Dive deep into criminal behaviour and psyche. Unravel the mysteries of crime with expert insights.

“Why do criminals commit crimes?” is an age-old question. Criminal behaviour and psyche continue to be studied closely to this day because they form the basis of criminal acts and other social evils. Solving crimes would be a nigh-impossible task without being familiar with the inner workings of a criminal’s mind. In this article, Tushar Kol analyses the various theories associated with criminal behaviour.


Bernhard Schlink, a German lawyer and a notable novelist, says –

“People who commit monstrous crimes are not necessarily monsters. If they were, things would be easy. But they aren’t and it is one of the experiences of life.”

In contradiction to the idea of a civilized society, as society is getting more civilized with time, there is a rapid increase in crime rates across the globe. There have been several debates, pieces of research, discussions, and call for community action over what causes a crime and how to prevent a crime. The justice system, along with its forms of punishment, has evolved from time to time – from retributive justice to deterrent and reformative. Following the idea that “evil in the form of crime should be eradicated from society and not the criminal or evil person”, the modern justice system has shaped itself.

From the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 in the U.S. to the Nirbhaya Gang Rape in 2012, in India, crimes of such gravity have further increased. In the Columbine High School Massacre, the perpetrators, two twelfth-grade students, murdered 12 students and one teacher. Ten students were killed in the school library, where the pair subsequently committed suicide. At the time, it was the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.

Since the devastating massacre at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, the United States has seen more than 230 school shootings, not including ones at colleges or universities, according to data from the Washington Post. On the other hand, in India, if more than 68 girls and women were raped every day in 2012, the number increased to 91.38 in 2018, according to the NCRB data. The total number of rape cases recorded in 2018 was 33,356, despite the provision of the death penalty.

“Tempting as it may be to impose draconian punishments on those who carry out such monstrous acts, we must not allow ourselves to commit further violations. The main argument being made for the death penalty is for it to deter rape – but in fact, there is no evidence that the death penalty deters crime more than other forms of punishment.” Michelle Bachelet, UN Human Rights Chief, said in a statement.

Punishments have limited the increase in the number of crimes, but the rate is still high. Despite the provisions of life imprisonment and the death penalty for some crimes, there is growth. This makes us ask the question – what makes a person criminal? Whether criminals are born or made? Are there any external factors? What causes a specific individual to break a social sanction or a law?

Crime As Inevitable

Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist and criminologist, introduced the term Anomie – a condition of hopelessness caused by the breakdown of rules of conduct, loss of belief and a sense of purpose in society or in an individual. He believed that there is criminality in all societies. He saw crime as a normal occurrence and said that it is impossible to have a society devoid of crime.[i]

Italian criminologist Gorgio Florita believed that, like sin, crime is normal in society, and it is our sanctions and laws, made by man, that are abnormal.

Without contending that crime is inevitable in society, it is apparent that there are some conditions and factors which are more favourable to crime than others. Bad heredity, physical defect, mental imbalance, mental defect, emotional insecurity, poor education, a slum environment, criminal associates, extreme poverty, and environmental stimulation to crime are more favourable to crimes than their opposites.[ii]

Theories Of Criminal Behaviour

Broadly, theories related to criminal behaviour are categorized into three categories:

  • Biological Theories of Criminal Behaviour
  • Psychological Theories of Criminal Behaviour
  • Social or Environmental Theories of Criminal Behaviour

Biological Theories Of Criminal Behaviour

Biological theories of crime assert a nexus between certain biological conditions and an increased tendency to engage in criminal behaviour. Cesare Lombroso’s atavism theory argues that criminals are primitive savages who are evolutionarily backwards compared to normal citizens. According to Lombroso, born criminals possess an array of stigmata or markers that may be considered putative evidence of their criminality.

The term atavism is most commonly attributed to Cesare Lombroso’s work. Lombroso was an Italian physician and criminologist who proposed the notion that criminal behaviour was innate and only partly caused by psychological and environmental conditions. In short, he believed that some people were ‘born criminals.’

Biochemical research in the 1980s and ’90s attempted to identify specific factors associated with an increased risk of engaging in criminal behaviour. For example, certain neurotransmitter imbalances in the brain (e.g., low levels of serotonin), hormonal imbalances (e.g., higher levels of testosterone), and slower reactions of the autonomic nervous system appear to be associated with increased criminality. These factors do not determine whether a person will commit a crime; indeed, most people with these factors do not commit crimes. Instead, the presence of these factors merely increases the chance that the person will engage in criminal behaviour. [iii]

Psychological Theories Of Criminal Behaviour

Psychological theories of criminal behaviour concentrate on the association between intelligence, personality, and learning.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, propounded the theory of psychodynamics. Three elements are vital to his theory that form human personality:

  1. the id
  2. the ego
  3. the superego

The id is the primitive part of a person’s mental makeup that is present at birth and in childhood. Id represents the instinctual drives for food, sex, and other necessities that demand gratification. It is concerned with instant pleasure or gratification, disregarding concern for others.

