Psychological Explanations of Offending Behaviour

Psychological Explanations of Offending Behaviour

Psychological explanations concentrate on factors such as family and environmental influences on offending behaviour, cognitive factors and personality.

Eysenck’s Theory

Eysenck (1947) proposed that behaviour could be measured and represented along two dimensions- introversion/extraversion __(‘E’) and __neuroticism/stability (‘N’). The combination of these two elements contributes to the make-up of personality. A third dimension- psychoticism (‘P’) was later added by Eysenck.

Biology: Eysenck suggested that personality traits originate from biology, therefore they are innate. He suggested this was linked to the activity of the nervous system, which is inherited. Extraverts have an underactive nervous system, so constantly seek excitement and interest, and don’t learn as well from mistakes. Neurotic people are nervous and anxious and generally unstable.

The criminal personality: Eysenck argued that the criminal personality is a combination of extravert and neurotic characteristics, as well as psychotic characteristics- unemotional and prone to aggression.

Socialisation: Eysenck saw criminal behaviour as developmentally immature, as the criminal is concerned with instant gratification- instead of waiting before they can get something, they take it straight away. If an individual had a high N and E score, they would find it hard to learn delayed gratification in childhood and be socialised properly. Therefore, they would be more likely to act in selfish, antisocial ways if given the chance.

Measuring the criminal personality: Eysenck developed the ‘Eysenck Personality Inventory’ (EPI), as test which measures where respondents would be placed along the E and N dimensions, to determine their personality type.

Psychological Explanations of Offending Behaviour, figure 1


  • Eysenck and Eysenck (1977) found that criminals scored highly on E, N and P measures than a control group of non-criminals, supporting the theory. However, Farrington et al (1982) reviewed studies which showed that criminals scored highly on P measures, but not E and N. Therefore, the evidence for the theory is mixed.
  • It has been suggested that there are many different types of criminal personality, depending on what types of crimes are involved and how they are carried out. Therefore, the idea that there is one criminal personality ‘type’ has been criticised as over-simplistic.
  • The way of measuring personality (through a test which gives a ‘score’ for different dimensions) can be argued to be reductionist, not reflecting the true complexity of personality and how it may differ over time. This reduces the validity of Eysenck’s theory.

Level of Moral Reasoning

Kohlberg suggested that individuals have different levels of moral reasoning (determining whether an action is right or wrong), which can be investigated by presenting them with imagined moral dilemmas. At a basic level, rules are seen as to be obeyed just because they involve punishment if broken, for example. At a more sophisticated level, there are considerations of factors such as human rights, which make up a personal set of ethical principles. Kohlberg argued that offenders have a lower level of moral reasoning, finding in a 1973 study that violent youths were much lower in their moral development than non-violent youths.

Psychological Explanations of Offending Behaviour, figure 1

Criminals are more likely to be classed at a basic stage of moral development- the ‘pre-conventional model’. Non-criminals tend to be at a higher stage- the ‘conventional level’ or the ‘postconventional level’. The pre-conventional level is characterised by a simple need to avoid punishment and gain rewards, and as such is a more childlike level of reasoning. Crime may be committed if the criminal thinks they will get away with it, or if it brings a significant enough reward. It also means offenders are more likely to be egocentric (self-centred) and less concerned with the rights of others.

Cognitive Distortions

These are errors in the way an individual thinks, which can be used to explain how criminals justify their behaviour. Examples include:

Hostile attribution bias: A tendency to misinterpret the actions of others, seeing them as hostile or confrontational when they are not. This serves as a trigger for possible aggressive behaviour. Schonenberg and Justye (2014) showed violent offenders emotionally ambiguous faces, finding that the participants were more likely to perceive the expressions as angry and hostile, compared to a matched control group. Such interpretations may have been learned in childhood.

Minimalisation: Denying or downplaying the seriousness of an offence. This may involve using euphemisms (‘job’ rather than ‘robbery’). Pollock and Hashmall (1991) found that 35% of a sample of child molesters tried to justify their actions by claiming they were ‘showing affection’ or that the child consented.


  • Palmer and Hollin (1998) found that, when presented with moral dilemmas, convicted offenders showed less mature moral reasoning than non-offending males and females. This supports Kohlberg’s suggestion that lower levels of moral reasoning is a factor in criminal behaviour.
  • The theory of cognitive distortions has proved useful in treating criminal behaviour. Through CBT, offenders can be encouraged to confront the seriousness of their actions, and research has found that successfully overcoming denial is correlated with lower rates of re-offending. This gives the cognitive explanation a useful real-world application.
  • Langdon et al (2010) argues that intelligence may be a better predictor of criminal behaviour than moral reasoning. People with very low intelligence, and also therefore low levels of moral reasoning, are actually less likely to commit crime. Kohlberg’s theory would struggle to explain this.

