Psychology of Criminal Behavior

Written by jacquelyn jeanty
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Psychology of Criminal Behavior

Human behaviour--whether socially acceptable or not--is driven by how a person thinks and what her motivations are. The psychology of criminal behaviour addresses the thought processes that result in deviant acts and the motivations that drive them. Both hereditary and environmental factors play a part in developing a person's tendency to engage in criminal activity.


Whenever someone breaks the law, the act is a deviation from what's considered socially acceptable and just. In effect, criminal behaviour and deviant behaviour go hand-in-hand. Criminal psychology examines the motivations, thoughts and intentions of those who defy the law on a habitual basis. The need to deviate from the norm plays a large role in the psychological make-up of a criminal. As with most any behaviour, this is a learnt coping skill that's may result from hereditary and environmental factors.

Societal Norms

The tendency to go against societal norms is something that starts out as frame of mind in which society and self are at odds. Defiance against authority and authority figures, to some degree, becomes the norm for someone inclined towards criminal behaviour. Certain personality traits such as aggression and impulsiveness are characteristic of those who indulge in deviant behaviours. In most cases, an abusive and violent childhood upbringing is the training ground for this frame of mind to develop.

Nature Versus Nurture

Causes for criminal behaviour are believed to involve both hereditary and environmental factors. Hereditary causes are linked to chemical imbalances within the brain brought about by gene mutations. These mutations target certain neurotransmitters, or chemicals, that regulate aggression and inhibitions. Dopamine, MAO, serotonin, epinephrine and norepinephrine are the neurotransmitters affected. However, hereditary factors alone do not ensure a person will lean towards deviant behaviours. Environmental influences become the tipping point when hereditary factors are present. When both factors are present, a person's tendency to engage in aggressive behaviours increases.

Antisocial Behavior

Antisocial personality traits are typically found in those who show a repeated disregard for the rule of law. Nonconformity, recklessness, aggression and deceitfulness are traits associated with antisocial behaviour. As laws are set up to maintain social order and provide for the safety and well-being of others, antisocial behaviours work against these provisions. In effect, criminal types operate from a self-centered framework that shows little, if any regard, for the safety and well-being of others.

Treatment Approaches

More often than not, a criminal will not seek out therapy on his own. As a result, any therapeutic interventions made are ordered by the court and not sought by the individual. Under these circumstances, therapy approaches used tend to focus on behaviour-modification methods that reinforce acceptable behaviours in the client. Cognitive-behavioural approaches may try to help a client better understand his thinking processes and how they relate to his feelings. As criminal types have few emotionally-rewarding relationships, establishing a therapeutic relationship with the client is progress in and of itself.

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