Predominant Explanation For Criminal Behavior Psychology Essay

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The issue of criminal behavior has prompted my interest into the predominant explanations of its development and whether criminal behavior is inherited or simply learned from ones environmental surroundings. Thus the nature versus nurture debate will be examined, focusing on the biological and social factors contributing to criminal behavior. Therefore my investigated question is 'Is there a predominant explanation for criminal behavior'. In presenting and analyzing evidence such as McAllistern- Grooves et al (1992) supporting the thesis that the development of violent and aggressive behavior highly depends on ones social surroundings. Firstly, the essay will explore the universal definition of a crime, what actions lead people to being labeled as a criminal and what is socially accepted as a crime depending on countries and cultures.

The essay will present an insight of the aspects of criminal behavior; it will demonstrate the arguments of nature versus nurture debate on the predominant explanations of the progression of criminal behavior. Although there is strong evidence for the social influences on the development of criminal behavior the biological factors cannot be disregarded. I have come to a conclusion the way we are nurtured is the significant cause to the development of criminal behavior, that perhaps the social influences play a bigger role as much research supports this idea. Our biological make up plays a minor role, as the way one is nurtured heavily shapes the person they become in the future.


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Behind every act considered a crime, large or small, a single question remains the same. Why did the criminal do it? And what are the primary causes of criminal behavior? It's this fundamental question that represents the essence of criminal behavior, and it's one of the most difficult cases that psychologists have yet to solve.

The universal definition of a crime is when as a person has been "legally convicted for a crime" for an act that has broken the law of that nation. However, crime itself is a broad concept, as what may be considered a crime in one country may not be considered a crime in another. For example in a numerous Muslim countries, such as Afghanistan, committing adultery is seen as a crime and is most possibly punished by stoning to death. However this is not that same in a Western society therefore there studies have been carried out by psychologists to examine the approach of the validity, to see if the dispositions are established for crime. Thus the importance of culture needs to be taken into account for when defining the act of crime.

Not only can a criminal act be different from one culture to another, there is a discrepancy between these acts based on a certain a period of time and circumstance. For example in 1967, homosexuality was legalized in the UK, between adults (over the age of 21) in private, however prior to this it was considered to be a criminal act which punishment by death varying from hanging in the 12th century, to hard labor and prison sentences during the Victorian times. However for this essay, the definition of a criminal act is one which includes violent and aggressive behavior which therefore leads to an actions which may be harmful to society.

Moreover if a crime is committed, the intention of the criminal must be apparent, so that a judgment can be made on whether a person deserves to be punished if they were did not have the intention to carry out the criminal act. A person who is mentally ill may commit an unlawful act and is most likely to escape punishment because a judgment is made that they were not entirely in control of their behavior.

To find the fundamental cause behind criminal behavior, a variety of resources and techniques need to be analyzed. One of the main debates that arise from this is the nature versus nurture debate. The way you are nurtured plays an essential role in the development of criminal behavior (Kimball and Zabrack, 1986) and that behavior is not inherited, but there are traits that influence how an individual responds to their environment (Sutherland,1939)

In order to determine the causes of criminal behavior, several researches done by psychologists must be analyzed in order to distinguish the cause and effect. I also believe that it is important to consider the interplay between the biological and social influences that determine. The issue of adolescents to become juvenile delinquencies is caused by the negative effects of broken families and harmful influences of society. The family and the quality of relationships between parent and child is seen to be important in the explanations of delinquency's.

Theories are developed and therefore tested by experiments and studies, and data is collected to support a hypothesis. The possible explanations behind criminal behavior and the factors associated with criminal behavior are examined such as the nature versus nurture debate. However according to the question investigated the biological and social influences will be examined, these include family life, personality and twin studies.

Genetic influences on Criminal Behavior

Looking at the genetic approach towards criminal behavior, psychologists in the past have analyzed family trees of criminals and have come to a conclusion that there is a tendency that criminal behavior runs in the family. More recent studies have shown that offenders have come from the same family, thus researchers determine that criminal behavior may be inherited, that perhaps genes can potentially determine if one is a criminal there is a certain gene that increases the chances of us becoming predisposed to criminal behavior.

