The trait theory

Trait Theory in Criminology- Definition, Examples & Essay


Trait theory in criminology is the study of how different traits can predispose criminal behavior. Most researchers agree that humans have a certain degree of control over their behavior. Trait theory suggests that those who commit crimes do so because they have traits that predispose them to criminal behavior.

In criminology, traits are dimensions of human personality or behavior that carry the potential for both positive and negative value to the individual and society. This theory is used in explaining a crime. It uses an individual’s traits as the reason for committing a crime.

Trait theory can be broken down into three perspectives. The first perspective is the psychodynamic perspective, which focuses on internal conflicts and connections between childhood experiences and adult behavior.

The second perspective is the type A theory, which focuses on how individuals’ personality affects their criminal behavior. Lastly, social learning theory suggests that criminal behavior is learned from peers and role models.

Some examples of traits include impulsivity/reflectivity, intelligence, sensation seeking, aggression, and dependency.

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Psychodynamic Perspective

According to the psychodynamic perspective, criminal behavior is rooted in a person’s unconscious. Traits such as aggression and hostility are developed through early childhood experiences such as too much parental control (overprotective), lack of maternal affection, harsh physical punishment, or paternal affection.

The psychodynamic perspective has been criticized for being unable to be tested or proven.

Type A theory

The type A theory is much narrower in that it tries to explain criminality and predicts what the outcome will be. This theory was established by Henry T. Moore and later developed by Lloyd Ohlin. It consists of:

  • Type A behavior pattern, which is a personality trait or predisposition to hostility.
  • The social learning of aggression is what role models (people with Type A behavior) say and do that encourage criminal/aggressive behaviors in others. This theory has been criticized for not being tested empirically and having too much emphasis on the individual.

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory argues that criminal behavior can be learned and mimicked by individuals from their environment, such as friends, family, or role models.

Opponents of social learning theory suggest that it is impossible to test empirically. There are also criticisms about the ability to generalize findings from studies with lab animals or laboratory settings.

Personality Traits

A personality trait is defined as a “relatively consistent and enduring internal characteristic of a human being, consisting of the tendency to respond in certain ways across situations.”

The idea of personality traits is a major topic in psychology, with many other areas branching out from this.

There are multiple perspectives on how personality traits are formed. The three main perspectives include:

The psychoanalytic perspective

It focuses on how personality is developed within early childhood experiences. According to this perspective, personality is formed when an individual must deal with internal or external conflicts.

The psychoanalytic perspective states that traits are developed through the resolution of early childhood conflict. These conflicts create internal predispositions that guide how the individual will respond to a situation.

According to psychoanalytic theory, when children are faced with conflict, they develop defense mechanisms to protect themselves. These defense mechanisms set up personality traits that will become dominant in the individual’s adult life.

The five main defense mechanisms include:

  • Denial- Refusal to acknowledge a painful truth or fact, ignoring the situation
  • Defense mechanism- A form of emotional or mental protection that reduces anxiety by distorting reality
  • Repression- Involuntary forgetting of uncomfortable memories or impulses
  • Projection- Definition: Allowing one’s unacceptable attributes to be attributed to someone else
  • Displacement- Transfer of own feelings onto another person

The behavioral perspective

This perspective focuses on how personality is developed through reinforcement and stimuli throughout life.

The behavioral perspective states that personality is developed through reinforcement and stimuli throughout life instead of early childhood experiences.

According to this theory, personality is created based on reinforcement or punishment for each response.

Behaviorist John B. Watson said that “I would rather have a young man who was a good athlete and not too smart than be one who was bright but did not have staying power.”

The humanistic perspective

This perspective focuses on how personality is developed through personal experiences and the choices made throughout life.

The humanistic perspective states that personality is developed based on experiences and choices made throughout life.

This perspective focuses on the goals and aspirations of an individual, as opposed to childhood experiences.

According to this theory, personality is developed through an individual’s projects. These projects are created by envisioning the goals they want to accomplish and the personal standards they want to achieve.

The three main assumptions of this perspective include:

  • The self is a conscious entity that can be known.
  • There are many paths to self-actualization and growth
  • Personality is based on the goals and aspirations of an individual rather than early childhood experiences.

Personality Disorder

A personality disorder is defined as an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior. This pattern deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture. It is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment.”

There are many different types of personality disorders, including paranoia, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), schizoid/schizotypal personality disorder (STD), and borderline personality disorder (BPD).

The following symptoms categorize a narcissistic personality disorder:

  • A preoccupation with fantasies of success, power, intelligence, and attractiveness.
  • A Belief that one is superior to others or has exceptional abilities
  • Self-perception of being unique and different from others
  • Excessive need for admiration
  • Exploits others to achieve one’s ends
  • Lack of empathy towards others
  • Preoccupation with success and power
  • Arrogance, or being haughty
  • Self-perception of being unique and different from others.

To be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, the individual must fit five or more of these symptoms.

