Criminal behaviour is defined as a failure to act in a way that disrupts the law and there is a variety of theories that explain the reasons for criminal behaviour

Criminal behaviour is defined as a failure to act in a way that disrupts the law and there is a variety of theories that explain the reasons for criminal behaviour

Criminal behaviour is defined as a failure to act in a way that disrupts the law and there is a variety of theories that explain the reasons for criminal behaviour. (Reference, no date) I will be underlining three different psychological theories: Behavioural theorists who argued that human behaviour is learnt through learning experience; in my essay I will summarise Bandura’s Bobo Doll experiment and why behaviourists believe individuals commit crime. Psychodynamic theory is focused solely on the belief that an individual’s early childhood experience influences his or her possibility for committing crimes in the future. Within I will be relating it to Bowlby’s attachment theory and his study “44 Thieves” and show a comparison of the results that Bowlby found. Attachment theory explains the attachment that is crucial and the consequences that are faced if “attachment” is missed. Lastly, I will underline the cognitive theory which focuses on the mental process of individuals, and Kohlberg’s idea of moral development, which underlines what can happen is a child is fixated at a certain level or stage, in relation to crime.
Behaviourism is a psychological approach that elaborates objective methods, behaviourists only study behaviour that they can see, so all judgments and experiments are based on what is seen. (Hollin, R. C. 2013) Behaviourists believe that human behaviour is sustained through ‘learning’. This idea was taken further by Ivan Pavlov and B, F. Skinner. Pavlov developed the term “classical conditioning” which is a learning process, where behaviour is maintained and learnt. He did this through his experiments with animals. Skinner introduced the term operant conditioning which is the process that attempts to change behaviour through positive and negative reinforcement. Just like Pavlov, Skinner experimented on animals too. The concepts and experiments that both Pavlov and Skinner came up with and analysed showed that all behaviour; criminal behaviour or not, is learnt through classical conditioning and operant conditioning.
Albert Bandura who is a Social Learning theorist agrees with the behaviorist theories of classical conditioning and operant conditioning. He combined two ideas which involved both classical and operant conditioing: mediating processes which take place between stimuli and responses and behaviour is learned from the surroundings through the process of observation. (Bandura, A. 1978) Bandura argued that individuals are not born with an innate ability to act as a “criminal” or in an aggressive manner. In contrast, he believed that violence and aggression are learned through a process of behaviour that is shown or modelled, through people or things around us. (Bandura, A. 1977) In other words, children from a young age learn violence through the observation of others. Bandura did an experiment to investigate if aggressive or violent behaviour is learnt through observation or if it is an innate ability. To sum up, in his experiment Bandura assumed having children witness an adult role model behaving in an aggressive way there was a likelihood that they would imitate aggressive behaviour. Those who had observed a non-aggressive adult would be the least likely to show violent behaviour. Bandura believed that children would be much more likely to copy the behavior of a role model of the same sex. He wanted to show that it was much easier for a child to classify and interact with an adult of the same gender, therefore, they had a higher possibility copying the aggressive means. Bobo Doll Experiment disclosed that children who were exposed to the aggressive model were more likely to show imitative aggressive behaviour, as opposed to those who were shown the non-aggressive behaviour. (Psychestudy, no date)
Therefore, behaviourists and social learning theorists helped us to understand criminal behaviour through classical and operant conditioning which Bandura took further and his experiment showed that behaviour such as: aggression and violence is learnt through the process of observation learning by watching the behaviour of another person. People do not have an innate ability to act in an aggressive manner. Models could be anyone from peers, parents, and celebrities, which means young children will observe, learn and then imitate the criminal behaviour. There is a possibility that criminal behaviour influenced, encourage and repeated if the ‘model’ is seen to reinforce the behaviour. For example, if the model was to commit a deviant act, such as: theft, and they were able to get away with it, therefore, they have gained material possessions which is desired for, thus being a positive reinforcement and copied by young child who is observing. However, if the model was caught, and punished, it is unlikely that the behaviour will be copied as it become a negative reinforcement and nothing is gained. Social learning theory approach to explaining crime suggests that observational learning takes place in three contexts: the family, subculture and mass media. Observation and imitation can occur when young children observe peers, or families modelling a certain type of behaviour or through media by pictures or videos, if rewarded then it is reinforced. (Hollin, R. C. 2013)
Another theory that helps to aid our understanding of criminal behaviour is psychodynamic theory. Psychoanalytic theory was developed by Sigmund Freud, who argues that humans’ have thoughts that are suppressed in the unconscious mind, therefore, arguing that all human have criminal inclinations. Psychodynamic theory suggest that an individual’s personality is controlled by unconscious mental processes that are shaped in early childhood. He argued that a child who is inadequately socialised will face serious consequences and this will cause ‘personality disturbance’. Freud argued that there are three elements that make up human personality; ID, ego and superego. He believed the id represents the unconscious biological drives for necessities such as: food. He argued that the id is known as pleasure principle, pleasure for ones’ self, and disregarding care for other people around. ID is an important factor when discussing criminal behaviour, due to the pleasure they rather achieve for themselves through selfish, criminal means. Criminals are thought to have no care or concern for others but themselves. For example, some offenders, like murderers are likely to have an id personality which means they will lose control of their ego and seek gratification without any care or the damage that can be caused towards others. (Putwain et al, 2002)
The second element is ‘ego’, which is believed to develop in early childhood. Freud suggested that the ego reimburses for the strains of the id by guiding an individual’s actions or behaviours to make sure they do not go against the ‘rules’ of society. The ego is known as the reality principle, which attempts to achieve the id’s desires in realistic and socially “accepted” manners. The third element of personality, is the superego, which is developed when a develops as a person integrates the moral standards and values of the society. The superego is the part of the personality that holds moral standards and values that we obtain from both parents and society—this is our sense of right and wrong. The focus of the superego is morality. When a crime is committed, psychodynamic theorists would argue that an individual committed a crime because he or she has inadequately developed the superego. Traumatic experiences during early childhood such as physical, sexual and verbal abuse can prevent the ego and superego from being developed adequately and consequently, the young child will be unable to form bonds with others. Therefore, criminal behaviour is regarded as the irrepressible id, the damaged ego, or an inadequately, underdeveloped superego. (Putwain et al, 2002)
Like Freud, Bowlby believed that early childhood experience can influence adult behaviour. Bowlby suggested that to form expressive social relationships in adulthood it was reliant on a “close, warm and continuous” relationship with the mother in the first few years. This is known as the critical period- the crucial time for a child to form attachment to form adequate future bonds with others. The relationship between a mother and child could be seen as a template for all future relationships. If this is failed to be formed, Bowlby believed that children were more likely to turn to crime. Bowlby’s aids our understanding of criminal behaviour from his study of 44 juvenile thieves at a child clinic. These delinquent children were compared to non-delinquent children at the clinic too. He found that around 39% of the delinquent children in the clinic had faced early separation from their mothers, which meant they were at loss of the “warm, close” relationship with their mother. Whereas, this was compared to 5% of the non- delinquent group. This evidently shows that there is a link between maternal deprivation and likelihood of turning to crime and offending. (Putwain et al, 2002)
Overall, psychodynamic theory suggests that criminal offenders are inadequately socialised, and have an undeveloped superego. Both Bowlby and Freud believe that early childhood experiences shape the future of the young child. For example, negligent, unhappy, or miserable childhood, is due to the lack of love and nurture given at early childhood, which means that they have a weak personality and bond. Therefore, they are more likely to engage with crime.
The third psychological theory is cognitive theory. Cognitive theorists help us to understand how criminal offenders observe and psychologically characterise the world around them (Knepper, 2001). Cognitive psychologists focus more on the mental processes of the individuals, as opposed to the behaviour shown, which both behaviourists and psychoanalytics’ underline. Lawrence Kohlberg who is a cognitive theorist believed that individuals pass through different stages of moral development. Kohlberg’s proposal of “moral development” is applied to help people to understand criminals and their criminal behaviour. His theory has different levels, stages and social alignment. The three levels are Level one, preconventional; which is also known as “pre-morality” this consists of two stages: stage one: punishment and obedience, this is when moral behaviour is concerned with complying to authority and being able to avoid punishment. Stage two: hedonism: concern with your own needs regardless of other people. Stage one is thought to be the stage of obedience and punishment. This occurs during early childhood, during this stage, individuals demeanour themselves in a way that is socially acceptable. (Kohlberg, 1984). The conformity is to higher authority, figures such as parents, teachers, or the school principal. Stage two is a stage where children strive to fulfil their own needs and desire, but at the same time, they believe people around them should hold the same morals too. This stage encourages that young children see what is right and be able to maintain the right behaviour, by having the same morals for themselves as well as others around them. (Kohlberg, 1984).

