WJEC A2 Psychology PY4 - Theories of Crime

3 Theories of Crime

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Brain Abnormality: Amygdala Dysfunction

1. Brain Abnormality: Amygdala Dysfunction

  • Mitchell and Blair (1999) suggest that the underlying problem in psychopathy is a lack of empathy with others
  • lack of empathy is related to the dysfunction of a brain structure = the amygdala
  • humans thought to have an innate mechanism for stopping aggressive attacks by demonstrating a submissive behavioural signal: a sad/fearful facial expression. The response to such expressions in most people are feelings of empathy, which terminate an aggressive attack


(+) Blair (1999)

  • brain scan showed the amygdala increases its activity when non-psychopathic pps are shown pictures of a sad face
  • the degree of activity in the amygdala related to the degree of sadness in the face 
  • suggests the amygdala reacts to emotions, supports theory
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Brain Abnormality: Amygdala Dysfunction

(-) HOWEVER...

  • Bennet (2009) suggested problem with brain scans = just because a part of the brain lights up when something is being done to cause a reaction, it doesn't necessarily mean the action (like Blair's expt) causes the brain activity directly

(+) Murphy et al (2009)

  • a team from KCL suggest there is a pathway that connects the amygdala and frontal cortex, which may a role in reducing empathy
  • in a group of convicted psychopaths studied, they found considerable damage to this pathway compared to a control group with no convictions, matched for age/IQ
  • positive correlation between the degree of damage to pathway and convicted level of violence = supports the amygdala dysfunction (AD) theory

(?) Mitchell and Blair

  • however M+B don't suggest the AD itself causes people to become psychopaths but an AD represents a biological risk factor for it
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Brain Abnormality: Amygdala Dysfunction

(?) Damage to the amygdala

  • theory doesn't explain what actually causes damage to the amygdala and whether it is genetic or environmental (head injury, genes, problem in the womb, virus during pregnancy etc)

(?) Psychopathic crimes

  • Murphy et al study DID show a difference in amygdala function of convicted psychopaths
  • however in the bigger scheme of things, psychopathic violent crimes represent tiny % of all actual crimes recorded
  • therefore dysfunction may fail to explain all crimes like theft, criminal damage and drug related crimes

(?) Non convicted psychopaths

  • criminals examined in study were caught, therefore it is conceivable that there are other psychopathic violent criminals who weren't caught and don't have the AD
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Genetics Theory: Vulnerability/Predispositions

2. Genetics Theory: Vulnerability/Predispositions

  • criminality is a social construct, therefore there cannot be a gene for crime, however genes could cause predispositions to certain behaviours, identified as "criminal"
  • can be tested with twin studies because identical twins have 100% same genes; if they have more similar offending behaviours than non-identical twins, that would provide a degree of evidence for a genetic influence
  • any differences in behaviours would be because of environmental influences

EVALUATION (Twin Studies)

(+) Karl Christiansen (1977)

  • based on analysis of criminal records of 3,586 twins born between 1881 - 1910
  • found if one MZ twin had a criminal record, 55% chance the other twin did too
  • for DZ twins, figure was 22%, matches the proportion of genes shared
  • supports genetics = if an MZ twin has genetic predisposition to behaviours considered criminal, the other twin is likely to criminally behave by over 50%
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Genetics Theory: Vulnerability/Predispositions

(-) HOWEVER...

  • if criminal behaviours are 100% due to predispositions, the concordance rate should be 100% = therefore must be other factors causing criminal behaviour
  • percentage diff. between MZ and DZ could be due to upbringing than genes: MZ twins more likely to have shared family environment (SFE) because they're identical = behaviours could be similar
  • DZ twins can be different genders = brought up differently = different behaviours

EVALUATION (Adoption Studies)

(+) Mednick et al (1984)

  • 14,427 adopted children in Denmark; found % of sons with criminal convictions if:
  • both bio + adoptive had criminal convictions = 24.5%, bio only = 20%, adoptive only = 14.7%, neither = 13.5%
  • stronger relationship between criminality of adopted child + bio parent; supports genetic theory = genetic predisposition for crime as criminal behaviour still likely even if no relationship with bio parent to influence behaviours
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Genetics Theory: Vulnerability/Predispositions

(-) HOWEVER...

  • neither = still 13.5% = must be other factors contributing to criminal behaviour
  • only using children/adults who have been convicted, results could be different if all crimes reported/recorded
  • only males (fathers+sons) = gender bias = androcentric study
  • study doesn't identify what genes are responsible and mechanism of how it causes criminal behaviour

EVALUATION (Specific Gene Research)

(+) Brunner Syndrome (1993)

  • did study on large Dutch family, male members mildly retarded and extremely violent: arsonists, ******, attempted murder
  • men all lacked monoamine oxidase A, suggests = possessed a defective version of the MAOA gene
  • highlights genetic defects can produce impulsive aggression but also how these genetic vulnerabilities interact with environmental factors = criminal behaviour
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Blackburn's Dysfunctioning Superego Theory

3. Blackburn's Dysfunctioning Superego Theory

  • Blackburn suggested in 1993 (who used Freud's theory) that tendencies to behave anti-socially or criminally result from inadequate/dysfunctioning superego that is produced by abnormal relationships with parents during childhood
  • suggested 3 types of dysfunctioning superego: Harsh, Weak, Deviant


  • person prone to engage in criminal activity to be punished for it; desire stems from unconscious guilt over repressed infantile sexual/aggressive desires
  • criminal activities will be carried out so the individual gets punished, satisfying superego's need for punishment over unconscious desires

(+) Motiveless crimes: concept helps to explain apparently motiveless crimes eg. wealthy person shoplifting

(-) Adrenaline: bio psychologists explain this in terms of bodily chemistry and adrenaline rush

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Blackburn's Dysfunctioning Superego Theory


  • individual feels less or no guilt/anxiety over contemplated criminal acts because id has taken over their psyche = therefore has less inhibitions against acting on their desires, = criminal behaviour

(-) Females

  • according to Freud, weak superegos occur more often in females, due to weakness of the identification process with same sex parent, due to lack of castration anxiety
  • official statistics found more crimes committed by men = inconsistent with Freud


  • exemplified by situation = young boy has positive relationship with criminal father, internalises father's values (in usual psycho-sexual development), would therefore internalise father's criminal characteristics/values and commit crimes as an adult
  • superego sees criminality = normal/moral = no guilt/anxiety for crimes
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Blackburn's Dysfunctioning Superego Theory

(-) Behaviourist principles

  • explained more simply via behaviourist principles, including social learning (concept of role models/imitating), rather than identifying with a same sex parent who has a deviant moral character due to unconscious fears of castration


(-) Unfalsifiable theory

  • Freud's concept of the superego is unfalsifiable, it is impossible to disprove - the existence of the superego is impossible to test directly
  • no scientific way of measuring ego strength independently


  • one idea = the id = limbic system (links to amygdala dysfunction theory) and the superego = frontal cortex in brain structure, and together they could cause criminal behaviour
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