Crime Causation: Psychological Theories


It is hard to specify distinctively psychological theories of crime. The guiding principle in this entry is that psychological theories focus especially on the influence of individual and family factors on offending. Psychological theories are usually developmental, attempting to explain the development of offending from childhood to adulthood, and hence based on longitudinal studies that follow up individuals over time. The emphasis of such theories is on continuity rather than discontinuity from childhood to adulthood. A common assumption is that the ordering of individuals on an underlying construct such as criminal potential is relatively constant over time.

Psychologists view offending as a type of behavior that is similar in many respects to other types of antisocial behavior. Hence, the theories, methods, and knowledge of other types of antisocial behavior can be applied to the study of crime. Lee Robins popularized the theory that offending is one element of a larger syndrome of antisocial behavior, including heavy drinking, drug-taking, reckless driving, educational problems, employment problems, difficulties in relationships, and so on. This is the basis of the psychiatric classification of antisocial personality disorder. Robins also argued that antisocial personality is obvious early in life and that it tends to persist from childhood to adulthood, with different behavioral manifestations.

Typically, psychological theories may include motivational, inhibiting, decision-making, and learning processes (Farrington, 1993). The most common motivational idea is that people (and especially children) are naturally hedonistic and selfish, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, and hence that children are naturally antisocial. Another classic idea is that people are motivated to maintain an optimal level of arousal; if their level falls below the optimum, they will try to increase it, whereas if it is above the optimum they will try to decrease it. Thus, someone who is bored might seek excitement.

Since offending is viewed as essentially natural, most psychological theories attempt to explain the development of mechanisms that inhibit offending such as the conscience. The conscience is often assumed to arise in a conditioning process (depending on the association between antisocial behavior and the anxiety created by parental punishment) or in a learning process (where the probability of behavior increases or decreases according to parental rewards or punishments). Psychological theories often include cognitive (thinking or decisionmaking) processes that explain why people choose to offend in a particular situation. A common assumption is that offending is essentially rational, and that people will offend if they think that the expected benefits will outweigh the expected costs.

Generally, psychologists are committed to the scientific study of human behavior, with its emphasis on theories that can be tested and falsified using empirical, quantitative data, controlled experiments, systematic observation, valid and reliable measures, replications of empirical results, and so on. Much research in recent years has been carried out within the risk factor paradigm (Farrington, 2000), focusing on the extent to which risk factors such as impulsiveness or poor parental supervision predict offending. This research also investigates possible causal mechanisms or processes that intervene between and explain the link between risk factors and crime.

The following sections discuss the most important categories of risk factors that influence crime: (1) family influences, such as broken homes (associated with attachment theories), poor child-rearing methods (associated with social learning theories), and criminal parents (associated with intergenerational transmission theories); and (2) individual influences such as personality. The most important personality factor in relation to crime is impulsiveness, while the most influential theory of the link between personality and crime is that put forward by Hans Eysenck. A significant theory focusing on impulsiveness was propounded by James Q. Wilson and Richard Herrnstein. The section also examines cognitive theories, which emphasize thinking, reasoning, and decision-making processes. Lastly, this entry describes a more comprehensive theory than those discussed under family and individual influences. The more comprehensive theory includes motivational, inhibiting, decision-making, and learning processes.

Family influences

Broken homes and attachment theories. Psychologists have approached broken homes and attachment theories from a broad range of perspectives. Psychoanalytic theories emphasized the importance of loving relationships and attachment between children and their parents. These theories suggested that there were three major personality mechanisms: the id, ego, and superego. The id contained the instinctual, unconscious desires (especially sexual and aggressive) with which a child was born. It was governed by the pleasure principle, seeking to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. The ego, which was the seat of consciousness, developed out of the id by about age three. The ego tried to achieve the desires of the id while taking account of the reality of social conventions, and hence could delay immediate gratification in favor of long-term goals. Children would only develop a strong ego if they had a loving relationship with their parents.