Level two is known as the conventional level. Stage three and four falls under this level. Stage three is called, interpersonal concordance, which is the concern with conformity and the strain of gaining social approval. Stage four is called law and order, this is having a commitment to social order for one’s own sake. At stage three the individual recognises that they have a role to play in the wider society, this stage enables them to understand the role that they play and the duties they are required to fulfil. Within this stage it is understood that the individuals are concerned whether the wider society would approve or not. It is argued that individuals who reason in a conventional way are more likely to judge the morality of actions by comparing those actions to what society sees as a social norm, as opposed to individuals going upon their own belief and judgments. Everything and everyone are judged upon societies expectations. Stage four is important as it aids people to realise that they must obey and recognise what society expects. This supports individuals to see the difference between what is right and what is wrong. However, if an individual who breaks the law is punished, others would realise from that mistake, therefore, making them obey orders and societal hopes, which will encourage obedience to law and order; to higher authority.
Level three is known as the autonomous principles, or the postconvential level. Stages five and six falls under level three. Stage five is called social contract, this is the awareness of ones’ rights and indicative of process in law surroundings. Stage six is called universal ethical principles, this is the ethical judgment based on justice, respect and trust that will surpass the law. In stage five, individuals are worried about the society rules and the values that society holds; as they are ways of allowing individuals to acknowledge their liberty, welfare and so on. Although justice is known to be subjective, stage six is important because right or wrong are based on own ethical principles and may not coincide with society.
The moral developmental stages enabled cognitive theorists to see what stage an individual would miss or be stuck on. Kohlberg proposed that criminal behaviour is due to the interruption or delay in development of moral reasoning. This developmental delay means that individuals are processing at low level of moral reasoning, consequently when there are opportunities for criminal behaviour individuals do not have internal mechanisms to control and change their behaviour to what society expects them to. Cognitive theory has enabled us to understand that criminal offenders are poor at processing information that is shown or given to them and assessing the society and world around them.
‘Criminal behaviour’ is hard to define, because what counts as a crime is different from culture to culture, and always seem to change over time. For example, homosexuality was illegal in the UK and still is in some countries, but now gay marriages are legal in the UK. However, crime is really difficult to measure, as not all crimes are recognised, not all crimes are reported, or shown in the official statistics, even if they are reported police take it lightly, for example, theft and another reason as to why crime may not be reported is because it could be due to embarrassment and crime figures show the number of crimes rather than the number of criminals. To sum up, the relationship between psychology and criminal behaviour is important. There are many different explanations as to why individuals commit crime (Conklin, 2007). One of the main explanations is founded on psychological theories. The first is psychodynamic theory, which is based on the belief that an individual’s early childhood experience influences his or her likelihood for committing future crimes. Behavioural theorists hold the belief that individuals learn behaviour through classical and operant conditioning. Social learning theory elaborated on this idea and did an experiment with Bobo Doll’s to show that behaviour is learnt through observation, which is linked to both operant and classical condition, because if behaviour is desired and rewarded, young people are more likely to imitate that behaviour, as opposed to behaviour that causes strain or punishment for, then the criminal behaviour is not reinforced. The third is cognitive theory, the idea that suggests that an individual’s perception and how it is manifested (Jacoby, 2004) affect his or her possible to commit crime. In other words, behavioural theory focuses on how an individual’s perception of the world influences his or her behaviour.

