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Cesare Lombroso's Theory of Criminal Traits

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 1664 words Published: 19th Jun 2018

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Cesare Lombroso’s (1960) Criminal Man led to a new discipline in criminology, placing a link between physical anomalies and crime. Certain attributes were said to be the result of a biologically inferior presence which led to a life of crime (Ellwood, 1912). An observational study interpreted a number of ‘mugshots’ made up of criminals and Psychology staff from Canterbury Christ Church University. Independent t-tests revealed that there was no difference between the two groups in terms of physical characteristics and ‘criminal’ rating. These findings tie in with previous research in the field (Goring, 1972; Saladin, Zalman & Breen 1988).

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Cesare Lombroso (2006) is best known as the founder of the discipline criminal anthropology; the study of mental and physical traits associated with the ‘born criminal’. Lombroso published Criminal Man (2006), a famous study in which he attributed criminal behaviour to ‘Atavism’, an inherited condition in which offender’s demonstrated evolutionary throwbacks to more primitive humans. According to Lombroso (2006) the criminal was fundamentally a living anomaly concerned with pathological and atavistic characteristics (Ellwood, 1912). After studying 66 deceased criminals, Lombroso (2006) compiled a list of physical features assumed to be associated with criminal behaviour. Traits included asymmetrical faces and excessive body hair. A person was thought to be a criminal if they processed 4 or more traits.

Charles B. Goring (1972) subjected 37 of Lombroso’s (2006) characteristics to empirical testing and compared 2,348 London convicts with a control group of young Englishmen. Goring (1972) found little support for Lombroso’s work, instead suggesting criminal behaviour is simply an inherited lack of common sense. Support for Lombroso comes from a study by Hooton (1939), in which 13,873 male prisoners were compared with 3,023 males from a general sample. Hooton attributed criminal behaviour to biological inferiority, assigning a number of features such as sloping foreheads to criminals. Hooton was, however, criticised for his circular reasoning. Criminals were assumed to be physically mediocre and those features which distinguished criminals from others could be classified as precursors of biological inferiority.

Only a small number of modern studies have tested the relationship among attractiveness and criminal behaviour. Saladin, Zalman and Breen (1988) invited students to judge the physical attractiveness of a selection of male photos. Other students assessed the same photos and judged the likelihood that those pictured would commit a crime. Those rated as less attractive were more likely to commit crime. Similar results were also found in other related studies (Cavior & Howard, 1973; Kurtzberg, 1978).

The current study is building upon the previous contradictory evidence, and much like Goring (1913), the study will focus upon comparing Lombroso’s (2006) original anomalies within the criminal and general population. As a result of previous evidence my hypothesis states that there will be no difference between Lombroso’s (2006) ‘criminal traits’ amongst convicted criminals and the general population.



The design of the experiment consisted of independent measures as both groups were separate from each other.


There were 30 participants in total, 15 were Psychology staff members from Canterbury Christ Church University and the other 15 were convicted criminals.

Materials and Apparatus

Materials required for the experiment included the 15 criminal mugshots, 15 staff mugshots and finally a criminal characteristics coding sheet.


The procedure involved going through each photo and deciding whether each person had Lombroso’s (2006) original ‘criminal characteristics’. These characteristics consisted of: asymmetric head, flattened/twisted nose, large ears, fat lips, enormous jaw, high cheekbones, narrow eyes and excessive skin wrinkles. Each photo was judged upon these criteria and whether they were present or not. The final part involved deciding whether each person was a criminal or not which was based on Lombroso’s (2006) ideas that if you perceived more than four characteristics then you were a criminal. In terms of ethical considerations the use of photos from the staff members would have required consent as well as the right to withdraw from the study at any point.


Overall frequencies for the ‘criminal characteristics’ identified in both sets of photos are given in Table 1. This data reveals that in terms of the ‘non- symmetrical face’ and ‘twisted nose’ characteristics these were marked as being present in the staff photos (4 and 8 time respectively) more so than for the criminal photos in which they were reported 2 and 6 times. All the other traits were identified more on the criminal photos however ‘enormous jaw’ and ‘high cheekbones’ were equally coded for at 7 and 9 times. Table 2 provides data showing the frequencies of the total numbers of ‘criminal characteristics’ coded for in each group of photos. Both groups receive more total ratings in the middle of the scale, with the majority coded for 2 or 3 criminal traits. An independent t test yielded t(28) = .756, p > .05. The hypothesis was accepted: there was no difference between the criminal classification of ‘staff mug shots’ and ‘criminal mug shots’.


Overall there was no difference between the criminal classification of the ‘staff mugshots’ and the ‘criminal mugshots’ which replicates similar findings obtained in studies by Goring (1972) and Kurtzberg et al, (1978). This implies that Lombroso’s original ideas and theories about certain characteristics leading to criminality have been undermined by this study. The data presented in table 2 can be described as normally distributed as the ends of the scale are sparsely occupied; however the majority of participants from both groups were coded as having between 2-5 criminal traits. According to Lombrosso a criminal was said to have four or more traits, therefore based on results obtained it can be said that the distribution of seemingly ‘criminal’ characteristics is actually very normal. One limitation to this study is that it is entirely subjective as one person is judging the photos on whether they are ‘criminal’ or not based on a set of perceived traits. This may lead to a lack of reliability as the same result cannot be guaranteed if the study is repeated. A further limitation concerning subjectivity is the classification of the criminal traits, for instance what constitutes as ‘enormous’ when describing the jaw or ‘excessive’ when labelling skin wrinkles. Further in depth classification is required to establish whether a particular trait is present. Although the results from this study and others suggest that Lombroso’s (2006) method of criminal profiling is out of date, it has led to the use of similar methods using information such as upbringing or substance use to establish whether a person is likely to commit a crime.


Cavior, N., & Howard, L. (1973). Facial attractiveness and juvenile delinquency among black and white offenders. Journal Of Abnormal Child Psychology, 1(2), 202-213. doi:10.1007/bf00916114.

Ellwood, C. (1912). Lombroso’s Theory of Crime. Journal Of The American Institute Of Criminal Law And Criminology, 2(5), 716. doi:10.2307/1132830.

Goring, C. (1972). The English convict. Montclair, N.J.: Patterson Smith.

Hooton, E. A., (1939).Crime and the Man, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Kurtzberg, R. L. (1978). Plastic Surgery on Offenders. In N. Johnston & L. Savitz (Eds.), Justice and Corrections, New York: Wiley.

Lombroso, C., Gibson, M., & Rafter, N. (2006). Criminal man. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Saladin, M., Zalman S., & Breen, L. (1988). Perceived Attractiveness and Attributions of Criminality: What Is Beautiful Is Not Criminal,Canadian Journal of Criminology30(3), 205-215.

Table 1

This table illustrates the present frequencies of each criminal characteristic as well as the total number of those classified as criminals in the ‘staff’ and ‘criminal’ mugshot categories.

Face Nose Ears Lips Jaw Cheekbones Eyes Wrinkles Criminal

Criminal 2 6 9 7 7 9 8 3 6

Staff 4 8 6 2 7 9 3 4 4

Table 2

Listed in this table are the total numbers of criminal traits identified for each type of mugshot, ranging between 1-6 characteristics.

Number of ‘characteristics’ present after coding


Criminal 045321

Staff 164220


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