The second element is the ego. It is a rational element that tends to create a balance between id and superego. It controls and guides the individual actions and behaviour with respect to the demand of the id.

Superego is the third element of a human personality. Superego is morality. According to Freud, it is the incorporation of moral standards and values of the community. It develops through parents primarily at the age of four or five. The id is a constant drive. The ego resolves between the drive to seek gratification and morality. It is the failure of an underdeveloped Superego that a crime is committed by an individual due to unchecked individual actions and behaviours.

Later psychological theories of crime were based on the behaviour theory, such as that of the American psychologist B.F. Skinner (1904–90), who viewed all human behaviour—criminal and otherwise—as learned and thus manipulable by the use of reinforcement and punishment. The social learning theory of Ronald Akers expanded behaviour theory to encompass ways in which behaviour is learned from contacts within the family and other intimate groups, from social contacts outside the family (particularly from peer groups), and from exposure to models of behaviour in the media, particularly television.[iv]

Sociological Theories Of Criminal Behaviour

Sociological theories have been developed through sociological inquiries. These are concerned with the notion that criminal behaviour is learned. It is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication. A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favourable to violations of law over definitions unfavourable to violations of law. This is the principle of differential association. It refers to both criminal and anti-criminal associations.

The term “differential association” is inextricably linked with the name Edwin H. Sutherland. It is a theory of learning. It is based on the idea that criminality is the normal result of normal learned behaviour. Just as some people learn non-criminal behaviour, so others learn criminal behaviour.

In the process, the individual learns ideas, desires, motives, morality, goals, and whether types of behaviour are acceptable in particular social settings, as well as learning methods to carrying out those ideas or obtaining the goals. This is a wide-ranging theory of criminology, and although it cannot explain all crime, the learning process must play some part in almost all activity.[v] Sociological theories look at crime as a social problem, not an individual one. Society creates favourable conditions under which crime is committed.

Role Of Punishments

The punishments in which the objective is the prevention of future crime, deterrence, are referred to as utilitarian. Theories of punishments that focus on the past actions of the offender are referred to as retributivists because they seek retribution for the crimes done. Deterrence is “the attempt to discourage criminality through the use of punishment” (Macionis, 2006). There is no evidence and measure to see if punishments deter crime. It seems difficult to understand and know what punishments might work for any particular crime to deter future crimes.

Another justification for punishment is societal protection, rendering an offender incapable of further offences temporarily through imprisonment or permanently by execution (Macionis, 2006). Like deterrence, the primary focus of societal protection is protecting society. The intent is to render a punishment that leaves the deviant incapable of committing the crime again.


As crime is inevitable in society, there is little to no chance that the criminal justice system might come up with a perfect set of punishments to curb crimes completely. It is pertinent to control crimes and especially heinous and grave crimes committed against human bodies. Different theories of criminal behaviour suggest that the criminality inside an individual is developed through strains and learning.

Certain conditions are favourable to turn an individual into a criminal. Whether genetic, psychological, or sociological, it is radical and exigent to identify those conditions and triggers to curb the development of criminal behaviour in any individual within a society. It is often seen, in the Indian context, the heinous crimes are done in association.

A large number of tragic gang rape cases support the theory of association and learning through association. Criminal behaviour, in many cases, is contagious. It is essential to research and study the juveniles’ tendencies to adopt criminal behaviour as well. In modern society with less social control, the soaring crime rate is challenging. Rather than experimenting with the punishments, it is essential to address the favourable conditions for the violation of sanctions and the causation of crimes.


[i] Katherine S. Williams, “Anomie, Strain and Juvenile Subculture”, Textbook on criminology, 343-367 (3rd ed., 1997).

[ii] Harry Elmer Barner and Negley K. Teeters, New Horizons in Criminology, 116-119 (3rd ed., 1959)

[iii] Major concepts and theories. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica Available Here

[iv] ibid

[v] Katherine S. Williams, “Differential Association”, Textbook on criminology, 501-519 (6th ed., 2012)

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Updated On 29 March 2024 3:01 AM GMT
Tushar Kol

Tushar Kol

Research Associate

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