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To conclude, psychological theories can be used to explain a range of criminal behaviours. Each theory has its’ own strengths and weaknesses and some elaborate and underline a lot more when it comes to crime, such as: social learning theory and behaviourism; both theories highlighted the reasons for criminal behaviour, they gave authentic evidence to prove their point, but on the other hand, theories like psychodynamic just underline criminal behaviour, there is no solid evidence behind Freud’s work. Instead, Freud has been criticised on several of occasions. All three theories that I have underlined: psychodynamic, behaviourism and cognitive theory look at crime in different perspectives, however, they all have one similarity which is the face they all share the same belief that childhood has a big role to play when it comes to analysing and understanding criminal behaviour. It is evident that the childhood experience one has will shape and influence them, their decisions and choices in the future. All three theories have helped to aid our understanding of criminal behaviour; through learning process of operant and classical conditioing, or through having three different elements of personality which has to be adequately taught and through the psychological process of how you view the world and the surroundings.
Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall
Bandura, A. (1978). Social learning theory of aggression. Journal of Communication, 28, p. 12–29.
Conklin, J. (2007). Criminology (9th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon
Hollin, R. C. (2013) Psychological theories applied to crime ‘Psychology and Crime’ (2nd ed.) USA and Canada: Routledge p. 63
Hollin, R. C. (2013) Psychological theories applied to crime ‘Psychology and Crime’ (2nd ed.) USA and Canada: Routledge p. 67
Jacoby, J. (2004). Classics of criminology (3rd ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.
Knepper, P. (2001). Theories and symptoms in criminology. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Kohlberg, L. (1984). The psychology of moral development: Essays on moral development. New York: Harper & Row
Putwain, D., Sammons, A. (2002) psychologically orientated explanations of criminal behaviour ‘Psychology and crime’ New York: Routledge p. 44
Putwain, D., Sammons, A. (2002) psychologically orientated explanations of criminal behaviour ‘Psychology and crime’ New York: Routledge p. 46
Psychestudy (no date) The Bobo Doll Experiment
Reference (no date) What is the definition of criminal behaviour?


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