversion, it goes to introversion and is often referred to as the E scale.

The second one is neuroticism, which runs from neurotic or unstable to stable and is often referred to as the N Scale. These traits become active through a continuous process, and the majority of people remain at about the middle of the two.

Only some people are situated at the extremes of each. The extroverts, the highly unstable or neurotic personalities, are very difficult to condition. Eysenck points out a hierarchy of conditionality. In his scale, first situates stable introverts (low N low E), who are the easiest to condition.

Stable extroverts (low N high E) and neurotic introverts (high N low E) occupy the second category, and they are less flexible and accept social teaching with much difficulty. Neurotic extroverts (high N high E),

The third category encounters great difficulty in social learning. Later on, Eysenck discovered a third personality pattern, which he called psychoticism. The people of this category are characterized as aggressive, cold, and impersonal.

This type of individual tends to be solitary, uncaring, and cruel and cannot cope with others. Eysenck found that extremes of this personality pattern were associated with criminality. Eysenck’s findings got support from McGurk and McDougall.

They found that in criminal groups, there were neurotic extroverts and neurotic psychotic extroverts. Stable introverts were found in the non-delinquent group. Both the criminal and non-criminal groups had neurotic introverts and stable extroverts.

Criticism and Uncertainty in Personality-Crime Theories

Eysenck’s findings were subjected to severe criticism. Some attacked the genetic basis of his claims. Little questioned the relationship between recidivism and either extroversion or introversion.

He made a study on three Borstal training institutions and found that neither release from these institutions nor recidivism rates connected to them were linked to either extroversion or introversion.

Not only Eysenck’s work but all works in this area were questioned due to this work. The whole discourse is unclear and uncertain; even Eysenck admitted that the theory cannot expound all crimes.

Farrington reports that this approach, at best, can identify a relation between offending and impulsiveness.

Criticism of Psychoanalytical Theories

Psychoanalysts consider themselves as if they were scientists, but psychoanalysis has failed to fulfill the basic preconditions of science. Their central concept cannot be observed, and it is very difficult to prove the functioning of the inner process that is active in every human.

From external manifestations of behavior, Freud assumed that different elements of human personality – the id, ego, and superego – have developed and operated.

In diagnosing the problems, the external manifestations are not sufficient, so they are supplemented by dream analysis, verbal association, and hypnosis. Psychoanalysts differ in their interpretations; hence, these techniques are subjective and help to reduce psychoanalysis to an inexact science.

Psychoanalysis and Criminal Behavior

A person commits a crime because of unconscious or subconscious personality conflict – this type of assumption of psychoanalysis is very dubious. The relation between the crime and the alleged psychoanalytical reason is obscure. Their arguments do not pertain to sound reasoning.

The criminal does not subscribe to the analysis of the psychoanalyst, and he/she does not see anything wrong with the matter as the problem has its roots in the subconscious or unconscious mind.

Psychoanalytical Interpretation of Criminal Motives

A problem may arise from an unknown obsession with a particular type of sexual problem with one parent or with some emotion.

These problems may cause delinquent behavior with some symbols, i.e., using a gun as a power symbol as well as a sexual symbol. In some cases, people are attacked not because they are the real target but because they resemble the real target. A particular criminal may habitually offend older females resembling his mother.

The rationale is that his mother wronged him in his earlier life, which creates permanent hostility towards the mother, and these hostile feelings repeatedly cause him to commit crimes against older females.

The Hidden Motives Behind Criminal Acts

The reason why the offender repeatedly commits the crime may not be identified and may not be known even by the offender. The motives of the crime may be hidden at the subterranean level of the subconscious or the unconscious of the criminal, which remains beyond the reach of anyone.

Nevertheless, psychoanalysts try to explain these crimes in terms of their theories.

Psychoanalysis and Crime Treatment

Through dream therapy or hypnosis, psychoanalysts try to enter into the normally inaccessible areas of the mind and attempt to detect the problem. They cite criminality as proof of the existence of the problem. To them, a criminal act becomes both proof of the existence and the result of the problem.

Though it is very difficult to prove the worth of these theories, the treatment introduced by psychoanalysis is extremely useful in some cases, which does not mean all problems could be cured and all crimes could be explained with the aid of psychoanalytical theories.

Limitations and Successes of Psychoanalysis

Naively, psychoanalysis neither provides clear insight into the etiology of crime nor can its methods prevent it. Some successes have been seen only at the individual level. Criticism of psychoanalysis does not mean that crime has no relation to the personality of the offender.