Forensics - theories of offending

Some cards on theories of offending :)


Physiological theories of offending

Atavistic form

Atavism (reverting to or suggesting the characteristics of a remote ancestor or primitive type) was put forward by the Italian criminologist Lombroso in the 1870s.

He argued that criminals had different physical features compared to non criminals, and this suggested they belonged to a more primitive evolutionary stage of development (evolutionary throwback).

The physical characteristics of a criminal were a narrow sloping brow, strong prominent jaw, extra *******, toes and fingers, high cheekbones, large ears, twisted, flattish nose, long arms relative to the lower limbs, a coccyx that resembled the 'stump of a tail' etc.

He suggested the different subtypes of criminal could be identified by their physical characteristics - murderers were said to have bloodshot eyes, curly hair and a prominent jaw.

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Atavistic form

In his view, they were biologically inferior and were produced from an earlier stage of evolution - he stated these criminals were not just a variation of man, but its own subspecies. These features are inheritable, and therefore criminals are 'born', not 'made'. Later, Lombroso claimed, however, that only 1/3 of criminals directly inherited their criminal behaviour. The rest had become criminals owing to a number of other environmental factors, such as poor education.

Lombroso generally usd the same techniques to classify females, although females committed much less crime than males, he believed femals were very ferocious in their act. His ideas concerning female criminality were based on the idea that they were more like children than males, being vengeful, jealous, morally deficient and predisposed to cruelty.

As well as physical characteristics, Lombroso stated they had differences in sensory functioning, lack of moral sense, a greater threshold for pain, keener sight, an excellent sense of smell and a greater strength in the left side of their body. Other characteristics contributing to crime include special criminal slang and a prospensity to express themselves visually, and tattooing.

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Atavistic form evaluation

  • Lombroso's ideas formed when Italy was experiencing numerous social problems such as police corruption, poverty and immigration; these factors raised awareness in crime throughout the country.
  • Rates of recidivism (committing similar crimes after first imprisonment) were increasing, spreading the belief that criminals were habitual beings. There wasn't enough room to hold all perpetrators, placing emphasis on the prediction of who was predisposed to crime.
  • Lombrosos ideas became popular as perhaps the ruling class thought his explanation convenient, allowing them to ignore curent social problems. His ideas also rejected the idea that crime was part of society or an inherent factor of social conditions.
  • He didn't actually compare criminals to non criminals, so there was no comparative measure to base this theory on. Features could be present in non criminals too.
  • His sample consisted of individuals with psychological disorders, so Lombroso could have confused criminality with psychopathology.
  • Lombroso was strongly criticised for his practise of examining the bumps on a criminals skull, his ideas began a legacy of study relating to the brain. Today, it's widely known the different regions of the brain control different aspects of functioning.
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Atavistic form evaluation

  • Gabrielle Tarde has been one of Lombrosos strongest critics, criticising his theory concerning empirical flaws and contradiction in physical characteristics: Lombroso based much of his research on the physical anomalies of humans as a predictor of human behaviour, but didn't use appropriate measurements.
  • Tarde rejected Lombrosos findings due to the omitting of social issues such as poverty, alcoholism, as well as long term effects of criminal involvement. The same is apparent concerning race, ethnicity, social class, economics and intelligence.
  • Tarde also found that his research placed emphasis on the widespread prevalence of tattoos. Lombroso stated tattoos indicated criminality, whereas Tarde argued tattoos came after one was convicted. This is learned and practised among prisoners whilst they are imprisoned.
  • There are also many attacks against Lombrosos methodology, focuses on unscientific hypothesis, lack of statistical analysis of his data and a failure to include adequate control groups. Lombroso also failed to research his sources of information for validity.
  • Although Lombroso was strongly criticised for his theories regarding atavism, many of his ideas may not have been so far fetched. There are quite a few criminalologists today who would argue criminals are born deviant.
  • Lombroso was responsible for moving the investigation of criminality from a simply 'wicked' label, to a more scientific view.
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Somatype theory of offending

Sheldon's Somatype theory of offending

Sheldon (1940), after collecting over 4,000 photos of male students and 650 possible personality trait, he identified three basic body build types:

  • Endomorphic (fat, soft and round) - tended to be socialble, sentimental, tolerant and relaxed.
  • Ectomorphic (thin and fragile) - who are introverted, sensitive, inellectual, solitary, restrained and prone to schizophrenia.
  • Mesomorphic (muscular, athletic and hard) - tended to be aggressive, energetic, risk takers, dominant and adventurous.