The following symptoms categorize a borderline personality disorder:

  • Intense fear of abandonment  
  • Unstable and intense personal relationships
  • Marked impulsivity beginning by early adulthood
  • Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats in at least two of the following contexts: Thwarted from a desire for self-harming behavior or Attempts to coerce others into killing themselves.
  • Mood changes that are observable by others and are related to the current situation
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness
  • Severe dissociative symptoms (i.e., feeling alienated from one’s sense of self)
  • A pervasive pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships, self-image and affects, as well as marked impulsivity beginning by early adults and present in a variety of contexts

Perspectives are just one way that people view a specific situation. There are many different theories, and many of them conflict with each other. This is known as the trait debate.

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Personality Traits and Theories of Crime

There are many different theories about the causes of crime. Many of these theories include some form of personality or psychological trait.

The humanistic theory

Humanistic psychology is a psychological perspective developed during the 1950s. It was created in response to the psychoanalytic and behaviorist paradigms. This perspective rejects the idea that human personality is “being” controlled by childhood experiences.

According to this theory, individuals are born with a unique set of genetic characteristics. They are also born with an intrinsic motivation to be the best they can be and actualize their potential.

The humanistic theory is based on self-actualization. This means that people desire to be the best they can be and are motivated by this. According to this theory, people who commit crimes do so because they are not acting in a way that allows them to actualize their potential.

Crime can be explained as a person’s behavior that negatively impacts either themselves or others. According to the humanist theory, these people are not allowing themselves to actualize their potential.

For the humanistic theory to be effective, there’s a need to identify why someone would be a criminal. This is never an easy task and usually requires a long explanation based on the specific individual.

Psychoanalytic theory

Psychoanalytic Theory is a branch of psychology that Sigmund Freud developed. It focuses on personality development and the effects of the unconscious mind.

According to this theory, human behavior is driven by two of Freud’s personality structures: the id and the superego.

The id is driven by the pleasure principle, which only seeks immediate pleasure regardless of consequences. The superego is driven by the reality principle and takes into account consequences to make a decision.

Violent crime can be explained as the unconscious mind, or id, taking over and causing an individual to act in a harmful way.

The psychoanalytic theory argues that human behavior is controlled by the id and is not aware of the consequences. This behavior is sometimes referred to as “the dark side.”

Individual traits that would support this theory:

  • Aggressive personality
  • Impaired self-control
  • Narcissistic personality disorder
  • Temperamental hostility
  • A need for immediate gratification
  • False beliefs about others

In the psychoanalytic theory, all personalities are developed through childhood experiences. People who have experienced more positive experiences during childhood are less likely to commit crimes because their superego is stronger and able to control the id.

On the other hand, people who have experienced more negative experiences during childhood are more likely to commit crimes because their superego is weaker and unable to control the id.

Psychological trait theory

This theory argues that a person’s genetic traits influence their behavior. Genetic factors have been proven to affect crime. For example, in identical twins, if one twin commits a crime, the other twin is more likely to commit a crime.

The genetic factor is only about biological parents. It does not consider other effects that can affect personality, such as environmental and cultural factors.

According to this theory, if a person’s biological parents have criminal tendencies, then the person is more likely to commit a crime.

This theory focuses on the idea that genetics is simply one of many factors influencing whether or not an individual will commit a crime. It states that their genetics does not determine an individual, but instead, it is one of many factors that could decide whether or not they commit a crime.

Biosocial theory

The biosocial theory combines both biological and social factors that influence whether or not a person commits a crime.

This theory argues that biological susceptibility, such as having low serotonin and dopamine levels, affects an individual to be more likely to commit crimes than other people in society. Different neurotransmitters affect different traits that result in criminal behavior.

Those with low serotonin levels are more likely to commit crimes because they have impaired emotional responses and do not experience physical pain, making them less inhibited than people without these conditions.

On the other hand, individuals with high dopamine levels are more likely to commit crimes because they have a greater chance of being addicted to drugs and seeking pleasure than others.

Personality-trait Psychology

The personality trait theory is a psychological perspective that explores an individual’s personality and why individuals commit crimes.

According to this theory, offenders are different from nonoffenders because they have certain personality traits. Research has shown five key traits: neuroticism, psychoticism, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness.


This trait is characterized by an individual’s level of emotional stability. Those who score high on neuroticism tend to experience intense negative emotions. These emotions include anger, irritability, and anxiety. They may cause them to act impulsively and seek immediate gratification.

People with low levels of neuroticism are more likely not to commit a crime because they are less impulsive and are more capable of thinking before acting.


This trait describes a person’s level of detachment from others and society. Individuals who score high on this personality trait have a higher tendency to commit crimes than those who score low because they do not value the rights of others and feel that laws apply to other people but not to them.


This trait refers to how energetic a person is and how they express their emotions. According to the theory, those who score high in neuroticism are more likely to commit crimes. They act before thinking about the consequences of their actions.

