Criminal Psychology

Chapter 6 – Criminal Psychology

Criminal: An act or omission which is punishable by law.

Deviant: An act or behaviour that does not conform to social norms or expectations.



This describes learning from the consequence of actions.

1) Positive Reinforcement: This is when we receive something positive or pleasant for portraying a certain behaviour, and so we repeat it. For Example, if someone receives praise from their family for fighting or vandalism, they are likely to do it again.

2) Negative Reinforcement: This is when we receive something negative or unpleasant for portraying a certain behaviour, and so we repeat this action. For Example, if someone was to punch a bully, and that stopped the issue of bullying, they are more likely to repeat the same action in the future.

3) Positive Punishment: Receiving something unpleasant for behaviour, so we do not do it again. For Example, receiving a scolding from an authority figure would prevent us from doing the activities that caused the scolding.

4) Negative Punishment: Removing something unpleasant from the stimuli. This is to prevent an individual from portraying the same action/activity again.

Operant Conditioning explains that 2 types of positive reinforcers can be used as a consequence for behaviour to strengthen behaviour—

1) Primary Reinforcer: These satisfy biological human need such as food or water. For Example, a parent may provide their child with sweets, as a primary reinforcer, as a reward for a job well done.

2) Secondary Reinforcer: These are common reinforces, such as school grades and tokens. They do not satisfy biological needs directly but may do so indirectly. For Example, a credit card. Although a credit card cannot provide food or water directly, it can be used to purchase items that can satisfy these biological needs.


S: A strength of operant conditioning is that it can be used for a range of crimes. For Example, it explains theft and how social approval can be a strong reinforcer in peer groups that encourages deviant behaviour through positive reinforcement.

W: A weakness of the Operant Conditioning Theory is that not all crimes or behaviourisms are committed due to reinforcement or reward being in place. Several other factors cause an individual to say, commit a crime. For Example, genetics.


This is when a behaviour is learned through the observation and imitation of role models.

Social Learning Theory is built on role models and observational learning.

Social Learning Theory is a behaviour learned through the observation and imitation of role models


1) Attention: To learn something new, you must be able to and want to pay attention to it

2)Retention: For learning to take place, you must be able to store or retain the new behaviour in your memory.

3) Reproduction: To be able to model the new behaviour that you have observed, you will need to able to reproduce it.

4) Motivation: You are more likely to model a behaviour you have observed someone do if you are motivated to reproduce it. This motivation can also be intrinsic, in that you gain pleasure from copying it. It could also be that the role model received a reward for the behaviour demonstrated and thus you copy this to receive the same reward. This is known as vicarious reinforcement.

Strengths –

  • There is lots of research to support Social Learning Theory. Bandura found that nursery aged children exposed to an aggressive role model were more likely to copy aggression. Especially if the model was the same sex.
  • It can help us to explain why some people become criminal and why others do not. It does this by demonstrating that although criminal behaviour may be observed, we need the motivation to reproduce.
  • It is not as reductionist as other theories. This is because it looks at both the environment(observing) and our thoughts (retention) so it looks at multiple factors that could cause crime

Weaknesses –      

  • The theory does not look at genes related to criminality.
  • The evidence to support only looks at short term aggression. The theory cannot be tested in real-life situations.
  • Not all criminal behaviour can be explained by Social Learning Theory. Murder is less likely to have been witnessed but people still kill.

. Bandura, Ross and Ross (1961) Transmission of Aggression through Imitation of Aggressive Role Models

Aims – To see if a child would imitate aggression; model the same sex; and whether males would be affected more.

Procedure – 72 children – 3 Conditions (aggressive model, non-aggressive model and control)

In the aggressive and non-aggressive conditions, they could watch either a male or female model and there were 6 boys and girls for both.

A woman bought the child to the experiment room which was full of different toys including the bobo doll. 

After 10 minutes, the model left and the child was taken to another room with lots of different toys and a bobo doll. They had 20 minutes in there and their behaviour was observed using recordings, every 5 seconds. Physical and verbal behaviour was recorded.

Results –

  • The children in the aggressive condition displayed more aggressive behaviour than the non-aggressive condition and the control group.
  • Boys were more likely than girls to imitate physical aggression with the same sex model but girls were more likely to imitate verbal aggression.
  • In the non-aggressive condition boys spent more time with the toy gun and girls with the dolls and tea set.

Conclusion – Children learn through observation, supporting Social Learning Theory. Aggression could be learnt from any aggressor.

Strengths –

  • Researchers were able to control the environment and use standardised procedures to ensure all children experienced exactly the same conditions of the experiment. This means that the procedure was replicable and should have resulted in reliable findings.
  • Children were matching in groups according to their normal levels of aggression. This was to ensure that one group was not naturally more or less aggressive than another group.

Weaknesses –

  • Children were tested in an unfamiliar environment and may have guessed the aims of the research. This indicates that the children may have believed that they were expected to copy the aggressive role model rather than spontaneously imitate them. This is known as demand characteristics.
  • Children were deliberately exposed to aggression and the long-term effects on the child were unpredictable presenting ethical issues.

Tony Charlton et al. (2000) Children’s Playground Behaviour Across Five Years of Broadcast Television: A Naturalistic Study in a Remote Community. 

Aims and Background – Researchers visited the islands of St Helena’s which did not have access to TV channels. They used a natural study to investigate whether television would cause the children to become more aggressive. The researchers introduced the TV afterwards to investigate what effect this had on their behaviour.

