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Crime and criminal Behavior

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Since the organization of the first police departments, whose purpose is to react to crime as it occurs, there has been interest devoted to the study of crime and criminal activity which is now known as criminology. Over time this field of study has developed into a broad and highly interdisciplinary field. Based upon theories old and new, and through the cooperation of the many disciplines involved, these dedicated professionals examine crime and criminal behavior to compile and compare statistical data. Utilizing these same theories, and disciplines within the study of criminology, criminologists have been able to develop a better perception of why some individuals seem to be more susceptible to criminal influence, and turn to a life of crime, as a way of life, and others do not. While nature versus nurture continues to be debated, the majority of studies seem to support that the deviant criminal mind is not present at birth, it is a behavior that is learned and /or developed through processes of various environmental stimuli. I: The Study of Crime:

The role of criminologists is comprised of two parts, they seek to; first find answers that will assist in the development of a more complete understanding of the complex, driving forces behind the criminal mind, and secondly to use this knowledge gained in a manner that will hopefully bring about a reduction in future crime rates. The modern definition of the study of crime, or criminology can be a challenge in itself, due to the fact that as noted, criminological studies have come to embrace a wide variety of issues related to criminal behavior. These may include, but are not limited to investigative research regarding the effects of laws meant to reduce crime, statistical studies of crime patterns, the causes behind the criminal activity, as well as the results of recidivism rates obtained through administrative justice actions, such as detainment methods, punishment, treatment and rehabilitation. Criminologists are also interested in exploring the ways that society views and responds to criminal acts. Throughout recorded history it is recognized that man has studied crime and criminal behavior; even though “Criminology as a formal field of study, has only existed since the late 1950’s”(Hunter.2005.26).

One of the earliest theories can be traced back as far as Aristotle, who was born in 384 B.C. He put forth the theory that “Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime”(Hart.1978.109), which came to be known as the environmental theory to criminologists of today. This was later followed by what would come to be known as the classical theory, which is credited to Cesar Beccaria. Ronald Hunter, quoting W.V. Pelfrey, 1980, states that “Criminology, as a social focus, emerged with the publication of Cesar Beccaria’s Essay on Crimes and Punishment in 1764″(Hunter.2005.26). Today a more modern outlook on criminal studies takes a positivist approach to examine crime, based on diverse interdisciplinary perspectives. This is necessary because there is no one theory that is compatible with exploring all types of criminal acts, or all types of criminals. According to author Deborah Denno, within the study of criminology there is found interdisciplinary action among theories “within five different fields: biology, sociology, psychology, economics, and politics” (Denno.1988.137). Denno explains in great depth some of these interactions that necessarily take place.

For example she states that within the field of biological study we find distinctions that can influence behavior in the commission of criminal acts include “physiological, biochemical, neurological, and genetic factors” (Denno. 1988.137). An example how this interdisciplinary interaction works as a checks and balance system upon each other can be seen in two examples of research that were conducted in an attempt to establish a genetic predisposition basis for predicting criminal behavior, by Goring and Hooten. In Earnest Hooten’s studies of 1939, like Goring, he tried to claim that inherited physical traits could predict criminality, and “Evaluated 13,873 inmates from ten states, comparing them along 107 physiological dimensions with 3,203 individuals who were not incarcerated who formed his control group”(Hunter.2005.46).

The results were published in Crime and Man, in which Hooten claimed to have identified characteristics such as “low foreheads, crooked noses, narrow jaws, small ears, long necks, and stooped shoulders, not found within his control group” (Hunter. 2005. 46-47). His studies further claimed a relationship between body shapes and the crime, such as “Murderers tended to be tall and thin, while rapists were short and heavy”(Hunter.2005.47). Eventually though, “Hooten’s research was heavily criticized because it suffered from the same methodological flaws as Goring’s work” (Hunter. 2005.47). The studies were based strictly on genetic makeup, claiming these were traits inherent from birth, and they were determined to be flawed because they “failed to account for the effect of environment” (Hunter. 2005.46). From a criminologist’s viewpoint, all theories must involve a “complex link between a person’s biology and the broad span of social or environmental factors that sociological theories examine” (Denno.1988.137). Sociological theories, examine factors within an individual’s day to day life, the social environment they live in.