The superego developed out of the ego by about age five, and contained two functions, the conscience and the ego-ideal. The conscience acted to inhibit instinctual desires that violated social rules, and its formation depended on parental punishment arousing anger that children then turned against themselves. The ego-ideal contained internalized representations of parental standards, and its formation depended on children having loving relationships with their parents. According to psychoanalytic theories, offending resulted from a weak ego or a weak superego, both of which followed largely from low attachment between children and parents. These ideas inspired counseling and social work approaches, trying to rehabilitate offenders by building up warm relationships with them.

Most studies of broken homes have focused on the loss of the father rather than the mother, because the loss of a father is much more common. In agreement with attachment theories, children who are separated from a biological parent are more likely to offend than children from intact families. For example, in a birth cohort study of over eight hundred children born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, Israel Kolvin and his colleagues discovered that boys who experienced divorce or separation in their first five years of life had a doubled risk of conviction up to age thirty-two (53 percent as opposed to 28 percent).

However, the relationship between broken homes and delinquency is not as simple as that suggested by attachment theories. Joan McCord (1982) conducted an interesting study in Boston of the relationship between homes broken by loss of the biological father and later serious offending by boys. She found that the prevalence of offending was high for boys from broken homes without affectionate mothers (62 percent) and for those from unbroken homes characterized by parental conflict (52 percent), irrespective of whether they had affectionate mothers. The prevalence of offending was low for those from unbroken homes without conflict (26 percent) andimportantlyequally low for boys from broken homes with affectionate mothers (22 percent). These results suggest that it might not be the broken home that is criminogenic but the parental conflict that often causes it. They also suggest that a loving mother might in some sense be able to compensate for the loss of a father.

Modern theories of the relationship between disrupted families and delinquency fall into three major classes. Trauma theories suggest that the loss of a parent has a damaging effect on a child, most commonly because of the effect on attachment to the parent. Life course theories focus on separation as a sequence of stressful experiences, and on the effects of multiple stressors such as parental conflict, parental loss, reduced economic circumstances, changes in parent figures, and poor child-rearing methods. Selection theories argue that disrupted families produce delinquent children because of preexisting differences from other families in risk factors, such as parental conflict, criminal or antisocial parents, low family income, or poor child-rearing methods.

Hypotheses derived from the three theories were tested in the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development (Juby and Farrington), which is a prospective longitudinal survey of over four hundred London males from age eight to age forty. While boys from broken homes (permanently disrupted families) were more delinquent than boys from intact homes, they were not more delinquent than boys from intact high-conflict families. Overall, the most important factor was the post-disruption trajectory. Boys who remained with their mother after the separation had the same delinquency rate as boys from intact low-conflict families. Boys who remained with their father, with relatives, or with others (e.g., foster parents) had high delinquency rates. It was concluded that the results favored life-course theories rather than trauma or selection theories.

Child-rearing methods and learning theories. Many different types of child-rearing methods predict a child's delinquency. The most important dimensions of child-rearing are supervision or monitoring of children, discipline or parental reinforcement, and warmth or coldness of emotional relationships. Of all these child-rearing methods, poor parental supervision is usually the strongest and most replicable predictor of offending, typically predicting a doubled risk of delinquency. This refers to the degree of monitoring by parents of the child's activities, and their degree of watchfulness or vigilance. Many studies show that parents who do not know where their children are when they are out of the house, and parents who let their children roam the streets unsupervised from an early age, tend to have delinquent children. For example, in the classic Cambridge-Somerville study in Boston, poor parental supervision in childhood was the best predictor of both violent and property offending up to age forty-five (McCord, 1979).

Parental discipline refers to how parents react to a child's behavior. It is clear that harsh or punitive discipline involving physical punishmentsometimes approaching physical abusepredicts a child's delinquency. In a follow-up study of nearly seven hundred Nottingham children, John and Elizabeth Newson found that physical punishment at ages seven and eleven, predicted later convictions; 40 percent of offenders had been smacked or beaten at age eleven, compared with 14 percent of nonoffenders. Erratic or inconsistent discipline also predicts delinquency. This can involve either erratic discipline by one parent, sometimes turning a blind eye to bad behavior and sometimes punishing it severely, or inconsistency between two parents, with one parent being tolerant or indulgent and the other being harshly punitive.