After eight years of studying male delinquents and students, he concluded that the average delinquent tended to be heavily mesomorphic and rarely ectomorphic.

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Sheldon (1949)

AIM: to investigate the link between body shape and criminality

METHOD: 200 photos of delinquents and photos of 200 non delinquents were rated for mesomorphy on a scale of 1-7 (7 being highly mesomorphic) by Sheldon

RESULTS: the average rating for those in the delinquent photos was 4.6 compared to 3.8 in the non-delinquent group

CONC: Delinquency is positivley correlated with a mesomorphic body shape

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Evaluation of Somatype thoery

  • Glueck and Glueck (1950) found that mesomorphs were over-represented in a delinquent population of 500 males, but, it could be that some prison regimes which emphasise physical fitness result in prisoners becoming more muscular - as with all correlations we can't tell the direction of cause and effect.
  • Cortes and Gatto (1972) found that out of 100 dellinquents, 57% were mesomorphic compared with only 19% of the controls. Again, this is only a correlation, meaning other factors may be involved.
  • West and Farrington (1973) carried out a longitudinal study of London working class boys, and found no association between body shape/size and delinquency
  • Sheldon didn't make use of the legal criteria for delinquency and when delinquency is defined according to legal criteria, the association between mesomorphy and crime is no longer present.
  • This theory reinforces the idea of a criminal stereotype which could lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a result of being treated negativley, some body types may act to fit their stereotype: labelling.
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Evaluation of Somatype theory

  • Masters and Greaves (1969) examined the incidence of facial defomities in 11,000 prisoners and concluded 60% had them, as oppose to 20% of the general popualtion. This raises the possibility that people turn to crime as a consequnce of their disabililty.
  • It may be a mesomorphic build that heightens testosterone levels, and this could result in heightened aggressiveness
  • The judicial system may also treat mesomorphs more harshly, increasing the likelihood that they will be labelled as a criminal (Blackburn, 1993.)
  • A number of studies have found there is a small association between bodily build and criminality (Putwain and Sammons, 2002.) 
  • Becuase the stereotypes people hold of mesomorphs, they may be drawn into delinquent activites by their peer groups.
  • The British Crime Survey found that delinquents who were guilty of serious offences were not strong and muscular but actually smaller in body type compared with the average person
  • Those with a mesomorphic build may learn from an early age, they can aquire what they want by being aggresive, and this is carried through to later life
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Biological theories of offending


Chromosomal abnormalities - XYY are males with exaggerated male characteristics. The extra 'Y' chromosome was suggested to lead to high testosterone levels, powerful body build, heightened aggression and a prosperisty for violent crime.

However, XYY males are not actually as predicted (Graham et al, 2007), they were found to have normal testosterone levels, normal aggression levels, they were found to be taller, but not necessarily more powerful, but they were prone to developmental disorders and learning difficulties.

XYY males are rare in the general popularity and over-represented in the offender population.

Price et al (1966) found that 28% of criminality insane males were XYY compared to the 1% of XYY males in the general population. However, their crimes are not violent ones. XYY males may offend because they have to deal with the aspect of the condition during adolesence. Crime is also not a natural or homogenous catergory of behaviour, it is the result of an interaction of factors. There are different explanations for different types of crime.

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There is no single gene for crime, which contrasts to the Lombrosian view which states a single defective gene is responsible. More modern behavioural genetics suggest more than one gene influences people to commit crime, and there are complex interactions with the environment.

Family studies, twin studies and adoption studies attempt to contrast this view, and find a biological explanation without any environmental influences

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Family studies

Osbourne and west (1982) found that if a father has a conviction, 40% of sons do, if the father does not have a criminal conviction, only 13% of sons do. 

This is consistent with the theory of genetic influences, yet fathers and sons also share their learning environment with one another, and therefore can not rule out all environmental influences.

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Twin studies

Lange (1931) investiated the genetic link with criminal behaviour through comparing identical and non identical twins.