To analyze and evaluate the genetic linkage towards the predominant explanations for criminal behavior, several studies have been done to see the biological causes of criminal behavior. An experiment done by Crowe (1972) suggested that there is a genetic influence on criminality. He found that when a mother had a criminal record, the biological child had a 50 % risk of acquiring one by the age of 18, compared with only a 5 % risk of when the biological mother had no criminal conviction. However on the contrary, Hutchings and Mednick (1975) found that when neither biological nor adoptive father had a criminal record, 10% of the time their sons ended up with a criminal conviction. This rose to 11 % where only the adoptive father had a criminal record and 21 % were only the biological father had one and 36 % both had a criminal record. However, later, Mednick et al (1994) found no correlation between criminal convictions of adoptive parents and their adopted children. However there was a significant correlation between criminal convictions by biological parents and their children (however this was for property crimes, not violent and aggressive crimes). A more recent study by Mednick et al (1984) examined whether family psychology or biological heredity was more significant in determining criminal behavior. Identical twins were used in the study, both from different families and raised distant from one another. The results showed that adoptive children were more aggressive with their adoptive parents rather than biological parents. The results indicated that environment and biological dispositions are equally responsible in shaping human behavior.

Despite the lack of reliability and validity of adoption, twin and family studies researchers gain valuable insight into the genetic significance for the possibilities of inheriting certain genes that may cause someone to develop criminal behavior. These findings are consistent therefore it is assumed that there is a gene that makes one predisposed to criminal behavior (Tehrani & Mednick, 2000). Since they are longitudinal, researchers are able to see the changes over a long period of time, in depth However since they are correlational and longitudinal studies no cause and effect is established, the factors are determined by genetics or environment are unclear.

Furthermore, concurrent researchers attempt to find evidence that there is a genetic link to criminal behavior, studying criminal families is efficient to see the chances of criminal tendencies to be inherited. This is possible by looking at the family trees of criminals, and although these studies can be criticized for their lack of procedural accuracy, there have been studies that have shown that a relatively small number of offenders, frequently from the matching family, tends to have persistent offenders over a significant time period (Farrington, 1997).

A consistent findings corroborate that criminal parents are indeed, more likely to have criminal children, Osborn et al (1979) supported the theory of inheriting criminal behavior, he found that 40% of sons who had criminal convictions had criminal, compared to the 13% the sons of father who were not criminals. However, this does not provide evidence for genetic transmission, since 60% of those who had criminal fathers did not go on to become criminals themselves. Thus, alternative factors must be involved in the process, which is why studying families provides sufficient but also intricate data about the interaction between our biological make up and our social influences.

On the contrary, it may not be criminality that is being inherited. For example, there appears to be heritable predisposition concerning alcoholism (Bohman et al, 1982). Seeing that alcohol abuse is evidently correlated with violent crime, this may be where the genetic link comes from. Therefore researchers say that the similarities between biological parents and their offspring do not tend to be genetic. Crowe concluded that criminal convictions are associated with poverty and low socioeconomic status. Both of these are stressful; in relation to this Crowe found that maternal stress during pregnancy can lead to developmental problems in the offspring, including behavior disorders, which might lead to criminal convictions later in life.

Barnes stated that although there is no specific gene for criminal behavior, genes can influence our possibility of committing a crime, however he believes that crime is a learned behavior (Sutherland,1939). This suggests that our social influences and the media had a massive impact on shaping behavior.

Socio-Cultural approach on criminal behavior

It can be said that our social surroundings, the way we are nurtured plays a significant part in the way people, especially children grow up with certain behaviors. Bandura et al (1977) established the Social Learning Theory where he concluded that children tend to observe and imitate behaviors from watching role models, such as parents, siblings, TV stars. The social learning theory is an alternative learning theory and proposes that we learn not simply by reinforcement, but also by observing other people and imitating their behaviour, which is why this is known as observational learning.

Laboratory experiments perhaps tend to over simplify a problem, there are ethical issues with lab experiments when looking at abnormal behavior because it may not address all the problems of a certain cause, thus leading to incorrect or misleading explanations for abnormal behavior.

This was a laboratory experiment in which the independent variable (type of model) was manipulated in three conditions: the first condition had aggressive model, the second condition had a non-aggressive model and the final condition was the control, where no model shown in this condition. The experiment was a matched pairs design where 24 children (12 from each sex) assigned to each condition, with an effort made to match subjects according to pre-existing levels of aggression.

From the results, it is concluded that children are more likely to attend to and imitate someone who is perceived as similar to them. Subsequently, it is more likely to imitate behavior modeled by people the same sex. The young boys would imitate a more physical aggression towards the Bobo doll and the young girls would imitate verbal aggression towards the Bobo doll. The procedure was not completely standardized presentation of model's behavior (later experiments used videotape presentation). The experiment lacks mundane realism as the acts of aggression were shown against a Bobo doll, not a real person. The results show how powerful the media and social influences have on shaping our behavior.

The response by the people around the child's imitation of their behavior will be either reinforcement or punishment. Simply meaning that if a child was to imitate a model's behavior, meaning that rewards for certain behaviors are likely to increase the likelihood of them begin repeated.

