Psychological explanations for offending behaviour - Forensic psychology

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Psychological explanations for offending behaviour
Forensic psychology


Eysenck’s (1963) personality theory has been applied to offending behaviour. High levels of extraversion are associated with the thrill seeking element of criminality, while high levels of neuroticism are associated with the strong degrees of emotionality evident in some criminal behaviour. High levels of psychotism are associated with criminality, as such people lack a conscience to act as a brake upon offending behaviour. Cognitive explanations focus on the idea of criminals having developed lower levels of moral reasoning, with cognitive distortions (misperceptions of reality) seen as generating negative emotional states, such as hostile attribution bias, where others’ behaviour is misperceived as intimidating, leading to aggressive responses, and minimalisation where offenders self-deceive themselves to rationalise their criminality as excusable. Alternatively, differential association theory is a behaviourist explanation that sees criminality as learned from environmental experiences. There are also three psychodynamic explanations: (1) superego — where a conscience does not develop properly, making criminal behaviour more likely; (2) maternal deprivation hypothesis — delinquent behaviour is seen as arising from disruption to attachment bonds; and (3) defence mechanisms — offenders justify criminal behaviour to reduce anxiety levels created by guilt, as well as using criminal acts to express their unconscious desires.


Fig 16.3 When do we understand the difference between right and wrong?

Focal study

Bowlby (1944) assessed a possible link between maternal deprivation and juvenile delinquency. 44 teenage thieves, caught stealing from a psychiatric facility, were compared with 44 controls who had not stolen from the facility. Mothers were interviewed separately. It was found that 14 of the thieves but none of the controls exhibited affectionless psychopathy, characterised by a lack of affection or empathy for others and lack of guilt for criminal behaviour. Bowlby also found that 12 of the affectionless psychopaths had been separated from their primary caregivers for more than 6 months before age 2. It was concluded that early separation from carers can lead to delinquency, with prolonged separation leading to affectionless psychopathy and an increased risk of vulnerability to criminality, due to reduced experiences of guilt and a lack of insight into the impact of their criminal actions upon others.


• Furnham (1984) found the best predictor of self-reported delinquency was high levels of psychotism, then high levels of neuroticism, low levels of moral guidance, high levels of extraversion and low levels of social skills, giving some support to Eysenck’s theory of the criminal personality.

• Hollin et al. (2002) reported that offenders are in a less mature stage of morality than non-offenders, giving support to the cognitive explanation.

• Crick & Dodge (1994) found evidence to support a relationship between hostile attribution bias and aggression in children and adolescents. This was in hypothetical situations and actual situations, which suggests that the theoretical explanation can be applied to everyday behaviour, as well as research scenarios.

• Alarid et al. (2000) found that differential association theory was applicable to the offending behaviour of 1,153 newly convicted criminals, especially for male offenders. This suggests it is a good general theory of crime, with a high degree of validity in explaining criminal behaviour.

Positive evaluation

Image Moral reasoning can largely account for individual differences in offending behaviour, for example, why one individual, but not another would commit a particular crime.

Image There is such a large body of research evidence to support a link between hostile attribution bias and offending behaviour that it has become seen as a general precursor of aggressive behaviour in children, adolescents and adults, which can lead to violent criminal actions.

Image Research indicates a relationship between the amount of minimalisation and level of offending behaviour in criminals, which suggests minimalisation is a valid explanation of offending behaviour.

Negative evaluation

Image Eysenck is criticised for the limited sample he used to develop his theory, which entailed certain personality types wrongly appearing dominant, which implies that the results cannot be generalised to the general population.

Image Hostile attribution bias cannot explain all instances of violent offending behaviour. It does appear linked to impulsive acts of aggression, but not to acts of pre-meditated, planned aggression; this lowers its validity as a general explanation of criminality.

Image Psychodynamic explanations, like defence mechanisms, are based upon the untestable notion of an unconscious mind. The general lack of research support means such explanations are not well considered.

Practical application

Psychological explanations lend themselves to psychological interventions for offending behaviour. Psychodynamic explanations suggest a role for psychotherapy in reducing criminality, while differential association theory suggests using reinforcements to condition non-criminal behaviour. Cognitive explanations also suggest a role for cognitive therapies that replace irrational thought processes with rational ones.