13 pairs of MZ twins were studied with regard to a variety of criminal indicators, such as possessing a criminal record, and compared with 17 pairs of DZ twins.

Concordanance rates were higher (77%) for MZ twins compared to 12% for DZ twins. This showed that the higher the level of genetic similarity, the more likely one twin is to display the same criminal behaviour as the other.

This study does have limitations, however, as the twins are usually raised in the same environment, MZ twins look alike, and therefore may encounter similar social responses, and the study lacks temporal validity. Also, as it used a small sample, it could be difficult to generalise.

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Twin studies

Early Lange studies strongly suggested genetic influences, but more recently, Christiansen (1977) has found the concordanance rates are not as vast, with MZ twins having only 35%, and DZ twins having 13%. Dalgard and Kringlen (1976) further supports this, as they found MZ having 26% concordanance and DZ having 15%.

This shows there are some substantial environmental influences, and therefore adoption studies have been researched into to rule these out.

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Adoption studies

If an adopted child is more alike to their biological parents than their adopted parents, a genetic basis of criminaliy may be suggested, if reveresed, an environmental basis may be better suggested.

Almost 50% of children in a sample of adopted children whose biological mothers had a criminal record had a criminal record themselves by age 18 (Crowe 1972.) In a matched control group of mothers who didn't have a criminial record, only 5% of children had been convicted of a criminal offence.

Crowe (1974), in a sample of 52 adopted children of imprisoned women, 7 had at least 1 criminal conviction compared to a matched control group: this supports the genetic hypothesis.

Prenatal influences, such as the womb environment are not taken into account (Stott, 1982), and a high degree of stress on the mother, such as if she is from an environment where criminal convictions are high, are shown to lead to developmental difficulties.  The age of adoption also needs to be taken into consideration and many children who are adopted are placed in environments similar to that of their biological parents.

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What's being inherited

Hollin (1992) gives three suggestions

  • Abnormal CNS - low IQ, APHD
  • Abnormal ANS - Lack of responsiveness
  • Abnormal endocrine - influences of testosterone

It is difficult to resolve because of the enormous complexity of interactions

There are lots of biological correlates of criminality, yet few obvious causes.

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Neurophysiologyical research

Neurophysiological research also suggests criminality is innate, as in humans, most of the research has been done on people diagnosed with 'Antisocial Personality Disorder' (APD), sometimes referred to as psychopaths. These people show no emotion or feeling for others. 

Studies using EEGs of brain activity in the 50s/60s show that people with APD have abrnormal EEG patterns of slow wave activity, which are typical of brain immaturity. Hare (1970) therefore proposed the 'maturation retardation hypothesis' which states the brain of a APD person is immature and childlike. Moffit (2003) argued adololecent delinquency may be a result of delayed brain development, though this wouldn't explain persistant long life offending.

Kurland et al (1963) found that 66% of APD individuals with a history of uncontrollable violent episodes showed spontaneous bursts of rapid brain waves during sleep. Hare and Connoly (1987) suggested criminals show an abnormal balance in hemispheric activity, which may explain their inability to use language to regulate their impulsive behaviour and aggressive outbursts.

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Evaluation of biological theories

It is very deterministic, and doesn't take free will into account

If we can identify a potential criminal at birth, what can we do?

If a person can't help being a criminal why should we punish them?

It is reductionist and doesn't take into account environmental factors.

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Psychodynamic explanations of offending

The ID part of the personality is the demanding, self gratifying instinct and is goverened by the pleasure principle. If the id is prevented from being fulfilled, aggressive tendencies emerge.

The superego is goverened by the morality principle, and is known as the conscience, which develops through identification with same sex parent at the phallic stage of development as part of the Oedipus/Electra conflict, and sets the ego with some goals and values (ego-ideal).

The ego part of the personality is controlled by the reality principle, and acts as a moderator between the demands of the ID and the harsh judgement of the superego.

Freud did not propose a theory of offending, but based on his research he would have predicted that offending behaviour was caused by an imbalance in the three parts of the personality, as the ID would not be suffciently controlled

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The superego

According to this theory, children have no concept of morality until the superego is fully formed, and children behave correctly out of fear of punishment from their parents, rather than what is right or wrong.

