C39: Psych and Law
Chapter 3: Theories of Crime - Learning and Environment
Biological theories of crime tend to focus on the impact of physiological, biochemical, neurological
and/or genetic factors. Evolutionary theories focus on explanations of how crime can be through of as
adaptive behavior, developed as a means to survive in both our ancestral and present-day environments
(i.e. achieving status in a group, or reproductive status - females see him as more attractive)
The founding father of psychodynamic theories is Sigmund Freud; he well known for his theories of the
unconscious mind, defense mechanisms, free association and dream interpretation. Strangely he had
relatively little to say about criminal behavior and crime but some of the most important theories of crime
in recent history draw on psychodynamic principles.
Basic Psychodynamic Principles: The ID, Ego, and Superego
Humans are thought to be inherently antisocial, driven by pleasure-seeking and destructive impulses.
This perspective believes that crime occurs when these (often unconscious) impulses are not
this thought is to happen when internal psychic forces tasked w/ the job of regulating such impulses
fail to develop as they should i.e. traumatic childhood experience
Ex. David Abrahamsen, a forensic psychiatrist and psychoanalyst wrote what is a detailed
account of a murder. It describes how a psychoanalyst would describe the criminal
behaviour; he says the act of murder is released by intensity of internal conflicts,
immensely tormented - usually by an experience i.e. raped, beaten etc, the murderer feels
trapped deep down inside with a struggle bw their sexual and self preserving feelings and
external surroundings, they commit murder based on a triggered impulse
inner drives, traumatic situations, protecting defenses etc are commonplace in psychodynamic
ID- the unconscious, instinctual part of personality that seeks the immediate gratification of
basic drives (e.g. aggression)
believed to be governed by the reality principle- the driving force of the ego, which
leads people to defer gratification until it is physically and socially safe to pursue it
Ego- the conscious part of the personality which acts as the mediator bw the instinctual
demands of the ID and the social restrictions of the superego
guided by the superego- part of the personality that acts as the moral regulator, making
sure that we act in accordance with internalized group standards.
it is thought to consist of two sub systems: the conscience, which allows an
individual to distinguish bw right and wrong and forces the ego to inhibit id pursuits
that are out of line with ones morals, and the ego ideal, which represents the socially
accepted standards to which we all aspire.
Freud argued that personality development occurs across 5 psychosexual stages and argued that
difficulties resolving conflicts within any given stage cannot potentially result in problems w.
personality development, which would be apparent in ones behaviour. (pg 72 table 3.1 for
description and name of each stage!)
psychosexual stages- distinct developmental stages proposed by Sigmund Freud that are
characterized by conflicts that people must resolve in order to develop healthy personalities
oedipus complex- a conflict expressed in the phallic stage of development whereby young
males develop an unconscious desire for the mother and fear of retribution by the father electra complex- - a conflict expressed in the phallic stage of development whereby young
females develop an unconscious desire for their father and hostility towards the mother
problems that result in superego formation are of particular interest to those attempting to give
explanations of crime.
Psychoanalysts have proposed 3 main sources of criminal behaviour - e. relates to inadequate
superego formation. the three sources relate to the development of harsh, weak or deviant
1- neurotic criminal- an individual who commits crime as a result of a harsh superego,
which is assumed to lead to pathological levels of unconsciousness guilt that can be
resolved by receiving punishment (i.e. a legal sanction for a crime)
2- indivduals who commit crime bc of a weak superego are commonly associated w/ the
possessing a superego that fails to sufficiently regulate the primitive and instinctual
needs f the ID, this individual is usually egocentric, impulsive, guiltless, and
unempathetic. aka serial killers
3- for these individuals, superego standards have developed, but those standards are
thought to reflect deviant identification- the process of identifying with deviant role
model (e.g. criminal father)
i.e. this occurs when criminal parents have a good relationship w/ their son and the son
grows up to mirror his parents criminality
Psychodynamic Theories of Crime
The only thing the criminal types (i.e. harsh, weak, deviant etc) do is suggest it is due to problems with
superego, otherwise this lacks inadequate info. It also doesn't go with what we already know that males
are more likely than females to commit crimes with the psychoanalytic assumption that girls are less
likely than boys to develop a strong superego. Here are more theories...
Bowlbys Theory of Maternal Deprivation
theory of maternal deprivation- a theory of crime proposed by John Bowlby that suggests that if
children are not exposed to consistent and constant maternal care in their early years they will experience
difficulties in developing the ability to establish meaningful prosocial relationships and, as a result, will
be more likely to exhibit antisocial patterns of behaviour
this is a popular theory of how juvenile delinquency develops
lacking such abilities, the child will not develop the means to control his conduct (i.e destructive
impulses) and will be more likely to exhibit antisocial patterns of behaviour
Bowly had research to back this up; in a study of 44 juvenile delinquents he found a significantly
higher level of maternal deprivation in the delinquent group (39%) compares to non delinquents
(5%) = however this has been challenged on methodological and empirical grounds
methodologically, its been criticized everything from unrepresentative nature of his delinquent
sample to poor control group matching.
empirically his results do not appear to hold up, esp. in studies where there are larger sample
Bowly himself didn't always find strong evidence for the role of maternal deprivation
in explaining delinquency
Unravelling Juvenile Delinquency: The Work of Glueck and Glueck
Despite criticisms on Bowlbys theory, it is known that family discord in general is associated with
delinquent behaviour. The work of Glueck and Glueck is known for this; this Harvard husband and wife
proposed a theory less a formal one of crme and more a summary of their empirical findings.
they were heavily influenced by psychodynamic thinking and spoke of things as mental conflict
2One of the primary interests of their research was discovering the causes of crime and assessing the
effectiveness of correctional treatment in controlling criminal behaviour. They use cross-sectional
research comparing the lives of juvenile delinquents with non juveniles.
Cross sectional research- type of research design whereby different groups of people who
differ on a variable of interest (e.g. involvement in delinquency activity) are observed at a
particular point in time to determine how they differ on some other variable (e.g. parental
supervision) or set variables.
They used 500 delinquent boys from the Massachusetts correctional system, and 500 non
delinquent boys from Boston public schools (matched on age, race, type of neighborhood,
intelligence etc) - they also did a follow up with a longitudinal research
Longitudinal research- type of design whereby a particular group of individuals are
observed repeatedly over time.
Not only were the boys interviewed, so were the teachers and parents.
Results: the Gluecks were able to provide a portrait of the delinquent. They attributed the
differences of the two groups to parenting factors (primary source for superego development).
They indicated a marked difference bw the two across a range of parenting variables
o Among the parents (grandparents, siblings) for delinquents there was a greater incidence
of emotional disturbances, mental retardation, alcoholism, and criminality.
o Parents of the delinquents were less educated, less likely to stay together and less
o Parents of the delinquents shower greater carelessness in the supervision of their children
o Greater portion of delinquent family members were found to lack cohesiveness, warmth
and respect for the integrity of family members and fewer delinquents were attached to