However ethical issues arise from this experiment, firstly aggression was induced in, and taught to, children. Exposure to an adult's aggression may have been frightening for the children. The experiment can be seen as unethical as the have a long-term psychological effect. They weren't allowed to play with their favorite toys therefore could have triggered anger not the fact that they saw the adult acting aggressively, but that they were deprived of an object they wanted. Furthermore the experiment lacks mundane realism, due to its highly unrealistic environment it becomes difficult to apply this to real life situation.

The social learning theory explains why certain behaviors maybe passed down in a family or within a culture. The child might learn something from watching a model, but may not exhibit that behavior for some time. Some see when one observes the model and when one may demonstrate the behavior, it is difficult to establish 100% that the behavior theory explains why some people never learn a behavior. It is difficult to test the validity of observational learning, because the behavior is often not exhibited immediately - it may be imitated a while after the learning has taken place. Thus, external factors

On the whole research provides reasonable results for the social learning theory idea that behavior can be acquired through observation rather than direct personal experience, and that reinforcement is not required for learning to occur. This study has important implications for the effects of media violence on children. The theory of observational learning, underpins the effects of television on shaping our behavior. The idea that certain behaviors are learned through observing models, can be linked to the effects of exposure to television violence and criminal behavior.

Further looking into the biological explanations for criminal behaviour, it is found that a certain gene allows us to be more susceptible to developing violent and aggressive behaviour thus leading to committing crimes. Perhaps this also links with how ones cognitive process may determine the likelihood of developing criminal behaviour.

Scans have shown differences in cognitive process between murders and non-murderers, there was a significant different in the amygdala. The scans showed an imbalance between the right side of the brain, which consisted of ones emotions and the left side of the brain, which is responsible for fact and reason (Raine Buschbaum, 1997).

By watching violence and aggressive behavior on television, results of the studying the effects of violence being televised were consistent as young children and adults tend to observe the behavior and imitate that behavior (Huesman et al, 1986). He showed how cognitive scripts that are stored in a person's memory, which helps guides ones social behavior. The scripts were used to examine the processes, practices, or ways in which one typically approach tasks and problems. The results showed that aggressive people are those who regularly retrieve scripts that emphasize aggressive responding. Huesman also found that children could learn aggressive scripts from many sources, including watching violence on television. This process is reciprocal-violent and aggressive children often watch more television and identify with television characters to a larger extent than other children therefore watching more television underpins these violent scripts.

Adolescents who witness criminal acts on a daily basis are especially vulnerable, whether it is on the streets, on television or their surroundings. Eventually children, adolescents and adults become desensitized to crime, and can end up being socially accepted. This fundamentally increases the chances of many other children to develop criminal behavior, as it will be seen as 'normal or acceptable' in a particular society.

However these concepts are subjective, what is acceptable is based on socio-cultural beliefs. For example, during the Arab Israeli conflict, the PLO (Palestinian Liberal Organization) In Israel they were seen as terrorists but freedom fighters to Palestinians. In the world today, programs aim to teach children about crime and most importantly crime prevention. This is due to the fact that psychologists believe that media has a massive influence on shaping our behavior.

A study had been carried out in Canada where children were found to have become significantly more aggressive, this was two years after television was introduced the first time (Kimball and Zabrack, 1986). However, according to psychologists television is not solely a negative influence on children and young adults. There is valid evidence that the majority of the shows on television were developed to teach academic and social skills to help them learn effectively. This shows that the negative effects of violence shown on television is outweighed by the educational shows (Hearold, 1986). However there are several limitations to the experiment, as it was done in a very unreal environment therefore it lacks validity. And the desensitisation suggests that people are so used to seeing crime and violence on TV/films therefore they see it as the norm.

The basic idea of the social learning theory is that we can learn from role models, especially if they are people who we can identify with. There are socio-cultural issues that may lead to people resulting in crimes as a resolution towards poverty, an increased number of Afro-Caribbean and black African people, in the UK and USA, are in prison than other ethnic groups (Reiner,1993)

A study done by Rushton (1990) concluded that Blacks are more likely to be involved in crime due to genetic inferiority. This suggests that certain ethnic groups may commit more crimes because they are at a social disadvantage, and that black crimes could be a results of racism (Reiner, 1993. However there are ethical problems due to the fact that ethnic groups may be biased against when being convicted due to institutional racism.

