The Psychology of Crime

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On the different dimensions of criminal behavior and understanding the mind of the criminal

Criminals have distinct psychological features and are either exceptionally calm and composed or overtly aggressive and temperamental. Some criminals are extraordinarily intelligent whereas many criminals are of average and low intelligence. However criminal behavior is not caused by aggression alone as there are several other factors that add to criminal behavior. Biologists have tried to provide a genetic explanation of criminal tendencies suggesting that crime may run in the family or hardcore criminals have chromosomal/genetic aberrations. The change in the levels of neuro-chemicals in the body can lead to criminal behavior as some neuro-chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin are directly associated with aggression and psychopathic behavior.

However the main and direct cause of criminal behavior in individuals would be family/ immediate environment and schools / social groups, personality, and moral development.

This is explained with the help of social-personal-moral dimensions of criminal behavior.

Social (Family/Environment) – Aggressive and criminal behavior is largely shaped by society and social groups, by friends, family and other people. Children who are encouraged to behave aggressively towards other people and also towards their parents can grow up to become criminals in later life. If parents and friends encourage aggressive behaviour or if a child always gets his way by shouting and crying, he will in most cases grow up to become a criminal. Extreme control or too much freedom given to a child can cause severe harm to the proper social and moral development of the child. The immediate social environment and the culture in which children are brought up are responsible for the development of criminal behavior so if a child associates with other people who engage in criminal offenses or if he has a violent and aggressive family environment, criminal behavior is again likely. Sometimes children learn to take drugs or alcohol or carry weapons as they try to follow certain group behaviors and this is the foundation of crimes. Disorganized societies and environment as in case of broken homes, disruptive family environment, war zones, conflict torn areas are highly susceptible to crime and criminal activities. The social group or friends introduce the children to either the good things of life such as arts, knowledge and culture or to the negative side of life such as drugs, crime and alcohol and this is the process of social learning. Finally it is the individual who chooses which direction of life s/he will take and this decision largely depends on individual personality.

Personal (Personality/ Dispositions) – Personality disorders have been found to be closely associated with criminal behavior and the criminal is often a psychopath or an antisocial given to mental instability, irritability or extreme aggression and argumentativeness. Some psychopaths are soft spoken and apparently charming and non-aggressive yet are capable of performing the most heinous crimes. Some personality patterns are more vulnerable to criminal behavior than some others. All these people have one thing in common, through their criminal behavior they try to escape reality and vent their frustrations by performing antisocial acts. The escape route is through the crimes and all criminals suffer from an avoidant/escapist personality pattern as they kill or steal because for a few moments they escape reality and its consequences and live in a hazy unreal world comprising only of their unconscious desires and thoughts. Performing a criminal act is like performing a play on a stage and when engaging in a crime, criminals are in a different mental state altogether, which is not exactly normal. As excessive alcohol also induces this mental ‘haze’, crime rates are often high in alcoholic conditions. Suicide is also a sort of crime although suicide happens when this mental confusion in one’s life is prolonged and is often associated with mental illnesses and depression. Manic hyper aroused conditions lead to crimes towards others and depression often leads to crime towards self.

Moral (Conformity/ Rationality) – Moral development of individuals is closely related to conforming to certain norms and standards of society, and control of antisocial or negative behavior is absolutely necessary in preventing delinquent behavior. However the stages of moral development should be understood to delineate the positive or negative impact of non conformity. After compete moral development, individuals may choose to not conform to social standards and try to move beyond norms. This is not always negative and would be associated with novelty and creativity. However when moral development is hindered at an early stage of life when children ignore moral values and ethics of society for their own selfish pursuits and there is a complete lack of external control, the moral development is truncated and lead to criminal behavior in later life. A restraining factor in crime is rational thinking and if individuals can rationalize, reflect and understand the seriousness of crimes, they would be deterred from engaging in crimes and would thus in turn aid their own moral and personal development. According to psychoanalysis we all have criminal/aggressive tendencies but a criminal is the one who directs the basic urges of aggression towards other people and the external world. Moral development of children would be dependent on several factors and according to psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg the first stage of moral reasoning is of obedience and avoiding punishment, the second stage is keeping up to expectations of family members and the final stage is moving beyond social conventions. Criminals are people who have incomplete moral development as their behavior may by motivated by a desire to break the law and challenge obedience and punishment, and this is largely different from mature nonconformity that is at times constructive. A criminal is thus recognized by his destructive and negative personality.

From this we move to the discussion on what exactly goes on in the mind of a criminal and what are the motivations that drive people to criminal activity. Some of the reasons for which people engage in crime would be jealousy/envy, frustration, necessity (for example: extreme poverty), mental disorder (delusion), social disorganization, personal failures, social groups, family environment, influence of drugs/alcohol or neurochemical imbalance. Individual circumstances are as important as the other general factors along social, personal and moral dimensions and criminal behavior could be more impulse / act oriented or planning /mind oriented. The ‘impulse oriented’ crime acts are impulsive and happen spontaneously when for example, a man kills another in a fit of rage. The ‘planning oriented’ criminal could be a psychopath or a normal person although the common aspect would be their ability to plan the criminal act as a venture.

Unbelievable that it may sound, a moment of crime is a moment of indifference as the criminal does not concentrate on his own feelings but on the act itself. Thus a criminal can become detached in the moment of crime. In fact this is the strength and the weakness of the criminal, as detachment makes crime easy as the criminal divorces himself from the crime to prevent feelings of guilt and this same ability to get detached could be utilized positively, to develop detachment from the material aspects of life. Criminals if rehabilitated and properly trained can be great sources of strength for the society as all criminals are also capable of devotion, determination and detachment and could be successful religious leaders, social / humanitarian workers and counselors.