Cold, rejecting parents also tend to have delinquent children, as Joan McCord (1979) found more than twenty years ago in the Cambridge-Somerville study. In a 1997 study, McCord concluded that parental warmth could act as a protective factor against the effects of physical punishment. Whereas 51 percent of boys with cold, physically punishing mothers were convicted in her study, only 21 percent of boys with warm, physically punishing mothers were convicted, similar to the 23 percent of boys with warm, nonpunitive mothers who were convicted. Similar results were also obtained for fathers.

Apart from attachment theories, most theories that examine the link between child-rearing methods and delinquency are learning theories. One of the most influential early learning theories was propounded by Gordon Trasler. Trasler's theory suggested that when a child behaved in a socially disapproved way, the parent would punish the child. This punishment caused an anxiety reaction, or an unpleasant state of physiological arousal. After a number of pairings of the disapproved act and the punishment, the anxiety became conditioned to the act, and conditioned also to the sequence of events preceding the act. Consequently, when the child contemplated the disapproved act, the conditioned anxiety automatically arose and tended to block the tendency to commit the act, so the child became less likely to do it. Hence, Trasler viewed the conscience as essentially a conditioned anxiety response. This response might be experienced subjectively as guilt.

Trasler emphasized differences in parental child-rearing behavior as the major source of disparity in criminal tendencies or in the strength of the conscience. According to Trasler, children were unlikely to build up the link between disapproved behavior and anxiety unless their parents supervised them closely, used punishment consistently, and made punishment contingent on disapproved acts. Hence, poor supervision, erratic discipline, and inconsistency between parents were all conducive to delinquency in children. It was also important for parents to explain to children why they were being punished, so that they could discriminate precisely the behavior that was disapproved.

Trasler argued that middle-class parents were more likely to explain to children why they were being punished and more likely to be concerned with long-term character-building and the inculcation of general moral principles. This approach was linked to the greater facility of middle-class parents with language and abstract concepts. In contrast, lower-class parents supervised their children less closely and were more inconsistent in their use of discipline. Therefore, lower-class children committed more crimes because lower-class parents used less effective methods of socialization.

More recent social learning theories (e.g., Patterson) suggested that children's behavior depended on parental rewards and punishments and on the models of behavior that parents represent. Children will tend to become delinquent if parents do not respond consistently and contingently to their antisocial behavior and if parents themselves behave in an antisocial manner. These theories have inspired the use of parent training methods to prevent delinquency.

Intergenerational transmission theories. Criminal and antisocial parents tend to have delinquent and antisocial children, as shown in the classic longitudinal surveys by Joan McCord in Boston and Lee Robins in St. Louis. The most extensive research on the concentration of offending in families was carried out in the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development. Having a convicted father, mother, brother, or sister predicted a boy's own convictions, and all four relatives were independently important as predictors (Farrington et al., 1996). For example, 63 percent of boys with convicted fathers were themselves convicted, compared with 30 percent of the remainder. Same-sex relationships were stronger than opposite-sex relationships, and older siblings were stronger predictors than younger siblings. Only 6 percent of the families accounted for half of all the convictions of all family members.

There are several possible theories (which are not mutually exclusive) for why offending tends to be concentrated in certain families and transmitted from one generation to the next. First, the effect of a criminal parent on a child's offending may be mediated by genetic mechanisms. In agreement with this, twin studies show that identical twins are more concordant in their offending than are fraternal twins (Raine). However, the greater behavioral similarity of the identical twins could reflect their greater environmental similarity. Also in agreement with genetic mechanisms, adoption studies show that the offending of adopted children is significantly related to the offending of their biological parents. However, some children may have had contact with their biological parents, so again it is difficult to dismiss an environmental explanation of this finding.

In a more convincing design comparing the concordance of identical twins reared together and identical twins reared apart, William Grove and his colleagues found that heritability was 41 percent for childhood conduct disorder and 28 percent for adult antisocial personality disorder. Hence, the intergenerational transmission of offending may be partly attributable to genetic factors. Crime cannot be genetically transmitted because it is a legal construct, but some more fundamental construct such as aggressiveness could be genetically transmitted. An important question is how the genetic potential (genotype) interacts with the environment to produce the offending behavior (phenotype). David Rowe (1994) argued that genetic influences should always be estimated in studying the links between family factors and delinquency.

