|Before the rise of sociological
theories, biological and psychological theories dominated the scientific
|Biological theories were the
dominant theories of crime around the turn of the century, and Lombroso¡¯s (1911) theory
was the leading one. His theory is influenced by Darwin¡¯s theory of
evolution. Lombroso argued that many criminals are genetic throwbacks or born
criminals (e.g., traits like large jaw and cheekbones).
|Comparing the traits of
criminals to those of carefully matched samples of noncriminals provided
little support for the early biological theories. Moreover, a concern for the
policy implications of these theories (e.g., selective breeding and
sterilization) led to the decline of biological theories of crime. However,
there has been a recent resurgence of interest in the biological theories.
The newest theories differ three ideas. First, such theories focus on a broad
range of biological factors, including genetic inheritance and environmental
factors like exposure to toxins such as lead. These factors are said to
affect individuals¡¯ nervous systems and thereby their behavior. Second, these
theories do not argue that biological factors lead directly to crime. For
example, no one argues that there is gene that leads inevitably to crime.
Rather, biological factors influence crime by mediating other causal
processes. Third, most biological theories recognize that the impact of
biological factors is influenced by the social environment. For instance,
birth complications may be more likely to result in crime among children in
disrupted family environments. In sum, biological factors at most partially
account for crime under particular conditions.
|Psychological theories of crime
have also experienced a recent resurgence in interest. Freud¡¯s theory was the
leading psychological theory of crime early in this century. Other
psychological theories, like frustration-aggression theory, also experienced
period of popularity.
|Today, however, two general
categories of psychological theory are dominant: those that focus on
individual traits and those that focus on the processes by which individuals
learn to behave.
|First, Trait theories argue
that individuals with certain traits are more likely to engage in crime in a
given environment. For example, irritable individuals may be more likely to
respond to mild slights with aggression.
|Glueck and Glueck (1950) argued
that individuals often respond to the same environment in different ways.
Some person in disorganized neighborhood, for example, become criminals while
others do not. Based on their comparison of delinquents and nondelinquents,
they list several individual traits which they believe are conducive to
crime. They include hyperactivity, impulsivity, attention deficit, sensation
seeking, low empathy, immature moral reasoning, etc.
|Secondly, psychologists who
focus on learning processes argue that individuals learn to engage in crime
in the same way that they learn to engage in any other behavior. Bandura¡¯s (1973) social
learning theory is the dominant learning theory in psychology. He argues that
we initially learn behavior with the observation of others being the most
significant. Whether individuals continue to commit aggressive acts is said
to be dependent on the extent to which their aggression is reinforced and
|It is important to note,
however, that virtually all psychological theories also recognize the
importance of the social environment (Glueck and Glueck, Bandura, Wilson and
Herrnstein, and Moffitt). Contemporary psychological theories of crime
integrate previous psychological research including research on individual
traits, learning processes, and the social environment. Wilson and Herrnstein¡¯s theory argues
that individuals¡¯ perceptions of the rewards and costs of crime are influenced
by both individual traits and the social environment. A central individual
traits is the degree to which individuals are concerned about the future
consequences of their behavior. Wilson and Herrnstein¡¯s theory generated
controversy particularly over the central role assigned to biological factors
and individual traits.
|Moffitt attempts to explain
trends in crime over the life course. He argues that most individuals
experience an increase inn offending during the adolescent years, but
substantially reduce their level of offending when they become adults.
Moffitt develops two theories to account for these patterns: a theory of ¡°
adolescent-limited¡± offending and a theory of ¡°life-course persistent¡± offending. The
focus of the theory is on the interaction between such traits and the social
|In sum, biological and
psychological theories of crime complement sociological theories. They help
us understand the mechanism by which the social environment leads individuals
to engage in crime, the reasons why some individuals respond to a given environment
with crime and others do not.