Psychology and Crime

Another set of theories that attempt to explain crime is learning theory, which is based upon behavioural psychology. Behaviourists believe external forces not internal determine crime. Differential association theory was created by Sutherland (1939) and suggests that criminal behaviour is learnt through association with others either within the family or through peer groups who hold positive definitions towards crime. Sutherland saw crime as an expression of needs and values.

There may be a need for money but this does not explain criminal behaviour, which is learnt. Within social groups an individual will be exposed to values and attitudes to crime. If a person has more favourable attitudes towards crime than against it they could become criminal. Specific techniques can be learnt from association with criminals but the favourable attitude does not have to come from the criminals but could come from law-abiding parents. (Putwain & Sammons 2002:47)

There are problems with the theory in that it is seen to be unclear in its definitions and does not explain how some individuals in comparable circumstances do not turn to crime. It also does not state how attitudes can be measured and how many unfavourable attitudes are needed for someone to become criminal. Whilst this theory explains how individuals could acquire criminal tendencies it does not explain why, if you can learn crime what makes you actually commit it. (Blackburn as citied in Putwain & Sammons 2002:48)

Skinner developed operant learning theory in which behaviour is determined by the environmental consequences it produces for the individual concerned. (Hollin) He suggested that when behaviour produces desirable consequences the behaviour will increase in frequency and is reinforced and if it produces undesirable consequences the behaviour will decrease and be punished. In other words we learn through receiving rewards and punishments. Jeffrey (1965) took both Sutherland’s and Skinner’s theories and refined them to create differential reinforcement theory.

It suggests that criminal behaviour is operant behaviour: that is, within the context of associations that an individual experiences, criminal behaviour is acquired and maintained through by its reinforcing consequences. (McLaughlin & Muncie 2001:93) Criminal behaviour will occur when conditions are right and are likely to produce rewards. In order to understand why a person would commit crime it is necessary to take into account their distinctive learning history. This would consist of understanding not only the individual but also the environment the criminal act would occur in.

Bandura (1973) took these theories one-step further in his social learning account. The theory shares the view that criminal behaviour is not only learnt from the environment through reinforcement but also through the process of modelling. Modelling involves learning through the observation of other people (models), which may lead to imitation if the behaviour imitated leads to desirable consequences. This could explain the current debate on violent films and video games and the link to aggression.

Learning theories can be criticised because they do not take into account the internal forces that psychoanalytical theories depend on. They do not take into account the notion of free will or the role of cognition. Some of the studies i. e. Skinners rats, are seen as being unreliable as rats are different to humans. In Bandura’s experiment the children may have felt that they needed to please the researcher and so does not mean that the children will go out and be violent to others. Behaviour does not only depend on observational learning.

People’s interpretations of their current situation and their personality are other important factors that need to be taken into account. Cognitive psychology differs from learning theories in that it gives cognition or thinking a central role in criminal behaviour. The cognitive explanation has become the basis of offender programmes within prisons and rehabilitation and is extremely influential within psychology. Yochelson & Samenows (1976) in their controversial theory of ‘criminal personality’ suggest that criminal behaviour stems from 40 distorted thinking patterns.

They claimed that they had found the criminal thinking patterns of criminals. They believe that all behaviour is the result of rational thinking and that criminals due to errors in their cognitive processes arrive at behavioural stages that are objectionable to society. This study has been criticised on the basis that they did not use a non-criminal control group to compare their findings so we do not know if these thinking errors occur in non-criminals. Wulach (1988) also mentioned that the 40 patterns resembled psychoanalytical defence mechanisms. (Putwain & Sammons 2002:53)

There are many theories in the biological approach that explain crime. Lombroso suggests that criminals are a separate species between modern and primitive humans who had different physical defects which determined them a criminal such as a prominent jaw or …

A further study type when looking at physiological affects is to look at twin studies. Twin studies use concordance rates to compare twin’s behaviour. They look at sets of twins and compare whether or not both display the same behaviour. …

Prevalence of substance use disorders among the youth encourages the growth of violence and crime in the society. Violence and crime can adversely affect the quality of life of people living in these areas. Even though the prevalence of drug …

Another possible cause is outlined by Bandura (1977) and the Social Learning theory is associated with Skinners findings but extends the basic operant principles and like Sutherlands Differential Association Theory considers that people learn through the actions of others rather …

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