An alternative theory focuses on assortative mating; female offenders tend to cohabit with or get married to male offenders. In the Dunedin study in New Zealand, which is a longitudinal survey of over one thousand children from age three, Robert Krueger and his colleagues found that sexual partners tended to be similar in their self-reported antisocial behavior. Children with two criminal parents are likely to be disproportionally antisocial. There are two main classes of explanations concerning why similar people tend to get married, cohabit, or become sexual partners. The first is called social homogamy. Convicted people tend to choose each other as mates because of physical and social proximity; they meet each other in the same schools, neighborhoods, clubs, pubs, and so on. The second process is called phenotypic assortment ; people examine each other's personality and behavior and choose partners who are similar to themselves.

Other intergenerational transmission theories focus on the intergenerational continuity in exposure to multiple risk factors, on direct and mutual influences of family members on each other, and on risk factors that might intervene between criminal parents and delinquent children (such as poor supervision or disrupted families). It seems likely that both genetic and environmental factors are involved.

Individual influences

The Eysenck personality theory. Studies show that antisocial behavior is remarkably consistent over time; or, to be more precise, the relative ordering of individuals is remarkably consistent over time (Roberts and Del Vecchio). Psychologists assume that behavioral consistency depends primarily on the persistence of individuals' underlying tendencies to behave in particular ways in particular situations. These tendencies are termed personality traits, such as impulsiveness, excitement seeking, assertiveness, modesty, and dutifulness. Larger personality dimensions such as Extraversion refer to clusters of personality traits.

Historically, the best-known research on personality and crime was that inspired by Hans Eysenck's theory and personality questionnaires. Eysenck viewed offending as natural and even rational, on the assumption that human beings were hedonistic, sought pleasure, and avoided pain. He assumed that delinquent acts such as theft, violence, and vandalism were essentially pleasurable or beneficial to the offender. In order to explain why everyone was not a criminal, Eysenck suggested that the hedonistic tendency to commit crimes was opposed by the conscience, which he (like Gordon Trasler) viewed as a conditioned fear response.

Under the Eysenck theory, the people who commit offenses have not built up strong consciences, mainly because they have inherently poor conditionability. Poor conditionability is linked to Eysenck's three dimensions of personality, Extraversion (E), Neuroticism (N), and Psychoticism (P). People who are high on E build up conditioned responses less well, because they have low levels of cortical arousal. People who are high on N also condition less well, because their high resting level of anxiety interferes with their conditioning. Also, since N acts as a drive, reinforcing existing behavioral tendencies, neurotic extraverts should be particularly criminal. Eysenck also predicted that people who are high on P would tend to be offenders, because the traits included in his definition of psychoticism (emotional coldness, low empathy, high hostility, and inhumanity) were typical of criminals. However, the meaning of the P scale is unclear, and it might perhaps be more accurately labeled as psychopathy.

A review of studies relating Eysenck's personality dimensions to official and self-reported offending concluded that high N (but not E) was related to official offending, while high E (but not N) was related to self-reported offending (Farrington et al., 1982). High P was related to both, but this could have been a tautological result, since many of the items on the P scale were connected with antisocial behavior or were selected in light of their ability to discriminate between prisoners and nonprisoners. In the prospective longitudinal study of over four hundred London boys, those high on both E and N tended to be juvenile self-reported offenders, adult official offenders, and adult self-reported offenders, but not juvenile official offenders. These relationships held independently of other criminogenic risk factors such as low family income, low intelligence, and poor parental child-rearing behavior. However, when individual items of the personality questionnaire were studied, it was clear that the significant relationships were caused by the items measuring impulsiveness (e.g., doing things quickly without stopping to think). Hence, it seems likely that research inspired by the Eysenck theory mainly identifies the link between impulsiveness and offending.

Since 1990 the most widely accepted personality system has been the "Big Five" or five-factor model. This suggests that there are five key dimensions of personality: Neuroticism (N), Extraversion (E), Openness (O), Agreeableness (A), and Conscientiousness (C). Openness means originality and openness to new ideas, Agreeableness includes nurturance and altruism, and Conscientiousness includes planning and the will to achieve. Because of its newness, the "Big Five" personality theory has rarely been studied in relation to offending. However, in an Australian study, Patrick Heaven (1996) showed that Agreeableness and Conscientiousness were most strongly (negatively) correlated with self-reported delinquency.