These include “strain, social learning, and control” (Denno.1988.137). Psychological theories, as the name implies considers criminal activity based on state of mind, as influenced by social environment, including “(1) family influences, such as broken homes, poor child-rearing methods, and criminal parents (2) individual influences, such as intelligence, personality” (Denno.1988.137). Other less popular theories include the economic theory, which generally factors in whether the expected gains of the criminal act are worth the risk of the possible punishments if discovered, and political crime theories which “may be linked with some political ideology conservative, liberal, or radical” (Denno.1988.137). According to authors Stuart Henry and Werner Einstadter “All criminological theory, at least implicitly, involves a theory of social order”(Einstadter. Henry. 2006. 9). These many variables found within the study of crime, enough to literally boggle the mind can and do create measures of uncertainty within criminological research. A final note on the many divisions within the study of modern criminology is that the field is found to be further divided among specific areas of study. There are five main specialty areas, in which Author Ronald Hunter explains a criminologist may choose to focus within one or more. Hunter identifies these specialized areas as; “sociology of law, criminological theory, penology, justicology, and victimology” (Hunter.2005.p.24-25).

II: Learning to Commit Crime:

According to author Ruth Triplett” The social learning theory of crime basically argues that some people learn to commit crimes through the same process through which others learn to conform” (Triplett.2007). The search for answers, and the theories and studies regarding how, where, or why certain individuals learn to commit crimes are found to be as diverse as those employed in researching criminal acts. To begin, it can be said that learning may be defined as “habits and knowledge that develop as a result of experiences with the environment, as opposed to instincts, drives, reflexes, and genetic predispositions”(Hale.2006). The main theories of learning, of interest to the study of criminology include associationism, behaviorism, and imitation. These theories are based on the belief, within the field of criminology, “that criminality is a function of individual socialization, how individuals have been influenced by their experiences, or by family relationships, peer groups, and teachers” (Hale.2006), as well as other environmental influences. Associationism originally traces its roots far back, like the environmental criminology theory, to Aristotle.

Hale says that associationism is better known today, in modern terminology, as cognitive psychology. The modern belief of the associationism theory developed over time, to its accepted modern definition, and is credited to the joint efforts of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704), David Hume (1711-1776), and David Hartley (1705-1757). Author Hale states that associationism “is based on the idea that the mind organizes sensory experiences” (Hale.2006). The main concept of the theory being, that the way thoughts and ideas come together in the mind, or learning, occurs as a result of life experiences. The theory known as “behaviorism, (developed by Pavlov and Skinner) is the second oldest learning theory. It is based on the idea that the mind requires a physical response by the body in order to organize sensory associations” (Hale.2006). Hale further determines the two types of behavioral learning, as classical conditioning, and operational conditioning. Klein and Mower claim “the crux of learning theory is the school of psychology known as behaviorism, which emphasizes the role of experience in controlling behavior” (Klein. Mowrer.1989.6).

The behavioral learning processes can generally be further associated with variables such as conditioning, reinforcement, stimulus, drive, expectancy and frequency. Last is the imitation theory, which Hale says “is the oldest social learning theory, and derives from the work of Tarde (1843-1904), a sociologist who said crime begins as fashion and later becomes a custom” (Hale.2006). It was within this scope that ideas formed regarding the role modeling theory. This is the social learning theory that Hale says “has had the most impact on criminology” (Hale.2006). This theory advanced from studies, which demonstrated how children learn and imitate modeled behaviors, and “is associated with the work of Bandura (1969)” (Hale.2006). Based upon these three main theories of learning, it can be said then that learning to commit crime occurs through repetition, reaction, and/or example. Of the theories put forth regarding learning criminal behavior Hale says “Bandura’s ideas about role modeling resonated well with criminology because since the 1930s, criminology had a similar theory” (Hale.2006). This theory, put forth by Sutherland (1883-1950), was known as Differential Association.

Sutherland, who has been credited with authoring the “first fully sociological textbook in the field” (Hale. 2006), devised the DA theory because studies of “white collar crime (a field he pioneered) and professional theft led him to believe that there were social learning processes that could turn anyone into a criminal, anytime, anywhere” (Hale. 2006). Sutherland made nine points within his theory, one of which was agreement that criminal behavior is learned like any other behavior. The most important of these points is the basis of the theory, which is “A person becomes a criminal when there is an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of law” (Hale.2006). These unfavorable conditions can be considered stimuli in the environment, or exposure to criminal elements. Authors Bernstein and Cassel, state the core of the psychodynamic theory of crime is that “every element that prevents children from developing in a healthy way, both physically and emotionally, tends to bring about a pattern of emotional disturbances which is always at the root of antisocial or criminal behavior”(Bernstein. Cassel.2007.84).