This changes around 4 or 5 when the boy experiences the oedipus complex. The boy resolves his sexual urges towards his mother and the fear of being castrated by his father, by taking on board his father's morals and values. As a result, the superego is established.

If however, the father is weak or absent, the oedipus complex cannot be fully resolved, and so the superego is weak. Conversley, if the father is overpowering and strict, the superego becomes so strong that it overpowers the id.

For girls, the experience is different, according to Freud. During the electra complex, girls fear losing their mothers love, and believe they have already been punished by being castrated, so identify with their mother to repress their urges. As they do not have a penis, they are unable to develop a consience in the same way as boys, therefore, their superego is weaker and females are, hence, morally inferior.

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Imbalance in the superego

Weak superego - Absence of same-sex parent at phallic stage, so therefore no identitification or internalisation of the parent's moral code occurs. Therefore, the superego cannot distinguish wrong from right, or punish the id to cause guilt. This results in a lack of inhibition.

Deviant superego - Same sex parent identified with at phallic stage was immoral. A deviant moral code has therefore been internalised by the superego - this person will grow up to have immoral values and different views of right and wrong than the rest of society.

The over-harsh superego - The superego is too punishing and excessively demanding of guilt, which is the result of unconsious childhood desires (such as wanting to sleep with your mum). This means the person will seek out oppurtunities to be punished and satisfy that need for guilt and the unconsious desire to be punished.

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Maternal deprivation

The inability to develop a fully functioning superego is thought to be a result of absent or unloving parents, and this formed the basis of Bowlby's maternal deprivation hypothesis. In Bowlby's 44 thieves study, he found delinquency was linked to the child being deprived of a loving relationship with their mother in the first two years of life, when compared to a control group.

This study was, however, caried out in an unrepresentative sample and shows correlation only, meaning other factors may be involved.

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Defence mechanisms

A link has been found between Freud's defence mechanisms and how these may bring somebody to commit crime:

Denial - Refusing to accept an unpleasant even, as acknowleging it would be too disturbing (eg, refusing to consciously accept one has commited a murder.)

Rationalisation - Process of explaning unacceptable behaviour in a rational and acceptable way (eg, murdering prostitues and saying they deserved it as they don't belong in society and needed to be taught a lesson.)

Displacement - Taking anger and frustration out on an unrelated, substitute object (eg, stabbing a stranger in the street after an argument with a girlfriend.)

Sublimation - redirecting primitive impulses into other, more acceptable activities  (eg, engaging in violent sexual activity to sublimate the urge to **** or murder.)

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Evaluation of the psychodynamic theory

  • Freud theorised that females have a weaker superego than males, so therefore women should surely commit more criminal acts than males? Hoffman, however, (1977) suggested that females show much stronger moral orientation comapred with males, which refutes Freud's theory of the weak female superego.
  • The theory also doesn't explain all types of crime, for example, many crimes, such as fraud, require careful planning and execution, rather than impulsivley acting on irrational thought processes.
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Eysenck's theory of criminal personality

( stated criminals are people who scored high on the extroversion-neuroticism scale 

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Eysenck's theory of criminal personality

Eysenck's theory of criminal  behaviour suggests that crime arises from certain personality traits, which are biological in origin.

Originally, Eysenck stated an individual's personality could be reduced to two dimensions: neuroticism and extroversion. 

An individual with high neuroticism is prone to depression, anxiety and variable moods, whereas an individual who is low in neuroticism tends to be more emotionally stable. The extroversion dimension refers to the amount of stimulation an individual recieves from their environment. individuals who require a large amount of stimulation is staid to be high on the extroversion dimension, whilst those who require little are low on this dimension.

Eysenck devised a Eysenck Personality Questionaire (EPQ) to measure these personlity traits, which, in the majority of the population, are normally distributed.

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Personality traits

Eysenck stated the personality traits of extroversion and neuroticism relates to the central nervous system.Extroversion is associated with autonomic arousal, the lower this is, the more stimulation a person seeks from their environment.

Neuroticism relates to the stability of the individual's central nervous system: a high neuroticism score shows that an individual has high anxiety levels - their nervous system reacts strongly to adverse stimuli.

Eysenck stated these individuals find it difficult to learn socially appropriate behaviours, for example, not being aggressive.

