Psychological Theories of Crime


Criminal activity is an important and persistent problem for society. In places where many individuals co-exist, the actions of a few individuals may have devastating effects on others. To minimize the potential impact of crime, as well as prevent more crime from occurring, the field of forensic science has been developed. Specialists in this profession work with a wide array of tasks, including studying, investigating and solving criminal cases. Sociologists, psychologists, detectives, doctors and many other professionals operate together in a shared network of tasks meant to make society operate smoother.

One of the central concerns for forensic science is the origins of criminality and the reasons for its occurrence. By realizing why crime occurs, both forensics and the larger society will be able to take measures to reduce crime or address it properly. However, no concrete origin of criminal behavior has been established thus far. A number of prominent theories exist, though, allowing specialists to understand the actions of criminals and frame them in the context of individual development/community/society. For the purposes of this paper, a number of prominent criminal psychology theories will be discussed. Both supporting arguments and significant flaws of these approaches will be covered in an attempt to highlight the importance of critical thinking and an evidence-based approach in applying psychosocial theories of crime.

Criminality and Psychology

First, it is important to discuss more thoroughly why psychology is important for the field of criminology. In general, psychology seeks to understand the human psyche, or propose potential theories of explaining human behaviors. This includes examining the influence of upbringing, environment, culture, education, and social interaction on the individual. Many psychologists throughout history have attempted to understand the roots of human character and behavior. Generally, it is believed that a combination of nature and nurture becomes responsible for how a person develops.

This includes the work of their parents, their relationship with their peers, academic performance, as well as the influence of their developing self-identity on their path forward. Different branches of psychology define the ratio between genetic and social factors differently. When the questions start concerning criminal or “deviant” behavior, however, the fields of forensics, law and governance become involved with psychology. For these professionals, determining the most useful framework for understanding people’s actions within society is crucial. It allows legislators to bring changes to the law and governments to better fulfill the needs of their people. For forensic professionals, then, the benefit comes from becoming capable of gaining a better understanding of criminal behavior. With a shift to a more secular society, using religion or the influence of the supernatural on the individual become less viable, and human societies built laws regarding this subject.

Cognitive Theories of Crime

There are a number of approaches to understanding criminal behavior. One of them comes in the form of examining people’s behavior In particular, the concept of moral development takes precedence where the person finds themselves incapable of properly interacting with society. For cognitive crime thory, there are three basic levels to measure the ability of a person to integrate into society. The first level is often found in kids, who obey their parents simply because they were told to do so. They are unable to fully grasp society’s expectations and learn in the process of growing up (“Psychological theories of delinquency,” 2011. According to existing materials, the first proponent of this theory is Jean Piaget. This look at the cause of crime makes the process appear similar to a developmental issue, where some people simply do not have a sufficiently developed capacity to regard criminality as not worthwhile. As an approach, it has been widely tested in crime analysis and contributed to the sphere of criminal forensics. One of its central downsides is that it takes away agency and responsibility from criminals while also understanding them as inherently incapable of understanding the value of acting morally. This attitude is not conducive to rehabilitating criminals, and is restrictive to those who want to consider crime as a question of being responsible.

Social Development Theory of Crime

Comparatively, the social development theory of crime takes human bonds and relationships, using them as the central crux and guarantee against crime. According to researchers, most individuals make a semi-conscious decision to abide by the laws of the society they live in. This includes following the law and considering crimes to be unwanted behavior (Hawkins et al., 1996). When an individual has bonded with others, then, their ability to adhere to social norms and regulations increases. This result presents criminality as an inherently asocial set of behaviors, one that goes out of line with living a regular life of a person. Those who have stable bonds with others are less likely to commit crimes. This approach is interesting and innovative in considering the role of existing social connections instead of just flatly discussing all positive social interactions as contributing to anti-crime sentiment. It is helpful in providing a framework of understanding antisocial behavior and finding ways to help individuals that may not have had the ability to connect with others. Where it fails, however is in considering the existence of crime families, organizations and other types of entities that combine criminality and social relations. Oftentimes, corporate crime is supported by an entire structure of an organization, with all employees being permissive of the process. They are a part of a criminally-run system while also being social.

Influence of Low IQ and Poor Education Attainment

In addition to the existence of various sociological and psychological theories that explain the existence of criminal behavior, there are also other factors that forensic science uses to study crime. In particular, IQ, or intelligence in general, has an especially interesting history with antisocial behavior. A number of prominent, relatively old studies establish a connection between lower IQ and youth delinquency. Samples were taken from both British and American youth(Moffitt et al., 1981). Primary evidence for the connection of criminal activity/delinquency and intelligence comes primarily from juveniles, likely due to the ease of obtaining a large number of IQ scores for comparison’s sake. A number of different theories were proposed in order to interpret the correlation, falling in line with other assumptions made about individuals affiliated with crime. One of the earliest suppositions asserted that young delinquents are unable to discern the difference between right or wrong due to their low intelligence (Moffitt et al., 1981). In this way, the conventional expectations and demands of society were perceived as too challenging to grasp for people of lower intelligence. This partially falls in line with the cognitive approach to understanding criminality. Both the cognitive theory and early ideas about IQ considered criminals as unable to properly understand the boundaries of normal social behavior, be it due to psychological differences or a lack of intelligence. In addition, researchers argued that the presence of low-IQ delinquents could be the effect on statistical bias. Those criminals that have a lower IQ are more likely to get caught in the act, making them over-represented in studies involving intelligence. Later research has proven that most delinquents and criminals do have a grasp on the differences between right and wrong, instead choosing to either ignore them, or prioritize their interests instead.