This would mean that the majority of children within abusive homes, or under the care of parents with drug or alcohol addictions that prevent them from providing proper emotional nurturing and guidance are at risk of developing deviant criminal behavior. Ideally within the healthy home environment, our three social learning theories would hold that a child will learn to develop a sense of right and wrong, through consistent reward and punishment by the parents, who would furthermore reinforce these learned behaviors by setting a good example. Therefore, if consistency is considered equivocal to repetition, and reward and punishment as causing a reaction, and proper role modeling as example, taking into account the needs required within the psychodynamic theory, theoretically a child would not grow up and commit criminal acts. This is not true though. As experience has shown to be the case with the studies of criminology, psychology, and sociology, there are again variables that affect the success, or negatively impact the social learning process, even within the best of family environments, although these children may have a better chance of not becoming involved in crime.

Based on studies conducted by Bandura, Ross and Ross, 1963, Cassel and Bernstein state that some children “may learn criminal skills, and that it is acceptable to use them, by watching admired criminal role models, by being rewarded for criminal behavior (Crime does pay at least in the short run), and by associating excitement and peer acceptance with criminal activity” (Cassel. Bernstein.2007.88). So it is possible children may have a stable home, be well fed, properly disciplined, and have parents that set a good example, but through external social environmental influence the child can still learn and engage in criminal behavior. It is still imperative that teaching, and thereby learning, is consistent, both in areas of praise and discipline for youth to internalize positive behavior into their personality. This teaching of behavior must be maintained over time, and regularly enforced, if the child is to develop the concepts that will allow him to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable conduct. It is the development of this concept of acceptable conduct that may protect the child, as they move through life from being influenced as easily by social environmental stimuli such as for example, the possible risks associated with excessive exposure to violent media, including movies, video games, and music, which may or may not promote criminal behavior.

“The development of moral reasoning does not take place in a vacuum. It depends on what is learned at home, from peers, and society as a whole. To develop law abiding tendencies, children need to see patterns of moral behavior in parents”(Bernstein.Cassel.2007.93). Ruth Triplett states that the basis of the social learning theory is “that people are “blank slates” at birth, having neither a motivation to commit crime nor to conform” (Triplett.2007). This accepted then one could clearly say that no child is born with a criminal mind, and whether they develop inclinations toward criminal activity is based upon exposure to social and environmental stimuli.

III: The Career Criminal

Some forms of career criminals, especially those involved in white collar criminal acts or economic and political theory based crime, do not fit into expected patterns. These individual exceptions to the normal career criminal profile may not have violent or aggressive personalities that are generally associated with crime. They may be in pursuit of financial gains, which they see as outweighing the risk of being discovered, and punished. Criminals such as these may stop and resume intermittently throughout their life, as financial needs dictates, until eventually caught. In true examples of nature versus nurture though, Bernstein and Cassel cite numerous cases that were personally followed by the authors through the judicial processes, children of abuse, and neglect who went on to be considered career criminals.

Many of these children profess to not care if they ended up in prison eventually, like one case that stands out, ‘David ‘, who felt no one cared about, or wanted him. His father had died, he was beaten repeatedly over time by his mothers various boyfriends, bounced around foster homes, and his mother was a drug addict, eventually imprisoned. Bernstein and Cassel Say David’s case illustrates “children are not born bad, nor do they just wake up one morning and become bad. David had been exposed to virtually every known risk factor for developing aggressive, violent behavior” (Bernstein. Cassel. 2007.128). Numerous studies have been conducted in an effort to determine who may be more likely to be susceptible to criminal influence, and continue to re offend, and in fact become a career criminal.

One of these theories developed was based upon personality traits. Bernstein and Cassel, identify Sheldon and Eleanor Gluek (1950, 1968), as the first psychologist who set out to clearly define the criminal personality. “Their longitudal study followed more than 1,000 delinquent boys to adulthood”(Bernstein. Cassel.2007.78). The goal was to “determine factors that predicted chronic criminal behavior” (Bernstein. Cassel.2007.78). The authors identified a set of traits that are commonly seen in chronic offenders from childhood onward, which included “self assertiveness, defiance, sadism, and lack of concern for others, extroversion, feeling of being unappreciated, distrust of authority, impulsiveness, poor interpersonal skills, narcissism, mental instability, suspicion, hostility, destructiveness, and resentment” (Bernstein. Cassel . 2007.78). All of which can be credited to effects of either social related influences as previously discussed as well as additional environmental factors. For example it has been shown that without the appropriate nutrition, individuals will suffer from vitamin deficiencies.