Procedure –

  • Visited island in 1994 and recorded the children’s behaviour 4 months before TV.
  • Set up video cameras in the primary schools to observe playground behaviour of children between 3 and 8 over 2 weeks.
  • They used a playground behaviour observation schedule (PBOS) to examine pro social and anti-social acts.
  • They returned to the islands 5 years afterwards and filmed similar aged children again but they were different children.
  • Researchers gathered 344 minutes of footage.

Results –

  • No significant differences in the results
  • Level of anti-social behaviour remained very low throughout findings
  • Children displayed almost twice as much pro-social behaviour than anti-social behaviour before and after

Conclusion –

  • Little changes after introduction of TV on pro-social and anti-social behaviour
  • Children didn’t imitate or copy behaviour
  • Does not support Social Learning Theory
  • May be because community is close knit and vigilant preventing anti-social acts and also, has high levels of adult surveillance

Strengths –

  • The same primary schools were used in both the before and after television observations.
  • It was a natural experiment. This means that the behaviour of the children would have been natural and unaffected by the presence of a strange observer.

Weaknesses –

  • Results may be limited to this particular community. Research carried out in different location have not been able to replicate these findings. Tannis Williams (1981) found that television increased aggression in children across three communities in Canada.
  • Television programmes on the island could have contained less violence than the mainland as the programmes were different.


1) Several studies have found that criminality runs in the family. However, these studies have been undermined because the ability to demonstrate criminal behaviour may have been affected by nurture factors, such as upbringing, environment, etc.

2) Twin Studies conducted are far more reliable. If twins are monozygotic or dizygotic, there can be experimental evidence to prove that criminality is caused due to genetic factors.

  1. Karl Christiansen used a Danish sample to show that 35% of identical males twins were criminals while only 13% of non-identical males twin were both criminals. For female twins, the figures were 21% and 8%.

To completely remove the factor of upbringing into account of the biological explanation of twin studies, adoption studies are used–

  • For Example, Hutchings and Mednick found that 21% of adopted children who went off and committed a crime had a biological father who had also committed a crime. This was compared to 10% of individuals who’s biological father had not been convicted of a crime, however, their adoptive father had.


Extraversion/Introversion: Two extreme ends of one dimension of personality; extraversion being sociable and outgoing, while introversion being reserved and quiet.

Neuroticism: This describes the nervous disposition of someone. Unstable neuroticism describes an individual being emotionally unstable, over-reactive and anxious in a stressful situation. Stable neuroticism describes an individual being calm, unreactive and emotionally unaffected in a stressful situation.

Psychoticism: A cold personality trait, lacks empathy, is antisocial and can be aggressive.


1) People with High E scores are thought of as having low arousal levels and are thus outgoing and sociable in order to receive external stimulation to raise their biological arousal level. However, people with low E scores are thought of as having a high arousal level and thus refrain from thrill like activities in order to dampen their biological arousal level

2) People with high N scores are thought of as having an unstable nervous system. This means that they are more likely to react quickly and rashly to a stressful situation. People with low N scores are thought of as having an unreactive nervous system and thus are calm under stressful conditions.

3) People with high P scores are thought of as being cold, antisocial and lacking in compassion.



S: There is evidence to show that individuals with a high PEN score were likely or already been convicted of a crime. For Example, David Farrington et al. (1982) found a relationship between high P and N scores and criminal behaviours.

S: Eyesneck’s study takes into account both the biological perspective and the environmental perspective in deeming criminalistic behaviour. It is thus holistic and can be used in approaching all types of criminal behaviour.

W: The personality theory presumes that traits are fixed and cannot be changed throughout one’s life. However, it is possible to change our behaviour in terms of the situation we are in.



S: Prison is said to be effective as it removes the criminal from the public and reduces the opportunity for them to commit a crime since they would within secured prison walls. In addition to this, it keeps the public safe while the individuals are locked away

W: Prisoners may see certain individuals in prison as role models and due to the social learning theory, may reproduce certain actions committed by other individuals in prison due to motivation for a reward


S: Restorative Justice has a high victim satisfaction rate of 85%.

W: It is an expensive and time-consuming process. In addition to this, it can have negative traumatic effects on an individual if a mediator is not used

Token Economy –

  • A form of behaviour modification:
  • Based on the principles of operant conditioning
  • Behaviours are strengthened when they are reinforced
  • Prisoners are given tokens (secondary reinforcers) for prosocial behaviour as a reward/reinforcement

Strengths –

  • There is evidence of a short-term increase in prosocial behaviour in prison. Michael Holt (1976) Targeted prosocial behaviour (queuing and cooperating) significantly increased using tokens compared to control.
  • It is fairly economical and can be administered by prison staff.

Weaknesses –

  • It is unlikely to prevent reoffending. It is designed to control and manage prisoners not reduce recidivism.
  • The rewards must be rewarding enough to motivate prisoners
  • Prison staff could abuse the programme

Anger Management

  • Designed as a form of rehabilitation for offenders who have committed violent crimes.
  • Offender works with therapist in small groups.
  • Cognitive preparation – Offender reflects on their anger (E.g. what makes them angry, why they feel angry and how feeling angry is counter-productive).
  • Skills Acquisition – Offender learns new skills to help control their anger. (E.g. They can learn relaxation techniques or assertiveness training).
  • Application practice – Practice new skills in anger-triggering situations (E.g. Role play).

Strengths –

  • Offenders can use skills outside of the prison setting
  • High-risk offenders were less likely to reoffend
  • Economical and can be administered by prison staff


  • Not all violent crimes are committed due to anger
  • Offenders can abuse the programme. The programme teaches offenders to control and manage their anger, a skill that may be used to commit crimes more effectively than before.
  • There are mixed findings on the effectiveness of anger management in reducing recidivism
  • Offenders must be motivated, have understanding of themselves and practice skills