When considering the connection between criminal activity and IQ, in particular, many researchers came to see IQ as a stand-in for general intelligence and thus understand delinquents as inherently less intelligent. However, this ignores two important factors. First, youth delinquency is far from the only type of criminal activity that can be commonly found. Both violent and non-violent crime are widespread across ages, demographics and parts of society. Fraud and white collar crime, for example, can be seen as a particularly persistent type of crime, one which requires an individual to possess a considerable level of intelligence or social awareness (Kenney, 1999; Sharma et al., 2015). In other types of criminal activity, too, a high level of planning, decision-making and reasoning is often involved. Therefore, it would be difficult to assume that most criminals are not intelligent.

The second, and arguably, more egregious supposition is that IQ is an accurate measurement of human intelligence. Historically, IQ testing is adapted from tests used to measure the academic performance of schoolchildren. In an effort to determine the potential issues children had in studying, scientists devised a series of evaluations capable of identifying gaps in learning. From the methods utilized in these tests, the modern IQ test emerged. Therefore, it would be difficult to say that IQ is capable of measuring general intelligence of a person (Flynn, 1987). Largely, it is only suitable to explain their academic prowess, and only in very specific areas of learning. The application of a standardized test prioritizes those that are used to taking tests, and are able to understand the mechanisms of completing an IQ test within sufficient time constraints. Children from challenged backgrounds, or those who struggle with adhering to the principles of classic education, then, are more likely to score poorly.

In addition, it can be noted that using a single value, an intelligence quotient, to determine intelligence is almost impossible. There is a wide variety of behaviors/types of knowledge that could be seen as intelligence, ranging from the ability to navigate conversations to one’s capacity to solve equations. In order to make a test capable of measuring intelligence as a single value, it was necessary for its creators to choose specific arbitrary values and assign them as central to all intelligence. This approach does not work to adequately reflect the variety of human skill and experiences. For example, taking a child who has a well-developed linguistic ability but struggles to solve mathematical equations quickly to take an IQ test, would likely result in them getting a low score. In comparison, a child who likes solving riddles, sighting patterns and thinks quickly may be at an advantage. Both children would be considered intelligent outside of the boundaries of an IQ test, making its results unreliable. It can also be added that it is possible to prepare for an IQ test. A person aware of how an IQ test is administered and what they need to do can get progressively better scores with each test, without significantly changing their level of intelligence otherwise. All of these points serve to show that using IQ as a measurement of delinquent intelligence is a flawed method, one that prioritizes a narrow and strictly academic view on the subject (Maguin & Loeber, 1996). In addition, it likely misrepresents the intelligence of vulnerable groups, such as individuals with mental health issues, disabilities, learning issues and a general unfamiliarity to taking tests.

Influence of Socio-Economic Deprivation

Crime has been intrinsically linked with socio-economic status and class for many years. In general, those individuals that live in worse material conditions are more likely to be both victims and perpetrators of crime. Violent crime statistics, in particular, are often dominated by areas where poor and marginalized communities exist (Anser et al., 2020). There are a number of reasons for this social trend. Most commonly, it is seen that individuals experiencing socio-economic deprivation may see crime as an option of potentially changing their status, or ensuring their survival. In this way, thefts, robberies and fraud can be considered as a result of not having enough resources for self-sustenance. In cases of crimes like drug possession, the connection is made between the stress of living under bad material conditions and the effects various substances have on the psyche. In perceiving the presence of different social conditions as corrosive to the ability of individuals to obey the law, this view of the issue presents poor and marginalized people are uniquely likely to be criminals.

However, this perspective does not accurately represent the full relationship between people, material conditions, and crime. In particular, it does not account for the unequal distribution of law enforcement and an over-representation of marginalized peoples in socio-economic deprivation. Because of social stigma that comes with poverty, as well as existing crime statistics, poorer neighborhoods are more likely to be policed harshly, and more people are being arrested (Cipriano, 2020). As a result, more poor people become part of their nation’s crime statistics, further increasing the amount of policing their communities experience. In addition, those that live in more stable, wealthy areas are more capable of using their wealth to escape conviction. Marginalization, discrimination and bigotry also has an effect on crime in socially deprived areas (Majumder, 2017). Typically, those seeking to inflict harm on individuals of another race, ethnicity or identity would be found in poorer areas, as the likely hood of being prosecuted for a hate crime is lower, while the presence of minority communities is more pronounced.


In conclusion, it can be said that the field of forensics is especially important to society. It allows professionals to investigate the origins of crime and potentially counteract its emergence. In addition, it brings light to the more difficult subjects of life, ones that do not have a definite solution as of today. With the emergence of different sociological and psychological theories, it becomes possible to explain crime or understand criminals better. This process is conducive to creating better policy and facilitating social change.


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Maguin, E., & Loeber, R. (1996). Academic performance and delinquency. Crime and Justice, 20, 145-264.

Majumder, M. (2017). Higher rates of hate crimes are tied to income inequality. FiveThirtyEight.

Moffitt, T. E., Gabrielli, W. F., Mednick, S. A., & Schulsinger, F. (1981). Socioeconomic status, IQ, and delinquency. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 90(2), 152-156.

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Sharma, N., Prakash, O., Sengar, K., Chaudhury, S., & Singh, A. (2015). The relation between emotional intelligence and criminal behavior: A study among convicted criminals. Industrial Psychiatry Journal, 24(1), 54.

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