Criminological Theories

Crime is a very complex phenomenon that has fascinated psychologists for centuries.  In an attempt to explain why individuals follow a deviant and corrupted path experts refer to various theories that can be intertwined and provide insight into the criminal mind.  Theorists believe criminal activity can be linked to one’s genetics, social ties or upbringing, and our deep subconscious.  This paper will review the biological, sociological, and psychological theories of crime causation and describe how it affects human behavior and actions.

A common assumption of biological theories of crime, are that genetics and physical traits play a leading role in one initiating deviant behavior.  In the earlier years of the biological theories, it was suggested that criminal traits were hereditary and passed down from parent to child.  In 1876 Lombroso, an Italian physician claimed criminals are born and were identified with certain physical traits or abnormalities, such as large ears, flattened nose, odd shaped skull, and insensitivity to pain. (Ford, 2013) Individuals with these traits could not resist bad behavior that lead to criminal activity.  In the early 1900’s Sheldon, an American psychologist expanded on Lombroso’s study and concluded that the size and shape of the human body can lead one to deviance.  Specifically, an individual whom is muscular and athletic or portrays an hourglass figure.  There is also the theory that suggests criminals have an extra Y chromosome, giving them an XYY chromosome makeup that possess them to commit crimes. In an attempt to study the relationship between hereditary and crime further, psychologists conducted studies of children that were adopted at a very young age that had no contact with their biological parents and the correlation of criminal activity.  The study included children with criminal biological parents and non-criminal biological parents.  Schulsinger conducted this study in the early 70’s and concluded that only 3.9% of the children with criminal biological parents displayed criminal traits and tendencies, compared to 1.4% of children that had non-criminal biological parents.  (Walters & White, 1989)  In 2007,

Abdelmalek Bayout, an Algerian citizen, who was living in Italy admitted to murder of another citizen.  After in depth testing it was suggested that abnormalities of the brain in which five genes were hosted that contained violent tendencies that led Bayout to murder.  (Feresin, 2009)  The biological theories have come under much scrutiny, as they hold no predictive qualities, because many individuals with attributes that are considered criminal traits do not actually become criminals in life.

The sociological theories justify criminal behavior while focusing primarily on social influences, such as culture, peers, environment, and upbringing when considering the cause of deviant and criminal acts.  Robert Agnew, a social theorist suggested individuals act out in response to a social frustration, commonly known as the strain theory.  They may engage in bad behavior to reduce the stress they are experiencing, such as commit a robbery to ease the stress of financial difficulty or become violent in order to work through suffered harassment.    Individuals also, learn to engage in criminal acts from their social network and peer influences.  Through social learning the crime becomes a desirable act and is justifiable based on the beliefs of the group. Young people are easily exposed to criminal behavior through gang initiations and other close knit groups that have learned no boundaries or respect for the law.  A juvenile may also engage in criminal acts based on observations from a group, media, or even a video game.  Young people are more likely to engage in criminal acts if they are likely to receive a reinforcement, such as social status, financial reward, or increased pleasure.  Negative reinforcement, such as a threat or punishment is also a driven factor that leads to deviant behavior.  In most cases the individual is seeking out approval or attention in some manner from peers, family, or teachers.