This impulsiveness leads individuals with this trait to focus on their impulses and emotions, which may cause them to act in ways that are harmful to themselves or others. They rarely commit themselves to reason and critique hence the likelihood to make grievous mistakes.


Individuals who score high on this trait have tendencies of altruism and kindness. People low on this trait engage in deviant behavior because they do not share the same feelings of empathy as people with high levels of agreeableness.

Those who score low argue about almost everything, and they do not easily take other people’s opinions. They clash with those who score high on agreeableness.


Individuals who score high on this trait can control their impulses and are less likely to commit a crime. People low in this trait tend not to be as concerned with the consequences of their actions. They may lack self-control, which causes them to act impulsively and engage in criminal behavior.

Personality-type Psychology

Personality-type psychology is a psychological perspective that looks at certain types of personalities and why certain individuals act in different ways.

Under this theory, there are four distinct personality types, which include the honest-unemotional (HU), impulsive-antisocial (IA), aggressive-dishonest (AD), and affective-guarded (AG).

HU types have no emotional reactivity, making them less likely to commit criminal offenses.

On the other hand, IA types are impulsive, aggressive, and prone to sensation-seeking interests that may lead them to break laws without foreseeing the consequences of their actions repeatedly.

AD types are antisocial individuals who tend to be aggressive and lie to achieve their goals.

Lastly, AG types have high levels of neuroticism and low levels of conscientiousness, which cause them to act impulsively without thinking of the consequences of their actions.

Latent Trait Theory

Latent trait theory assumes that there are underlying factors for both types of criminal behavior and personality and whether they are similar or different.

This perspective suggests that criminal behaviors may stem from several traits, including neuroticism, psychoticism, extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.

In particular, the personality traits in both types of crime are similar and can explain why specific individuals become criminals.

Critiques of the Trait Theory

Traits are often challenging to define and even more challenging to measure. There is a lack of evidence that humans have distinct traits. Trait theory also has a minimal scope of what behaviors can be explained by this perspective alone.

These theories can only explain whether certain traits lead to criminal behavior, but it does not explain why specific individuals commit crimes at higher or lower rates than others.

Trait theories do not take into account other factors that could influence crime, such as environmental factors.

Traits only predict future actions, and there is no way for a person’s traits to be changed over time; therefore, trait theories do not address recidivism. Trait theories also cannot explain why certain criminals can reform their ways and stop committing crimes.

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Sample Essay

Psychologists have used trait theory to understand the cause and origins of criminal behavior for decades. Trait theory focuses on identifying individual personality traits that may predispose an individual to crime and delinquency.

Psychologists have created several scales to assess criminal and delinquent behavior; however, these do not always predict actual behavior. The Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) is widely used to identify psychopathic and criminal behavior.

The PCL-R measures 20 traits that can be divided into two factors. Factor 1 measures interpersonal, affective, and lifestyle traits, while Factor 2 measures impulsive and antisocial behavior.

The PCL-R indicates that criminal behavior may be caused by antisocial, narcissistic, and psychopathic personality traits. Research typically shows that those who score high on Factor 1 are more aggressive, callous, and manipulative, whereas those who score high on Factor 2 are more impulsive and socially avoidant.

Trait theory has been criticized by many in criminology because it is unable to account for situational influences on criminal behavior. A person may have all the traits that predispose an individual to criminal behavior. Still, if they are in a situation where those traits cannot be expressed through criminal behavior, the trait theory would not account for this behavior.

Trait theories have also been criticized because it looks at only biological and psychological aspects of an individual. Trait theories may not consider environmental or situational factors when determining the likelihood of someone committing a crime.

As previously stated, most criminologists agree that humans have a certain degree of control over their behavior. This is where the controversy from trait theory arises. Trait theory suggests that certain traits can predispose an individual to criminal behavior, whereas other researchers believe that anyone could commit a crime given the right set of circumstances.

Trait theories are a low-stakes test because there is no punishment for incorrect answers. This allows researchers to have a more accurate measure of human personality. Additionally, certain scales such as the PCL-R can predict behavior in a variety of settings.

It is not to say that trait theories do not have their flaws. Many studies measure the correlation between how an individual scores on a particular scale and the likelihood of criminal behavior. They tend to ignore situational factors that may increase the likelihood of someone committing a crime.

However, this does not mean that research on trait theories should be abandoned. Instead, researchers should consider the situational factors that can affect criminal behavior when measuring human personality traits and correlating those traits to criminal behavior.

In conclusion, trait theories have their flaws, but they also provide a reliable and valid method of studying human psychology concerning crime and delinquency.

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Trait theory is a personality psychology term that defines how people perceive themselves and others. It has been used to classify individuals into five categories: introverted or extroverted, agreeable or disagreeable, conscientious or lazy, emotionally stable or unstable, and open-minded.

This type of study helps understand how personality traits affect behavior and interactions. It also helps in analyzing criminal behavior from different perspectives.

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