Criminals are made or born

8 August 2016

An understanding of criminal behaviour has been attempted by psychologists through many different theories. The three theories I will discuss are: the biological theory, the psychological theory and the social theory of crime. Each theory provides a thorough explanation of why people carry out criminal behaviour, however, which theory offers the better explanation? Are criminals born or made? The biological theory of crime suggests that it is very likely that biological factors play a significant role in criminality due to the fact that criminal behaviour tends to run in families.

Adoption studies provide psychologists with the information required in order for them to discover whether criminal behaviour patterns are the result of the child’s genes or their surrounding environment. For example, if a child’s behaviour resembles that of their adoptive parents then this could suggest that criminality is a product of the environment. Mednick et al. (1987) studied the criminal convictions of over 14,000 people who had been adopted and found greater evidence to suggest that biology had more influence over their behaviour.

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To further support this theory, Bohman (1996) replicated Mednick at al’s study by comparing the percentages of sons with a biological parent with a criminal record to boys with an adoptive parent with a criminal record. Bohman also found that genetic factors were more significant compared to environmental influences. The psychological theory of crime suggests that negative expectations cause certain individuals to behave towards others in a criminal way because their stereotypes alter their social interactions (self-fulfilling prophecy).

This theory was supported by Jahoda’s (1954) study of names. Jahoda studied Ashanti people who give boys ‘soul names’ when they are born which supposedly alters their characters. For example, boys born on a Wednesday are called ‘Kwaku’ and are expected to behave in an aggressive, violent way. Jahoda discovered that 13. 5% of boys referred to court had ‘Wednesday’ names, yet they were responsible for 22% of violent crime. This implies that expectations of the boy’s behaviours due to stereotypes caused differential treatment and therefore they fulfilled the expectations caused by their names. The social theory of crime suggests that learning occurs when an individual (the learner) observes and copies another person (the model). Motivation to reproduce what the learner has observed from the model must be internal or external. Internal motivation may come from identification with the model, or external motivation can be obtained from direct or vicarious reinforcement.

Children with criminal parents or who have other surrounding role models are very likely to be internally or externally motivated to copy behaviour, i. e. carry out criminal acts. Evidence to support this theory can be found using correlational data about exposure to media models and criminal acts. Eron et al. (1972) discovered a positive correlation between the violence level in television programmes watched by 7-8 years olds and their level of aggression.

This violence was shown to progress (especially within males) as they became older. In my opinion, all three theories provide a valid approach and each are supported through evidence. I do not believe that one theory provides a significantly better argument than others, therefore, a combination (if possible) of each of the three theories would perhaps provide a more thorough answer to why people participate in criminal behaviour.

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