Sociological theories also allude that an individual that has been the victim or witness to crimes including, but not limited to neglect, child abuse, alcoholism, or selling drugs are more likely the criminal behavior at some point in their life.  The ability to decipher what is right or wrong has been tainted and the criminal life becomes a norm within the culture and society of the individual.  (Byrne, 2011)  Albert Bandura conducted a social learning study, famously known as the Bobo doll experiment.  He monitored the response of children as the observed a video of a model aggressively interacting with the same doll.  In the video the model hit the doll, beat it with a hammer, kicked it, and shouted erroneous phrases. (Lee, 2013) When the children were invited to the play room without receiving further instruction they began to reenact the same aggressive behavior towards the doll that was observed in the video.  This study supports observational and social learning, which contributes to bad behavior being learned and accepted by the individual.  As goes the old saying, “garbage in, garbage out.”  Ted Bundy, an American serial killer is a prime example for biological theory of crime causation.  As a young child he clung to his grandfather, a man who was a bigot with strong racist beliefs, abused and beat his wife, tortured cats, and was aggressive towards Bundy’s aunt as a young girl.  Ted’s grandfather acted out with violent rage.   Ted Bundy exhibited similar traits at a very young age in life and it was believed that the violent tendencies were learned from his grandfather.  He was disconnected from a parent child bond with his mother as he grew up thinking his mom was his sister.  He was anti-social and suffered a lack of control of his rage.  (Bio, 2013)  Psychological theories of crime causation emphasize the developments from childhood to adulthood of personality traits and defects that contribute to criminal acts. In order to explain criminal behavior, analysts have connected crime to personality traits and have reverted to labeling.  We look for certain characteristics in one’s personality, such as anti-social defects and associate those characteristics with deviance or psychotic behavior.  The level of intelligence can also play a role in the criminal mind, but is considered a negative correlation and is not a reliable factor.  Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud believed violent behavior was “the product of “unconscious” forces operating within a person’s mind.” (Ministry of Children and Youth Services, 2010)  Freud claimed that all human beings are born with natural instincts with the desire to satisfy their need for food, shelter, and pleasure.  These instincts are what drive us and are house deep within our unconscious.  It is because of these natural instincts to survive and meet our needs that he believes all humans have criminal tendencies.  Humans will do what they must to survive, without thinking of the altercations.  Freud’s theory suggests there are three levels to our unconscious and they are grouped as the ID, Ego and Superego.  Our Id is the biological, inherited, and unconscious source for our sexual drives and irrational impulses.  The Ego is influenced by non-biological extremities both social and family related that has brought on the basic developmental functions.    A child that has not had the opportunity to socialize starting at a young age may develop a personality disturbance which will cause him or her to have strong antisocial impulses.  They have trouble connecting with other kids their age and the awkwardness and feeling of being unaccepted directs the child to act out in negative ways that are not deemed a social norm or lawful.  Parental involvement is also considered to impact the development of a child mentally and socially.  A child that is disconnected from a parent may have trouble connecting with the world around them and leave them with no regard for the law; where as a child that has been nurtured and loved will grow up to be a caring and respectful citizen.  In a recent case reported by ABA Journal (Hansen, 2006), Dennis Rader, a well-respected man and a deacon at his church is also a well-known serial killer in Wichita Kansas in which he killed ten people.  His serial killer desires were deeply imbedded unconsciously and were triggered when he was denied a law enforcement officer position.  His aggression and extreme impulsive desires controlled his unconscious and forced him into a sadistic and heinous world.

Theorists are driven to understand the causation of crime in individuals.  Having a better understanding and the ability to justify the deviant desires will give criminal justice professional the opportunity to rehabilitate criminals and reduce crime.  The behavioral, social, and psychological theories attempt to explain individual causes, but do not provide concrete explanations and are a source of blame for one’s choices and actions.


Ford M.D., R. (2013, September 16). Biological and Psychological Theories of Crime. Retrieved June 19, 2015, from

Walters, G., & White, T. (1989, November 3). HEREDITY AND CRIME: BAD GENES OR BAD RESEARCH. Retrieved June 23, 2015, from

Byrne. (2011, October 1). Sociological Theories of Sociological Theories of Crime Causation. Retrieved June 23, 2015, from

Lee, D. (2013, June 16). Bobo Doll. Retrieved June 19, 2015, from

Review of the Roots of Youth Violence: Literature Reviews. (2010, April 27). Retrieved June 20, 2015, from

Hansen, M. (2006, April 21). How the Cops Caught BTK. Retrieved June 20, 2015, from

Ted Bundy. (2013). Retrieved June 24, 2015, from

Feresin, E. (2009, October 30). Lighter sentence for murderer with ‘bad genes’ Retrieved June 20, 2015, from

Domestic Violence and the Social Learning Theory

There are many theories that try to explain why men and women become violent in relationships.  Albert Bandura was a firm believer that behavior is caused by something deep in the brain and others believe that it is a controlled choice.  (University of South Alabama online, 2003) The theory that best explains domestic violence is the social learning theory.  The social learning theory suggests that violence is a learned behavior and can be triggered by stress, alcohol abuse, and money.  We learn behavior starting at an early age in life from our parents.  In fact our parents and guardians have the greatest impact on our behavior, attitude, and relationships.  The learned behavior carries with us into our adulthood.  “One hypothesized mode of intergenerational transmission is modeling. There is evidence that witnessing and/or experiencing violence are related to different patterns of abusive behavior.” (Murrell, Christoff, & Henning, 2007 pg. 523-532)

