Crime causations-psychological crime theory

Psychological Crime Theory- Explanations and Applications


Psychological crime theory is a sociological theory that explains why criminal and deviant behavior exists. The first criminologists who developed this theory were a group of German sociologists in the late 19th century.

The concept of crime is described in Edwin Sutherland’s book (1949), the father of modern criminology. It says, “Without a doubt, crime is the most astonishing feature of social life. Millions and millions of crimes are committed every year in the United States alone.”

This theory explains that crime is a major problem in society. Sutherland (1949) says that the crime rate is the frequency of crimes over a unit of time and space from a statistical point of view.

There are several psychological criminal theories, namely behavioral theory, psychodynamic theory, social learning theory, conflict theory, and cognitive theory.

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Behavioral Theory

The behavioral theory assumes that crime results from the cumulative impact of environmental factors and specific stressors. However, not everyone who is exposed to environmental factors and stressors becomes a criminal.

This theory supposes that during the first phases of life (childhood), social pressure, biological predisposition, and internal and external reinforcements are responsible for developing criminal behavior.

On the other hand, Gresham Sykes and David Matza (1957) state that participation in criminal behavior is a way of gaining power for individuals who usually cannot have this power.

Firstly, they try to find a path to being in power by using common ways. However, if those attempts fail, then they try to find another way by using illegal methods. They develop criminal behavior as a reaction to the failure of being in power.

Thus, this theory is also called anti-social personality theory. In this theory, crime is considered a psychological problem.

Psychodynamic Theory

According to the psychodynamic perspective developed by Sigmund Freud (1924), criminal behavior results from the inner conflict between biological and social needs. In his theory, human personality comprises three parts: id, ego, and superego.


It is an unconscious part that controls the instincts of human beings. This part creates anti-social desires for pleasure. In other words, it does not care about the consequences of its activities and does whatever meets the goals to fulfill the pleasure.


It is the conscious part that can control the id’s desires and the superego’s activities. In other words, it tries to find a balance between the desire of the id and social rules. However, sometimes this part cannot control the activities of the id (Baum, 2013).


It is the central part of the personality that controls the desires and actions of a human being. It can control the desires of the id and social rules.

Thus, this theory explained crime as a result of conflict between the desire of a person (usually from the id part) and the rules of society (which are believed by the superego).

This theorist argued that criminals do not consider the consequences of their actions. A desire possesses them. They do what can fulfill their inner desires, no matter the consequences of their actions.

Freud also explained that to understand crime better, one should get acquainted with past experiences of criminals. He said that when a person experiences any trauma while young, this can cause severe psychological disorders that can lead to acts that break the law.

Cognitive Theory

The cognitive theory asserts that to understand criminal behavior better, one should study the thoughts of criminals. Thus, one should understand how individuals think about crime and whether they can control themselves or not.

According to this theory, people commit crimes because they think that what they do is right. In other words, criminals believe that their behavior, goals, and interests are more important than laws. This type of thinking is called egocentric thinking.

This theory states that delinquency can be thought of as violating implicit social rules rather than explicit written laws (Baum, 2013).

Thus, criminal behavior results from thinking that one’s actions are reasonable, although they do not obey the rules of society. This theory states that to understand criminal behaviour better, one has to study a crime from the perspective of a criminal.

There are three levels of cognitive theory:

Pre-conventional level of morality

This level refers to the stage before a person starts thinking about what is right and wrong. In this stage, the child does not care about social rules because they think they are correct. For example, to fulfill his own goals and interests, a child may lie, steal, or even kill someone.

Conventional level of morality

In this stage, a person starts to care about social rules and tries to follow them. The goals of this stage are self-interests, while the means to get those interests are also following the rules of society. For example, if one wants to steal something from another person, they can do it as long as they do not get found out.

Post-conventional level of morality

In this stage, a person starts to think about what is right and wrong. The goals of this stage are social interests, while the means to get those interests are also following societal laws.

For example, if a person wants to steal an expensive gift from another person (which they can sell to earn money and buy something for themselves), they will not do it because they understand that stealing is wrong.

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory views society as an arena where individuals and groups compete for power. In this theory, crime results from the conflict between social classes (rich and poor), social groups, or even individuals.

According to this theory, the relationship between individuals is the vital factor that influences criminal behavior development. This means people who lack social bonds with each other are more likely to be deviant.

People who do not have friends or family members to support them when in trouble are more likely to get into criminal acts. This is because they do not have people who can encourage or support them when they are in trouble. So, these people tend to resolve different issues on their own.