He thought criminal behaviour occured in people who scored high in both the extroversion and neuroticism dimensions. The combination of these two traits would result in an individual who would constantly seek stimulation (high in extroversion) but does not learn from their punishments (high on neuroticism.)

Later, Eysenck suggested a third personality dimension: psychoticism. Individuals who are high in this dimension are uncaring, aggressive and solitary. He stated people xtreme in his dimension are also likely to engage in criminal behaviour.

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Evaluation of Eysenck's theory

In a study of prisoners, Farrington et al (1982) found that where the participants tended to score high on psychoticism, they did not on extroversion or neuroticism.

Other research has found inconsistencies between criminal activity and extroversion with some research showing some criminals have higher extroversion when compared to controls, some have lower extroversion, and some have the same as controls.

Zuckerman (1969) suggested that the environmental stimulation sought by individuals is not necessarily related to extroversion, it may simply be a result of boredom, which arisses from increased, rather than decreased arousal.

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Learning theory explanations of offending

The learning theory explanation of crime relates to the principles of both classical and operant conditioning; we learn to behave as a criminal in the same way as we learn other behaviours. Classical conditioning involves learning to associate a neutral stimulus with a new, conditioned response.

Operant conditioning focuses on the conseqences of a child's actions; if a child is punished for stealing, the behaviour is likely to decline in the future. However, if this child is praised, this behaviour is likely to be repeated due to the positive reinforcement given.

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Social learning theory

Social learning theorists state criminality would result through the observation, imitation, identification and direct, or vicarious reinforcement of criminal behaviour. Vicarious reinforcement is a reward given to another but seen by an observer, who then displays that behaviour in order to be rewarded aswell.

If the benefits of engaging in criminal behaviour are greater than the benefits of not, it will make one commit crime. The benefit would be reinforcement in the form of respect, the approval of people and material goods. The theory can be further reinforced by obsevational learning - the morals and values of models can affect the aspirations and expectations of those who identify with them. Bandura et al (1963) stated that the main influences on an individual's behaviour are from the observations of role models in the individual's environment.

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Evaluation of social learning theory

Farrington found that key risks of criminality were family criminality, poverty, poor parenty, risk taking and low school, most of which are environmental factors which could be observed and imitated. However, this coud also be taken as evidence for the genetic theory, as the parents were criminals.

It's difficult to determine to what extent socialisation affects criminal behaviour. The studies are time consuming and hard to control. The reliance on lab studies lack both ecological validity and generalisability (such as Bandura).

It does, however, explain why some people commit the same crime but for different reasons. This is as an individuals motivations are dependant on who their role models are.

The theory also fails to acknowledge the importance of free will, and is very deterministic

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Sutherland's differential association theory

A sociological theory (1939), which states that criminal behaviour is learning through exposure to criminal norms. Crime occurs to two factors: learned attitudes and imitation of specific acts. Sutherland states criminal activity is a result of a criminal expressing their needs. However, the need for money is a learned one, and therefore can't be used to explain all criminal behaviour.

Sutherland states an individual is exposed to the values and attitudes of those who surround them, some parents' attitudes towards the law may be unfavourable, so due to learning, the child aquires certain attitudes towards crime, and may become a criminal.

There may also be variations in what people may think are right, so a criminal may think tax avoidance is disgusting, but burgulary is fine.

A person who is exposed to pro-criminal attitudes and norms is more likely to engage in criminal behaviour.

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Evaluation of Sutherland

It has vauge and untestable definitions. It is difficult to see the number of unfavourable attitudes a person has towards crime, and this cannot be measured.

How many of these unfavourable attitudes does one need to be classed as a 'criminal'?

The theory doesn't explain crimes of passion and impulsive crimes, such as stealing underwear; these crimes are not a result of someone being raised to have deviant values.

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Evaluation of learning theories

This focuses on socialisation as a key factor in criminal behaviour, which is a dramatic shift from previous theories that viewed it as innate, instinctive or due to individual weaknesses.

A causal link between socialisation and criminality cannot be established, however

Studies such as Farrington et al's could be taken as evidence for the biological theory as a high percentage had criminal parents

Learning theories don't explain why many offenders cease to offend as they get older

The theory is founded on sound scientific principles, but it is perhaps oversimplified to apply these to such a complex behaviour.

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