“Sociologists state that men batter because they learned violence in their families as children and that women seek out abusive men because they see their mothers being abused.” (McCue 2008)  I interviewed Sharon Mullen, who was abused in her home as a child.  She describes a home with lots of fighting.  Mullen states that her father was never violent, but his words were very demeaning and hurtful.   “I remember my father would call me stupid and would get very angry with me for spilling something or burning dinner.  My father verbally abused me and I learned that it was okay for men to speak to women in that manner.  As an adult I unknowingly sought out relationships in which my partner spoke down to me and with each relationship the abuse got more intense.  Overtime, I went from dating a man that verbally abused me to a more physically abusive relationship.” (Mullen, 2014)  Studies show this to be a pattern in women that witnessed some form of abuse as a child between her parents or was victimized as a child.  Children are very observant and even when you think they are not paying attention they are absorbing everything in.  Little eyes and little ears don’t miss much, soaking in sights and sounds. Children that witness violence and abuse are overwhelmed by intense feelings and replay consciously the turn of events.  (Cunningham and Baker online, 2007)  Children that see repeated behavior become numb to the violence and abuse and see it is as normal and accepted behavior.  When a man is abusive to a child’s mother, it’s more than bad role modeling. It’s bad parenting.   Let’s face it, as parents we act as role models.  We teach our children by word and action.

Children can be confused and not sure of what is right and what is wrong and will start to repeat the behavior they see.  Children that live in homes with repeat violence will act out by hitting, biting, and pushing friends, siblings, and classmates.  “Social learning theory suggests that a child learns not only how to commit violence but also learns positive attitudes about violence when he (or she) sees it rewarded (Dutton and Holtzworth-Munroe 1997; Kalmuss 1984).This suggests that children who have witnessed violence, or have been abused, learn destructive conflict resolution and communication patterns. Sternberg et al. (1997) suggest that Bandura’s social learning theory would predict that both observers and victims can be affected, with children from more violent environments being more likely to acquire aggressive modes of behavior.” (Murrell, Christoff, and Henning, 2007) The violent behavior will then escalate into personal relationships as they get older.  Think about the concept of the social learning theory; humans learn from observation from the people and environment around them.  When children witness violent behavior in the home they are learning more than it’s acceptable.  Violent relationships in the home teach children the following ideas:

  • violence and threats get you what you want; a person has two choices – to be the aggressor or be the victim;
  • victims are to blame for violence;
  • when people hurt others, they do not get in trouble;
  • women are weak, helpless, incompetent, stupid, or violent; anger causes violence or drinking causes violence;
  • people who love you can also hurt you;
  • unhealthy, unequal relationships are normal or to be expected;
  • men are in charge and get to control women’s lives; women don’t have the right to be treated with respect (Cunnigham and Baker, 2007)

By the time children reach adolescences they have this warped idea of how a relationship should be.   They have trouble with problem solving and are not able to reach a healthy solution to normal, every day challenges.  Media also plays a negative role by desensitizing our youth with violent video games and movies that reflect domestic abuse and men overpowering females.  Socially our youth struggle with emotions and become  very confused, especially if they do not have a positive, healthy, and stable home environment.  In fact teenage girls may have difficulty establishing healthy relationships; may fear being abused or being abusive in intimate relationships, especially when conflict arises; may avoid intimacy or prematurely seek intimacy and child bearing to escape and create own support system.  (Cunnigham and Baker online, 2007)

Through extensive research it has been discovered that men that have witness’s accounts of abuse and battering as a child are nine times more likely to play the role of the abuser in intimate relationships.  In cases of verbal violence, men who report observing domestic violence were also more likely to verbally abuse and threaten their partners. Further, the more physical the abuse, the more likely these men were to report committing verbal and physical violence to their intimate partners.  (Wareham, Boots, and Chavez, 2009)

It is evident that we learn by observing.  When we witness attacks of domestic violence become an every day event; we become numb to the real issue.  The violence becomes a normal event and a way of dealing with personal issues.  The social learning theory is undoubtedly the best way to explain the transfer of violent behavior generation to generation.   “A child who lives with violence is

forever changed, but not forever “damaged.” There’s a lot we can do to make tomorrow better.”  (Cunningham and Baker online, 2007)


McCue, M. (2008). Domestic violence: A reference handbook (Revised/Expanded ed.). Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO.

Murrell, A., Christoff, K., & Henning, K. (2007). Characteristics Of Domestic Violence Offenders: Associations With Childhood Exposure To Violence. Journal of Family Violence, 523-532.

Wareham, J., Boots, D., & Chavez, J. (2009, May 13). Social Learning Theory and Intimate Violence Among Men Participating in a Family Violence Intervention Program. Retrieved August 19, 2014, from

University, P. (2013, February 11).  – The Future of Children -. Retrieved August 19, 2014, from§ionid=1495

Structure: Mullen, Sharon   (2014, August 12). Personal interview.

Barrett, E. (2003, January 1). Social Learning Theory. Retrieved August 18, 2014, from