Impulsiveness theories. Impulsiveness is the most crucial personality dimension that predicts offending. Unfortunately, there are a bewildering number of constructs referring to a poor ability to control behavior. These include impulsiveness, hyperactivity, restlessness, clumsiness, not considering consequences before acting, a poor ability to plan ahead, short time horizons, low self-control, sensation-seeking, risk-taking, and a poor ability to delay gratification. In the longitudinal study of over four hundred London males, three groups of boys all tended to become offenders later in life: (1) boys nominated by teachers as lacking in concentration or exhibiting restlessness; (2) boys nominated by parents, peers, or teachers as the most daring or risk-taking; and (3) boys who were the most impulsive on psychomotor tests at ages eight to ten. Later self-report measures of impulsiveness were also related to offending. Daring, poor concentration, and restlessness all predicted both official convictions and self-reported delinquency, and daring was consistently one of the best independent predictors (Farrington, 1992).

The most extensive research on different measures of impulsiveness was carried out in another longitudinal study of males (the Pittsburgh Youth Study) by Jennifer White and her colleagues. The measures that were most strongly related to self-reported delinquency at ages ten and thirteen were teacher-rated impulsiveness (e.g., "acts without thinking"), self-reported impulsivity, self-reported under-control (e.g., "unable to delay gratification"), motor restlessness (from videotaped observations), and psychomotor impulsivity. Generally, the verbal behavior rating tests produced stronger relationships with offending than the psychomotor performance tests, suggesting that cognitive impulsiveness (based on thinking processes) was more relevant than behavioral impulsiveness (based on test performance). Future time perception and delay of gratification tests were less strongly related to self-reported delinquency.

There have been many theories put forward to explain the link between impulsiveness and offending. One of the most popular theories suggests that impulsiveness reflects deficits in the executive functions of the brain, located in the frontal lobes (Moffitt). Persons with these neuropsychological deficits will tend to commit offenses because they have poor control over their behavior, a poor ability to consider the possible consequences of their acts, and a tendency to focus on immediate gratification. There may also be an indirect link between neuropsychological deficits and offending that is mediated by hyperactivity and inattention in school and the resulting school failure. A related theory suggests that low cortical arousal produces impulsive and sensation-seeking behavior.

James Q. Wilson and Richard Herrnstein (1985) also proposed an important criminological theory focusing on impulsiveness and offending, which incorporated propositions from several other psychological theories. Their theory suggested that people differ in their underlying criminal tendencies, and that whether a person chooses to commit a crime in any situation depends on whether the expected benefits of offending are considered to outweigh the expected costs. Hence, there is a focus on cognitive (thinking and decision-making) processes.

The benefits of offending, including material gain, peer approval, and sexual gratification, tend to be contemporaneous with the crime. In contrast, many of the costs of offending, such as the risk of being caught and punished, and the possible loss of reputation or employment, are uncertain and long-delayed. Other costs, such as pangs of conscience (or guilt), disapproval by onlookers, and retaliation by the victim, are more immediate. As with many other psychological theories, Wilson and Herrnstein (1985) emphasized the importance of the conscience as an internal inhibitor of offending, suggesting that it was built up in a social learning process according to whether parents reinforced or punished childhood transgressions.

The key individual difference factor in the Wilson-Herrnstein theory is the extent to which people's behavior is influenced by immediate as opposed to delayed consequences. They suggested that individuals varied in their ability to think about or plan for the future, and that this factor was linked to intelligence. The major determinant of offending was a person's impulsiveness. More impulsive people were less influenced by the likelihood of future consequences and hence were more likely to commit crimes.