Differential Association Theory

Sutherland (1939) suggested that criminal behaviour is learned through association with and interaction with different people. This was an attempt to explain all types of offending- ‘the conditions which are said to cause crime should be present when crime is present, and absent when crime is absent’.

According to the theory, criminal behaviour is learned in the same way as other behaviour, through interactions with others (e.g., the family, peers and so on). Criminality will arise from two factors:

Pro-criminal attitudes: If an individual is socialised into a group where there are more pro-criminal attitudes than there are anti-criminal attitudes, they will go on to offend. Pro-criminal attitudes may include a disrespect for police officers, disregard for the law, and justification for crimes. If a person is consistently exposed to such attitudes from many people, they are very likely to commit crimes.

Learning criminal acts: The potential criminal learns the practicalities of how to carry out criminal acts, such as picking a lock or disabling a car alarm system. Such learning takes place in groups, and may also happen when in prison, which could explain high rates of re-offending amongst released prisoners.

Psychological Explanations of Offending Behaviour, figure 1


  • This theory can explain why different types of crime are common amongst different groups of people (such as burglary amongst working-class urban groups), as the attitudes towards the crime and how carry it out are learned and shared amongst the group. This is a strength of the theory.
  • Sutherland’s theory drew attention to the role of environments and learning in offending behaviour, moving away from the outdated atavistic approach and offering more practical solutions to the problem of crime.
  • The theory is hard to test, for example how to measure the amount of pro-criminal attitudes a person has been exposed to in their lives. Therefore, the theory could be argued to lack scientific rigour.

Inadequate Superego

Blackburn (1993) argued that criminal behaviour arises as the result of an underdeveloped superego. Freud’s tripartite personality structure consists of the id (selfish, impulsive, pleasure principle), the ego (reality principle) and the superego (morality principle, punishes id for its impulses and rewards moral behaviour). If the superego, formed at the phallic psychosexual stage, is inadequate, the id is given ‘free reign’ to carry out its selfish impulses, which manifests in criminal behaviour. Three types of inadequate superego have been proposed:

  • Weak: same-sex parent is absent during the phallic stage, so child does not internalise a fully-formed superego (there is no parent to successfully identify with)
  • Deviant: a child may be raised by a criminal parent, meaning the superego internalises deviant behaviour
  • Over-harsh: the superego is excessively harsh and focused on punishment, leading to a heightened sense of guilt and an unconscious drive to commit crime in order to be punished

Maternal Deprivation Theory

Proposed by Bowlby, who argued that a warm, continuous maternal bond was essential for normal development and well-being. If this is not present (for instance, through the disruption of the mother-child attachment), then a personality type known as affectionless psychopathy will develop. The features of this include a lack of guilt and empathy, and an increased likelihood of criminal behaviour. This was shown in the 44 thieves study, where 14 of the sample were classed by Bowlby as showing affectionless psychopathy. Of these, 12 had experienced prolonged separation from their mothers during their early childhood. Only two had experienced similar separation in a non-criminal group. Therefore, the maternal deprivation experienced may have led to subsequent criminal behaviour.

Psychological Explanations of Offending Behaviour, figure 1


  1. Freudian theory suggests that girls have weaker superegos than boys, as they are under less pressure to identify with the same-sex parent due to a lack of castration anxiety. However, males show more criminal behaviour than females, which contradicts the prediction of the inadequate superego explanation.
  2. There is little evidence that children raised without a same-sex parent are more likely to go on to offend, weakening the inadequate superego explanation. Also, if children have been raised by a deviant parent then go on to commit crime, this could be due to genetic inheritance rather than superego formation, a concept which is almost impossible to test scientifically.
  3. It is hard to establish a causal link with maternal deprivation and criminal behaviour. Lewis (1954) interviewed 500 young people and found no reliable link between the two, suggesting maternal deprivation may be just one of a range of factors affecting the likelihood of criminal behaviour.

Exam Question

Steve never knew his father, and was close to his mother until she tragically died when he was just two. Steve is now a teenager and is starting to get in trouble with the police, for actions such as vandalism and petty theft.

How would a psychodynamic psychologist explain Steve’s behaviour? (4 marks- 1-2 paragraphs)
Your answer should include: Father / Figure / Superego / Impulse / Maternal / Deprivation / Bowlby