How Psychology Explains Criminal Behavior
Crimes do not occur in a vacuum – they affect people and properties, and they are pretty much influenced by certain factors. In fact, there are many factors and influences that can lead people to commit a crime. Different areas of beliefs have different explanations on criminal behavior. Psychology, particularly, has some convincing and intriguing theories about how and why some people participate in criminal activities. Ultimately, the psychology of criminal behavior contains several interesting observations and discoveries about humans and their capacities.
Defining Criminal Behavior
By legal definition, criminal behavior pertains to the conduct of an offender that leads to the commission of an unlawful act. It involves any overt or covert law-breaking conduct that harms or demoralizes a person or a property. In most countries or states, criminal behavior is punishable upon conviction. Broadly, there are two main categories of criminal behavior: violent crime and property crime.
Violent crime is any crime that involves the use of threat or force upon a victim by an offender or perpetrator. Typically, this category of criminal behavior includes such crimes as burglary, bank robbery, carjacking, aircraft hijacking, kidnapping, drug trafficking, murder, active shooting, torturing, and terrorism.
Property crime, on the other hand, is a crime in which the main intention of the offender or perpetrator is to obtain money, property, or any other benefit. It usually involves private property, which can be either destroyed or stolen. The most common examples of a property crime are arson, burglary, larceny, theft, motor vehicle theft, and shoplifting. Sometimes, the commission of a property crime may also involve the use of threat or force such as in the cases of robbery and extortion.
The Criminal Mind
As previously stated, there are several explanations behind criminal behavior. Some explanations emphasize the role of childhood and social environment as the main influences on criminal behavior, while others take into account the impact of substance abuse and low self-control.
Psychology, on the other hand, has a totally different explanation on criminal behavior. It believes that brain structure and function play an important role in determining whether or not a person has the potential to commit crime. The psychology of criminal behavior takes into account the possibility of the so-called ‘criminal mind’.
Several psychological studies on criminal behavior have found an intriguing evidence, which shows that the brains of certain kinds of criminals have significant differences from those of the rest of the population. In a brain study published in the September 2009 Archives of General Psychiatry, for example, it was found that psychopaths – people suffering from a mental disorder associated with violent social behavior – generally have some deformations in a part of their brains called the amygdala. The amygdala is the seat of emotions. It is responsible for fear, aggression, social interactions, survival instructs, and memory.
In a similar study led by Dustin Pardini of the University of Pittsburgh, a significant evidence on the link between deformations in the amygdala and the implications for crime has been found. In the said study, the team of Dustin Pardini observed that 26-year-old men with lower amygdala volumes were more likely to show aggression, violence, and psychopathic traits three years later than those men of the same age with more normal-sized amygdalae.
Most explanations of the psychology of criminal behavior posit that, indeed, the form and structure of the amygdala play an important role in determining a potential criminal. Studies on fear conditioning, particularly, which is dependent on amygdala function, provides the most convincing evidence on this. In a study led by Adrian Reine of the University of Pennsylvania and Yu Gao of CUNY-Brooklyn, it was found that children, as young as three years old, who fail to demonstrate fear conditioning – they are fearless in situations when most people would be fearful – are more likely to commit crime later on compared to those who demonstrate fear as conditioned response. Hence, this finding strengthens the claim that deficits in the amygdala predispose to crime at adulthood.
Psychopathy and Sociopathy
Psychology frequently associates criminal behavior with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) – a mental illness characterized by long-term patterns of disregard for or violation of social norms and human rights. The symptoms of ASPD can vary in terms of severity. The more atrocious, dangerous, and harmful behavioral patterns are referred to as psychopathic and sociopathic.
Psychopath and sociopath are terms commonly used in popular media to describe people with problematic or criminal behavior. Both books and films use psychopathy and sociopathy as subjects of crime or thriller narratives particularly. Oftentimes, these two terms are confusingly used interchangeably. Even though they both share the diagnosis of ASPD, there are some significant differences between a psychopath and a sociopath.
For one, psychopathy is believed to be a genetic predisposition. This means that psychopaths are born naturally, and their condition is related to some physiological brain differences such as having underdeveloped brain components responsible for impulse control and emotion regulation. Generally, psychopaths tend to be manipulative, and they lack the ability to feel emotions and guilt.
On the other hand, sociopathy is believed to be a result of environmental factors such as the negative upbringing of a child or teen that results to physical abuse, emotional abuse, or childhood trauma. Generally, sociopaths tend to be impulsive and erratic. Compared to their psychopath counterparts, many sociopaths may be able to feel emotions and form an attachment to a like-minded person or group of people.
Warning Signs of a Criminal Mind
Many criminals and potential criminals exhibit certain actions, behaviors, and traits that can serve as warning signs of their tendency to commit crime in the future. These warning signs that potential criminals typically manifest include:
- Pursuing control and power for their own sake
- Acting on their whims, impulses, and desires while disregarding what is right and wrong
- Failing to develop empathy for others
- Having unrealistic expectations and pretensions
- Constantly or pathologically lying
- Blaming others and refusing to take responsibility of their actions
- Always taking an uncompromising position and having the willingness to resort to any means to achieve their objectives
Knowing and recognizing these warning signs of a criminal mind can substantially help in identifying and averting potential criminals from physically, emotionally, or financially harming others. Failure to heed these actions, behaviors, and traits will most likely lead to the development of a criminal behavior.