In many respects, Gottfredson and Hirschi's (1990) theory is similar to the Wilson-Herrnstein theory and typical of psychological explanations of crime because it emphasizes individual and family factors as well as continuity and stability of underlying criminal tendencies. Despite their sociological training, Gottfredson and Hirschi castigated criminological theorists for ignoring the fact that people differed in underlying criminal propensities and that these differences appeared early in life and remained stable over much of the life course. They called the key individual difference factor in their theory "low self-control," which referred to the extent to which individuals were vulnerable to the temptations of the moment. People with low self-control were impulsive, took risks, had low cognitive and academic skills, were self-centered, had low empathy, and lived for the present rather than the future. Hence, such people found it hard to defer gratification and their decisions to offend were insufficiently influenced by the possible future painful consequences of offending. Gottfredson and Hirschi also argued that between-individual differences in self-control were present early in life (by ages six to eight), were remarkably stable over time, and were essentially caused by differences in parental child-rearing practices.

Cognitive theories. While most psychologists have aimed to explain the development of offenders, some have focused on the occurrence of offending events. The most popular theory of offending events suggests that they occur in response to specific opportunities, when their expected benefits (e.g., stolen property, peer approval) outweigh their expected costs (e.g., legal punishment, parental disapproval). For example, Ronald Clarke and Derek Cornish outlined a theory of residential burglary that included the following influencing factors: whether the house was occupied, looked affluent, had bushes to hide behind, had a burglar alarm, contained a dog, and was surrounded by nosy neighbors. This rational choice theory has inspired situational methods of crime prevention.

The importance of reasoning and thinking processes is also emphasized in other psychological theories of offending, for example in the moral development theory of Lawrence Kohlberg. According to this theory, people progress through different stages of moral development as they get older: from the preconventional stage (where they are hedonistic and only obey the law because of fear of punishment) to the conventional stage (where they obey the law because it is the law) to the postconventional stage (where they obey the law if it coincides with higher moral principles such as justice, fairness, and respect for individual rights). The preconventional stage corresponds to rather concrete thinking, whereas abstract thinking is required to progress to the postconventional stage. Clearly, the developing moral reasoning ability is related to the developing intelligence.

The key idea of moral reasoning theory is that moral actions depend on moral reasoning. Specifically, the theory posits that offenders have poor powers of moral reasoning and are mainly stuck in the preconventional stage. There is a good deal of evidence that offenders indeed show lower levels of moral reasoning than nonoffenders, and some institutional treatment programs have been designed to improve moral reasoning ability.

Some theories of aggression focus on cognitive processes. Rowell Huesmann and Leonard Eron put forward a cognitive script model in which aggressive behavior depends on stored behavioral repertoires (cognitive scripts) that have been learned during early development. In response to environmental cues, possible cognitive scripts are retrieved and evaluated. The choice of aggressive scripts, which prescribe aggressive behavior, depends on the past history of rewards and punishments, and on the extent to which children are influenced by immediate gratification as opposed to long-term consequences. According to Huesmann and Eron, the persisting trait of aggressiveness is a collection of well-learned aggressive scripts that are resistant to change.

There are other cognitive social learning theories that emphasize the role of modeling instructions, thought processes, and interpersonal problem-solving strategies (e.g., Bandura). The individual is viewed as an information-processor whose behavior depends on cognitive processes as well as on the history of rewards and punishments received in the past. Robert and Rosslyn Ross explicitly linked offending to cognitive deficits, arguing that offenders tended to be impulsive, self-centered, concrete rather than abstract in their thinking, and poor at interpersonal problem solving because they failed to understand how other people were thinking and feeling. Cognitive-behavioral skills training programs for offenders are based on these ideas.

More comprehensive theories

Farrington's (1996) theory of offending and antisocial behavior attempts to integrate propositions from several other theories, and it distinguishes explicitly between the development of antisocial tendencies and the occurrence of anti-social acts. This theory suggests that offending is the end result of energizing, directing, inhibiting, and decision-making processes.

According to this theory, the main long-term energizing factors that ultimately lead to variations in antisocial tendencies are desires for material goods, status among intimates, and excitement. The main short-term energizing factors that lead to variations in antisocial tendencies are boredom, frustration, anger, and alcohol consumption. The desire for excitement may be greater among children from poorer families, for several reasons: excitement is more highly valued by lower-class people than by middle-class ones, poorer children think they lead more boring lives, or poorer children are less able to postpone immediate gratification in favor of long-term goals (which could be linked to the emphasis in lower-class culture on the concrete and present as opposed to the abstract and future).