Quoting from studies of Neiiser, 1996, Hunter says that “vitamin deficiency can manifest many physical, mental, and behavioral problems, including lower intelligence test scores. Therefore, diet and nutrition play a role in aggression and crime” (Hunter.2005.56). This means that children of poverty are at increased risk for developing into career criminals as “Biocriminologists maintain that minimum levels of vitamins and minerals are needed for normal brain functioning and growth, especially in the early years of life” (Hunter.2005.55). Environmental contaminants often associated with high poverty areas, place children at risk for becoming career criminals as well. For example Deborah Denno,1993, “investigated the behavior of more than nine hundred African American youths and found that lead poisoning was one of the most significant predictors of male delinquency and persistent adult criminality” (Hunter. 2005.57). Hunter, citing another study by Herbert Needleman, and his colleagues,1996, in which they “tracked 300 boys from ages seven to eleven and found those who had high lead concentrations in their bones were much more likely to report attention problems, delinquency, and aggressiveness” (Hunter.2005. 57).

While the age old battle of nature versus nurture continues to be debated, the majority of studies do seem to support that the deviant criminal mind is not present at birth, it is a behavior that is learned and /or developed through processes of various environmental stimuli. Children, growing up in harsh environments, improperly educated, surrounded by poverty, abuse, and active crime are the most likely to learn to commit, and engage in criminal acts, as well as progress to career criminal status. These children are not born inherent criminals; they were influenced and developed into criminals. A commitment to end child poverty, and ensure all children the opportunity for a good education will be the key to breaking the cycle of learning and committing crime.


Bernstein, Douglas A. Cassel, Elaine. (2007). Criminal Behavior . Edition: 2, illustrated, published by Routledge.

Denno, Deborah, W. (1988). “Human Biology and Criminal Responsibility: Free Will or Free Ride?” University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 137, no. 2.Crime and Justice Vol.1, http://law.jrank.org/pages/783/Crime-Causation-Field.html . (Accessed28March2009).

Einstadter, Werner J. Henry, Stuart. (2006). Criminological theory: an analysis of its underlying

Assumptions. Edition: 2, illustrated, Published by Rowman & Littlefield.

Hale, Robert. 2006. “Learning Theories of Crime: You Too, Can Learn to be a Serial Killer”. Www. APSU. edu.com. http://www.apsu.edu/oconnort/crim/crimtheory12.htm (Accessed28March2009).

Hart, Michael H. (1978).” The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History”, Hart Publishing Company, New York City pages 105-109: http://www.adherents.com/people/pa/Aristotle.html .

Hunter, Ronald. 2005. Crime and Criminality: Causes and Consequences, Published by Criminal Justice Press.

Klein, Stephen B. Mowrer, Robert R. (1989).Contemporary Learning Theories. Edition: illustrated, Published by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Triplett, Ruth. (2007).”The Social Learning Theory of Crime”. Www. Blackwell reference. com. http://www.blackwellreference.com/public/tocnode?id=g9781405124331_chunk_g97814051243319_ss1-158. (Accessed28March2009).

Since the first police departments were organized there has been interest devoted to the study of crime and criminal activity, with the intent to reduce future crime through use of the information gathered. Over the course of time specialized fields of study have emerged to aid these investigations, such as forensics, psychological evaluation techniques, and most recently software computer program development. Extensive time and effort has been put forth by these dedicated professionals, conducting studies involved in examining crime, and criminal behavior, and compiling Statistical research. The goal of these professionals has two parts; first to hopefully find the answers that may one day assist in understanding the driving forces behind the criminal mind, secondly to use their knowledge to reduce future criminal activity. Have these criminal studies been successful in attaining these goals? Has there been overall increased understanding why some individuals seem to be more susceptible to criminal influence, and turn to a life of crime, as a way of life? Is a deviant criminal mind present at birth or developed through environment? I.A Study of Crime

A. The criminologist.
1.Roles and goals of criminologists
2. Early Theories, early investigations. Modern theories B.studies
of crime in the modern age
1.Interdisciplinary fields of study
2.Specialized areas of study
II.Learning to Commit Crime
A.Main theories of learning
1.Associationism, behaviorism, imitation, neutralization, and social learning
2.Social Environment
B.Additionally, Media influence and exposure
1.Video games. Music
2.Role modeling
III.Criminal Careers
A.Why do some become lifetime criminals?
1.poor parenting / home environment in general
B.Environmental effects
1.Abuse, neglect, peer pressure
While the age old battle of nature versus nurture may not be able to be determined here, there is a preponderance of evidence that does support the belief that, the deviant criminal mind is not present at birth, it is a behavior that is learned and /or developed through processes of various environmental stimuli. Children, growing up in harsh environments, improperly educated, surrounded by poverty, abuse, and active crime are the most likely to learn to commit, and engage in criminal acts. These children are not born inherent criminals; they were influenced and developed into criminals. A commitment to end child poverty and ensure all children opportunity for a good education will be the key to breaking the cycle of learning and committing crime

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