Causes of Criminality

Different possible and researched causes of Criminal Behaviour.

Social Learning Theory


  • Explanation of criminal behaviour as a result of observing behaviour and imitating it. 
  • Vicarious reinforcement - seeing criminal behaviour being rewarded 
  • Motivation is stonger if punishment is not observed.
  • Role model will have more of an effect if they are authoritative e.g. parent/media and if they are the same gender. 


  • Tannis MacBeth Williams (1986) - Introduced television to 16 young people in Canada. After 2 years found they were twice as aggressive as the control group. Aggression could have increased due to value placed on materialistic lifestyle in Canada.
  • Camstock and Paik (1994) - meta-analysis finding positive correlation between violence viewed and imitated. 
  • Bandura's studies support Social Learning Theory.
  • SLT does not explain repeat offenders as they observe negative consequences and still commit crimes.
  • Most evidence comes from correlations and found relationships which are not definitive proof.
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Labeling & Self Fulfilling Prophecy


  • Labels occur when a mojority group considers a minority group inferior and use derogatory terms to talk about them. This can arise from a stereotype.
  • SFP can be positive or negative depending on the label. 
  • Others will treat you differently due to a label. The individual will react to this and act accordingly to the way they are being treated.
  • This confirms the expectations of others and the individualhas lived up to their label, internalising the prophecy.


  • Rosenthal and Jacobson - teachers labelling their students 'Bloomers' which increased their IQ.
  • Jahoda (1954) - studied the Ashanti people in Ghana. 'Mondays' caused 6.9% of violent offences while 'Wednesdays' caused 22%.
  • Madon at al (2004) - Parents expectation of their childs alcohol use increasesthe actual alcohol use in the future.
  • Ethical issues in changing one's behaviour towards another.
  • Only correlations are possible and therefore no causal link.
  • Research into teacher/student or parent/child relationships may not have the same effect as other relationships and may not link to criminality.
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  • Hans Eysenck studied personality and grouped personality into 5 traits: introversion, extraversion, neuroticism, stablity and psychoticism.
  • He later concluded the PEN (Psychoticism, Extraversion, Neuroticism) to describe criminal behaviour.
  • Extraversion explained by low activity in the Ascending Reticular Activating System which means they are naturally less cortically aroused. This means they need stimulation e.g. committing a crime. 
  • Neuroticism explained by greater activation levels and lower thresholds in the limbic system meaning they do not stay calm well in stressful situations. May cause aggressive outbursts.


  • McGurk and McDougal (1981) - studied 100 delinquents/non-delinquents and found the deinquenst had higher PEN scores.
  • Rushton and Chrisjon (1981) - found relationship between delinquency, extraversion and psychoticism but not neuroticism.
  • Boduszek et al (2013) - found recidivistic violent offenders in Ireland more likely to be extraverts.
  • Studies on delinquents are not reliable as they are not affiliated with official crime.
  • Farrington et al (1982) found extraversion scores less associated with criminal offences than P and N.
  • Correlational studies mean there is no causaility and the evidence therefore is weak. 
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Other Biological Explanations


  • Damaged amygdala can lead to a lack of emotion or a tendancy to overreact. 
  • Brain scans have shows that the amygdala is smaller in those with psychopathic personalities and thse with higher levels of aggression. 
  • Cannon and Britton (1925) - Cut the neural connection to the cerebral cortex in cats and found aggressive behaviour which they called 'sham rage' (without cognitive influence). This rage is not associated with the amygdala as when this was removed, the cats became calm. 
  • Raine et al (1997) - Found differences in brain structure in murderers and non-murders including a reduction in amygdala activity.
  • Can have an abnormal amygdala and not show aggressive/criminal behaviour.

Brain Injury:

  • Change to the brain due to an injury can cause an altered personality and less control over impulses - more likely to take part in criminal behaviour.
  • Brower and Price (2001) - found relationship between criminal behaviour and frontal love injury.
  • Barnfield and Leathem (1998) - found prison populations hold a large amount of people with traumatic brain injuries.
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Other Biological Explanations

The XYY Chromosome:

  • XYY chromosome is a genetic condition that occurs when a male has an extra Y chromosome in their 23rd pair. 
  • Men with this condition are usually unaware of it and may grow taller, faster with some studies showing a decreased level of intelligence. 
  • Re and Birkhoff - Meta-analysis on patients with the XYY chromosome and found only 50 out of nearly 20,000 to have behavioural abnormailties. 
  • Theilgaard - found a small presence of XYY men among a criminal population showing it cannot be a pure cause of criminal behaviour.
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