In the directing stage, these motivations produce antisocial tendencies if socially disapproved methods of satisfying them are habitually chosen. The methods chosen depend on maturation and behavioral skills; for example, a five-year-old child would have difficulty stealing a car. Some people (e.g., children from poorer families) are less able to satisfy their desires for material goods, excitement, and social status by legal or socially approved methods, and so tend to choose illegal or socially disapproved methods. The relative inability of poorer children to achieve goals by legitimate methods could be because they tend to fail in school and tend to have erratic, low status employment histories. School failure in turn may often be a consequence of the unstimulating intellectual environment that lower-class parents tend to provide for their children, and their lack of emphasis on abstract concepts.

In the inhibiting stage, antisocial tendencies can be inhibited by internalized beliefs and attitudes that have been built up in a social learning process as a result of a history of rewards and punishments. The belief that offending is wrong, or a strong conscience, tends to be built up if parents are in favor of legal norms, if they exercise close supervision over their children, and if they punish socially disapproved behavior using firm but kindly discipline. Antisocial tendencies can also be inhibited by empathy, which may develop as a result of parental warmth and loving relationships. The belief that offending is legitimate (and anti-establishment attitudes generally) tend to be built up if children have been exposed to attitudes and behavior favoring offending (e.g., in a modeling process) especially by members of their family, by their friends, and in their communities.

In the decision-making stage, which specifies the interaction between the individual and the environment, whether a person with a certain degree of antisocial tendency commits an antisocial act in a given situation depends on opportunities, costs and benefits, and on the subjective probabilities of the different outcomes. The costs and benefits include immediate situational factors such as the material goods that can be stolen and the likelihood and consequences of being caught by the police, as perceived by the individual. They also include social factors such as likely disapproval by the parents or spouses, and encouragement or reinforcement from peers. In general, people tend to make rational decisions. However, more impulsive people are less likely to consider the possible consequences of their actions, especially consequences that are likely to be long delayed. There is also a learning process that feeds back into the other processes, since people learn from the consequences of their actions.


There are many common features in existing psychological theories of offending (Farrington, 1994). Most theories assume the following: (1) there are consistent individual differences in an underlying construct such as criminal potential or antisocial personality; (2) hedonism or the pursuit of pleasure is the main energizing factor; (3) there is internal inhibition of offending through the conscience or some similar mechanism; (4) methods of child-rearing used by parents are crucial in developing this conscience in a social learning process; (5) where parents provide antisocial models, there can also be learning of antisocial behavior; (6) the commission of offenses in any situation essentially involves a rational decision in which the likely costs are weighed against the likely benefits; and (7) impulsiveness, or a poor ability to take account of and be influenced by the possible future consequences of offending, is an important factor, often linked to a poor ability to manipulate abstract concepts.

Future psychological theories of offending need to be more wide-ranging, including biological, individual, family, peer, school and neighborhood factors, as well as motivational, inhibiting, decision-making, and learning processes. It is plausible to propose sequential models in which, for example, neighborhood factors such as social disorganization influence family factors such as child-rearing, which in turn influence individual factors such as impulsiveness. Existing theories aim to explain all types of offenders, but different theories may be needed to explain occasional or situational offenders as opposed to persistent or chronic offenders with an antisocial lifestyle. However, it is important that theories do not become so complex that they can explain everything but predict nothing.

Theories need to be carefully specified, so that they lead to testable empirical predictions. The emphasis in the past has been on explaining well-known relationships between risk factors and offending rather than on predicting new findings. Future theorists should plan a program of theoretical development where theories and evidence advance together in a cumulative fashion, with the theories guiding the research and the findings leading to a better specification of the theories.

David P. Farrington

See also Diminished Capacity; Excuse: Insanity; Intelligence and Crime; Mentally Disordered Offenders; Prediction of Crime and Recidivism; Psychopathy; Rehabilitation; Scientific Evidence.


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FARRINGTON, DAVID P.. "Crime Causation: Psychological Theories." Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice. 2002. 29 May. 2016 <>.

FARRINGTON, DAVID P.. "Crime Causation: Psychological Theories." Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice. 2002. (May 29, 2016).

FARRINGTON, DAVID P.. "Crime Causation: Psychological Theories." Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice. 2002. Retrieved May 29, 2016 from