Physiological Theories of Crime


Lombroso's Theory

Observed the physical characteristics of Italian prisoners and compared them to Italian soldiers and he concluded that criminals were physically different

Lombroso presented a long list of physical characteristics used to identify criminals:

Asymmetry of the face or head, large monkey-like ears, large lips, twisted nose, excessive cheek bones, long arms, excessive skin wrinkles

The male with five or more of these physical anomalies is marked as a born criminal. Female criminals are also born criminals, but they may be identified with as few as three anomalies

Lombroso went on to identify two other types of criminal that he saw as biologically different:

‘Insane criminals’

'epileptic criminals’

He also added ‘criminaloids’, whose criminality was caused by environmental factors such as opportunity rather than biology. 

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China has produced research (2006) that suggests facial features can give a criminal away. ID photos of 1,856 Chinese men, half of whom had a conviction, were entered into an artificial intelligence programme.

They found it wrongly flagged innocent men as criminal 6% of the time but correctly identified 83% of the real criminals

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Lombroso gave scientific credibility to criminology for the first time.

Lombroso’s work appears to be backed up by Goring (1913) who found lower rates of intelligence in convicts- suggesting they might be less evolved.

His work did challenge the idea that criminals are just evil or that they chose to commit crime.

Was an early influence on the idea of offender profiling.

Saw prisons as universities of crime which led to more offending- quite perceptive given today recidivism rates.

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Lacks credibility

Lacks accuracy, doesn’t take facial disfigurement into consideration.

Not all criminals may have atavistic features, only 40% of criminals Lombroso looked at had atavistic features. There may be people who have atavistic features that aren’t criminal.

People with atavistic features will be labelled and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Scientific racism- many of the atavistic features defined are those that are normal of people with African descent.

Extremely deterministic- idea that theory assumes people who are criminal can’t escape their destiny of being a criminal.

Lack of a control group meaning criminals features can’t be compared to those that aren’t criminal.

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Sheldon's Theory

As a result of  an examination of photographs showing the front, side and back of 4,000 men, Sheldon put forward that there were 3 fundamental body types or somatotypes:

Ectomorph: thin and fragile (introverted and restrained)

Endomorph: over weight and soft (tend to be sociable and relaxed)

Mesomorph: muscular and hard (more aggressive and adventurous)

He found that many criminals prone to committing violent and aggressive acts were mesomorphic, and the least likely were ectomorphic.

He used a sample of photographs of college students and delinquents rated on a scale of 1 (low) – 7 (high) their resemblance to mesomorphy.

The results showed that the delinquents had a higher average mesomorphy rating than the college students (4.6 – 3.8).

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Study - Hayden Goodwill Institute (Boston) – 200 boys (Sheldon)

Disproportionately mesomorphic - more prone to delinquency

Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck (1950's): looked at 800 delinquents and 800 non-delinquents

Delinquents more likely to be mesomorphs

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Had a control group of 200 college students to compare criminals to.

Other studies seem to support his theory to some extent.                   

Small association with bodily build and criminality (Putwain & Sammons, 2002) Glueck and Glueck (1956) found in their sample of delinquents, 60% were mesomorphs compared with only 31% in their non-delinquent sample.

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Ectomorphs and endomorphs can also be criminals which is contradictory to Sheldon’s idea that mesomorphs are criminals.

Body types aren’t fixed throughout lives they can change.

Mesomorphs can be treated differently because of how they look, they might be labelled leading to self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Kretschmer's Theory

Studied 4,000 criminals and suggested that criminals fall into 4 somatotypes…

Leptosome (tall and thin – petty thieves)
Athletic (tall and muscular – crimes of violence)
Pyknic – (short and over weight -crimes of deception and violence)
Dsyplastic or mixed (more than one type of crime – crimes against morality)

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