This theory is often used to explain why some people turn to crime, which evidently shows one aspect of how society influences our behaviour. Further explanations such as, Merton 1948, suggested the idea that an observer's expectations about a person or group that influences their social interactions, and thus extracts or generates the expected behaviour this can be supported by Banduras social learning theory. Regarding the possible explanations for the predisposition of criminal behaviour, the levels of education have been determined to be noteworthy factor in the manifestation of criminal behaviour.

Individuals with low IQ scores, usually with learning disabilities are more susceptible to violent and criminal behaviour. Academic achievement is interlinked in our society with numerous variables such as financial stability, good self-esteem and confidence. This may be the reasoning behind the general concept that individuals with a high IQ usually have fewer tendencies for criminal behavior than individuals with a lower IQ score (Lynn et al, 1977) The explanation is that perhaps having a higher IQ results in easier achievement in school. However, as explained above achieving academically is associated with several environmental factors as well. Individuals with a lower IQ may not succeed as much academically, resulting in lower self-esteem and financially struggling, therefore an increased disposition for criminal behavior, as they are more likely to commit a crime.

However many anomalies arise from these explanations based on case studies, which fail to explain why certain people develop violent behaviour regardless of a good upbringing. In relation to the Colorado theatre shooting case, July 20th 2012, where Jared Loughner, who eventually pleaded guilty in federal court to the shooting of 13 people and wounded approximately 50 others. A lot of unanswered questions arise from this case, as Loughner was a PHD student, who came from a decent family; therefore the cause of this bizarre behavior is unknown. Therefore there must be ulterior factors, perhaps a default in genes or cognition, which must have contributed to the development of such behavior.

Several research suggest that if children are nurtured in a violent society they are predominantly capable of developing criminal behavior, (McAllistern- Grooves et al,1992).

The idea of security can be an explanation for aggressive and violent behaviour which tend to lead to criminal behaviour (Hill, 1992) identified several ways that exposure to violence in a neighbourhood may impact children's development of aggressive and violent behaviour: the lack of the sense of personal safety and security, disruption of lifestyle (lack of socialization), low self-esteem, emotional distress, hopelessness for a successful future. Furthermore a study was carried out where 384 elementary schools children living in a disadvantaged neighbourhood experienced more stress (Attar et al, 1994), Researchers suggest that stressful life events were significant to the predominant explanations of criminal behavior as the higher the concurrent levels of aggression and predicted increases in aggressive behavior later in the year.

In an elementary school, 2248 children took part in a survey where 74% reported that they felt unsafe in one or more of their areas of their environment, most children stated they felt unsafe in their own neighborhood, on the school bus or simply walking to school (Stone et al). Further research supports the idea of environmental insecurity, 250 elementary school children living in an urban neighborhood with a high rate of violence where 68% of the children felt 'not at all' or 'a little' safe walking to and from school and 56% did not feel safe playing around the neighborhood (Fick et al 1995).

The methodological procedure of surveys was standardized, and no pressure would be put on the children, however they may have interpreted what was being asked of them. Since surveys are not empirical, the participant's opinion and the way they think is represented through the results therefore there is an increase in reliability.

Applying these theories to a real life situation allows us to analyze the effectiveness of these them for the explanation of criminal behavior. In relation to Fick et al's (1995) theory, the case of Anders Behring Breivik supports the idea of insecurity as an explanation for criminal behavior. In 2011 Breivik, admitted to killing 77 people after he had bombed central Oslo and then opened fire at a youth camp. He insisted he was sane, and repeatedly said that the attacks were necessary to stop the "Islamisation" of Norway, to prevent Muslims to 'overrun' his homeland. From this case, insecurity and the preserving of ones identity can be seen as a trigger one to be violent and aggressive and therefore leads to a criminal act. Thus, environmental situations do play a role in the development of aggressive and violent behavior.

Research has indicated that criminal behavior is not merely due to our biological makeup but more likely to be due to a mixture of both nature (biology) and nurture (social and life experiences). Although further studies need to be carried out to understand the biological influences, the existing studies can shape our understanding as treatment of criminal behavior. After analyzing a variety of explanations and research that contribute to our understanding of the development of criminal behavior, I have come to a conclusion that the aspects of ones social influence, plays a vital role in the development of criminal behavior. The way one is nurtured outweighs biological influences, simply that one cannot be called a criminal solely on his/hers genetic makeup. This is evident in the twin studies, which have shown compelling evidence that both biological and environmental factors contribute to the development of criminal behavior.

Looking at the several researches stated above, it is evident that there is no single theory, which can adequately provide all the explanations in relation to the development of criminal behavior. However it is important to note that much as criminological theories attempt to explain the causes of criminal behavior, other measures that are not necessarily theoretical cant be employed in order to fight and reduce crime rates. On the same note, further research has to be carried out so that crime rates can be further reduced.