This theory suggests that crime occurs in poor communities because the individuals living in these communities are deprived socially and economically (Marshall& Marshall, 2012).

To understand crime better, one should study the causes of this phenomenon. In other words, one should study the factors that influence criminal behaviour. This can help to prevent crime in the future and make society safer for everyone.

Rational Choice Theory

This theory states that people are rational in their decision making and crime results from these decisions. In other words, individuals commit crimes because they make rational choices. According to this theory, every person has unique preferences, resources, or opportunities. These characteristics affect a person’s decisions.

For example, if a person values money more than family, then he might steal someone’s wallet for the sake of getting money. His decision to steal the wallet would be rational because money is worth more than family for him.

Social Learning Theory

This theory suggests that people learn criminal behaviors from others and these influences motivate people to be deviant. This theory has four stages:

  1. Observational learning (substitution phase)
  2. Modelling (acquisition phase)
  3. Practice (performance phase)
  4. Imitation (maintenance phase)”(Baum 2013).

On the other hand, this theory also states that people learn criminal behaviors through experience and culture.

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What is Psychiatric Criminology?

The theory that explains criminal behaviour from the perspective of a person who has committed the crime is called “psychiatric criminology.” In this theory, a psychiatrist studies the psychological state of criminals to understand this phenomenon better. This theory was first used by doctors who tried to help criminals to control themselves.

Psychiatric criminology studies criminal behaviour from biological and psychological perspectives.

The first step of this research is to test the psychological state of criminals. The second step is to observe the conditions in which this criminal behaviour appeared. Psychiatric criminologists try to understand the psychology of a criminal and the factors that led them to deviance.

However, this theory is not widely accepted by criminologists. It claims that all criminals have a mental disorder that causes them to commit a crime. Psychiatric criminology refers to all criminals as mentally ill hence many criminologists do not accept this theory.

The Criminal Justice System and the Psychological Crime Theory

As the psychological crime theory emerged, the application of this theory to explaining and solving crimes increased. This is because it tried to explain criminal behavior in terms of the mind of a criminal. In other words, it tried to explain how criminals think and act at the same time.

The criminal justice system upholds the moral law through punishment. However, this system cannot explain why people commit crimes. Thus, the psychological crime theory emerged to understand criminal behavior better and apply it to criminal minds.

The community needs to protect its members from criminals. For this reason, the criminal justice system needs to punish criminals. The psychological crime theory tries to help the criminal justice system by explaining and predicting criminal behaviors.

Applications of the Psychological Crime Theory in Criminology

The psychological crime theory can be applied to the court when it is used to explain why a person committed a crime. It helps the law enforcers to understand what the criminal thought during the moment of the crime.

For instance, in some murder cases, the culprit may claim that they did not intend to kill the victim. According to the psychological crime theory, the criminals who commit such murders assume that they will not be punished severely. They believe that their actions will not cause severe consequences and harm to them.

The psychological crime theory can be applied to the rehabilitation of criminals. This is because it explains criminal behaviour in terms of psychology and mind. Thus, it can help offenders concentrate on their thoughts and actions instead of simply obeying the law.

This theory is also applicable in crime research. Since it focuses on the human mind, it can be used to study how a criminal thinks. This study can help scientists to understand the criminal mind and behavior even better.

You may also be interested in Other Crime Theories

Sociological Applications of the Psychological Crime Theory

The psychological crime theory plays a significant role in sociology because it focuses on a criminal’s inner mind. In other words, it focuses on human psychology and tries to explain how criminals think and act.

This theory focuses on the explanation of criminal behavior and why people commit crimes. It tries to explain criminals’ minds instead of prohibiting them from doing that. In other words, it tries to explain how criminals think and act at the same time.

Theories of crime like the social learning theory explore different reasons why people commit crimes. The social learning theory states that children observe others and learn from them. Then they become like those they observed.

This theory explains crime as the result of social learning. It claims that people learn to commit a crime through observing others and doing that.

The circumstances that cause people to embrace violence can be explored through the social disorganization theory. According to this theory, police officers can protect people from crime by ensuring that society is well organized.

The local community should have a proper education system, and their members are employed in good jobs. When these things happen, it will help prevent criminal behavior and promote a safe environment.

You may also be interested in major theories of crime causation


Currently, different theories try to explain crime and delinquency in terms of human behavior. However, the main problem with these theories is that they cannot be applied to real situations in society. This is because they are based on the facts and figures of ancient studies.

Thus, the criminal justice system should be reformed to understand crime from a psychological point of view.  It considers how criminals think about themselves and society.

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