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What is Forensic Psychology?

Some people (eg, Blackburn, 1996) argue that
the term Forensic Psychology should only be
used to denote the:
“direct provision of psychological information to the
courts, that is, to psychology in the courts”
• However some psychologists have wanted to
widen this usage to cover all aspects of
psychology that are applied or relevant to the
legal process.

The application of psychological
knowledge and theories to all aspects of
the criminal and civil justice systems,
including the processes and the people


Theories of Crime: Historical Perspectives

• Theories of crime are as old as crime
– Aristotle: “Poverty is the parent of
revolution and crime.”
– Religious explanations
– Sir Francis Bacon: “Opportunity makes a
– Philosophers such as Voltaire and Rousseau
emphasised free will, hedonism, and flaws
in social contract


Classical School of criminology

–Lawbreaking occurs when people, faced with a
choice between right and wrong, freely choose
–Punishment should be proportionate to crime


Positivist School of Criminology

Emphasises factors determining criminal behaviour
rather than free will
–Believe punishment should fit the criminal rather
than the crime
–Seeks to understand crime through scientific
method and analysis of empirical method


Positive theorist

Cesare Lombroso
believed criminals were
atavistic human beings–
throw-backs to earlier
stages of evolution who
were not sufficiently
advanced mentally for
successful life in the
modern world

Ernest Hooton took physical measurements
of 14,000 criminals and 3000 civilians
– Burglars: short heads, golden hair, undershot jaws
– Robbers: long wavy hair, high heads, short ears,
broad faces

Although early positivists saw
themselves as scientists, their science
was crude and their conclusions are
not taken seriously today


Modern Theories of Crime

We will group theories that explain
aggressive crimes into 4 categories:
1. Sociological theories
2. Biological theories
3. Psychological theories
4. Social-psychological theories


1. Sociological Explanations

• Explain crime as the result of social or
cultural forces that are external to any
specific individual, that exist prior to
any criminal act, and that emerge from
social class, political, ecological, or
physical structures affecting large
groups of people
• Individual differences are deemphasised


Two Types of Sociological Theories

1. Structural Explanations
2. Subcultural Explanations


Structural Explanations

–People have similar interests and motivations, but
differ dramatically in opportunities to employ their
talents in socially legitimate ways
–Dysfunctional social arrangements and differential
opportunity (e.g., inadequate schooling, economic
adversity) thwart people from legitimate
–Discrepancies between aspirations and means
create strains that lead to crime


Subcultural Explanations

Crime originates when various groups of people
endorse cultural values that clash with the
dominant, conventional rules of society
– E.g., gangs enforce unique norms about how to


Cons of Sociological Theories

–Crimes are often committed by people who have
never been denied opportunities
–Applies only to certain offences
–Does not explain why some people offend and
others do not


Biological Theories

Stress genetic influences, chromosomal
abnormalities, biochemical
irregularities, or physical (body type)
factors as causes of crime
• Theorists usually also respect social and
environmental influences as well


Two types of biological theories:

1. Constitutional theories
2. Genetic theories


 Constitutional theories

– Sheldon suggested 3 somatotypes (body builds)
• Endomorph: obese, soft, rounded
• Ectomorph: tall and thin with well-developed brain
• Mesomorph: muscular, athletic, strong

Sheldon compared 200 delinquent and nondelinquent
men and suggested that mesomorph
most suited to criminal behaviour
– Sheldon believed that mesomorphs exposed to
wrong influences and environment would engage in
more aggressive crimes
– Recent data on bullies suggests that physique (in
combo with environmental factors) might be related
to aggressive behaviour


Constitutional theory cons

– Few all-or-none categories oversimplify
– Correlation between physique and behaviour does
not mean causation


 Genetic theories

– Early studies looked at genealogy, but this method
does not tell us what the family transmits
(psychological, environmental etc)
– Adoption studies:
• Men with biological parents who had criminal records were 4x more likely to be criminals than those with noncriminal biological parents and 2x as likely to be criminal as adoptees whose adoptive parents were criminal but whose biological parents were not.
• Adoptees who had both biological and adoptive criminal parents were 14x more likely to be criminal than those with no criminality in background (Cloninger et al., 1982)


Genetic theories unpopular because:

• Fear that if we attribute crime even partly to genetic factors,
then social and environmental causes will be neglected
• Concern that it will lead to some people being designated
genetically “inferior” and this could lead to forced sterilisation,
• The extent to which any behaviour is inheritable within one
group of people can not explain differences between groups of
• It is unclear what exactly is inherited


5 possibilities about what is inherited:

• Constitutional predisposition
• Neuropsychological abnormalities
• Autonomic nervous system differences
• Physiological differences
• Personality and temperament differences


3. Psychological Theories

• Crime results from personality
attributes possessed by the potential
• Emphasize individual differences about
the way people think or feel about


Types of psychological theories

1. Psychoanalytic Theories
2. Personality Traits
3. Personality Disorder


 Psychoanalytic theories (Freud)

1. A weak ego and superego that cannot
restrain the anti-social instincts of the id
2. A means of obtaining substitute gratification
(sublimation) of basic needs that have not
been satisfied

3. Thanatos, the desire of
animate matter to return
to the inanimate, leads to
dangerous or selfdestructive
behaviours or
may result as in
unconscious efforts to get

– The most commonly
blamed factor is
inadequate identification
by a child with his or her
– Theories are no longer
favoured in modern
criminology because
research doesn’t support


 Personality Traits

• Eysenck believed that there are three major, largely
unrelated, components of personality
• Extraversion: active, assertive, creative, carefree, lively,
sensation-seeking, venturesome
• Neuroticism: anxious, depressed, emotional, guilt feelings,
irrational, low self-esteem, moody, shy, tense
• Psychoticism: aggressive, antisocial, cold, creative,
egocentric, impersonal, impulsive, tough-minded, lacking
• According to Eysenck, criminals show higher levels of
all of these traits


 Personality Disorder

Antisocial Personality Disorder
 “...a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of,
the rights of others that begins in childhood or early
adolescence and continues into adulthood.” (DSM-IV)
– Psychopathy:
 Typically engage in frequent criminal activity for which
they feel little or no remorse
 Psychopaths account for a small percentage of law
violators, but they commit a disproportionately large
percentage of violent crimes


Social-Psychological Theories

• Bridges gap between environmentalism
of sociology and individualism of
psychological or biological theories
• Crime is learned, but theories differ on
what and how it is learned


• 3 types of social-psychological theories

1. Control theories
2. Learning theories
3. Social-labelling


Control theory

People will behave antisocially unless they learn,
through a combination of inner controls and
external constraints on behaviour, not to offend
– It is largely external containment (e.g., social
pressure and institutionalised rules) that controls
crime, but if these controls weaken, control of crime
must depend on internal restraints


Learning Theory

−People directly acquire specific criminal behaviours
through different forms of learning
−Operant learning: a person behaves criminally when
such behaviour is favoured by reinforcement that
outweighs punishment
−Social learning theory: behaviour is learned by
observation through modelling


• Social-labelling

Deviance is created by the labels that society assigns
to certain acts
−Stigma of being branded a deviant can create a selffulfilling
 A prediction that comes true because it has been
 E.g., Ashanti people of Western Africa (Jahoda, 1954)
 E.g., Juvenile Delinquent Study (Meichenbaum et al, 1969)
 Little research due to ethical considerations


What is the Best Theory of Crime?

It depends on the type of crime!
• Most theories can explain certain types of
crime, but none of them explain all forms,
and some explain very little