Published on November 14, 2023

What Makes People Commit Crimes?

The psychology behind criminal behavior is complex–various factors can cause people to act against the law. Those who’ve never committed a crime may wonder, what motivates individuals to do so? Understanding the psychology behind it may help to better tackle crime in our society. 

Let’s take a look at the different theories psychologists have postulated to explain criminal behavior.

Theories of Criminal Behavior

Some of the most common theories behind crime include psychodynamic theories, behavioral theories, cognitive theories, and biological theories. Each offers unique insights into the roots of criminal conduct.

Psychodynamic Theories: These theories are based on Sigmund Freud’s findings, suggesting that criminals may act out hidden desires or unresolved emotional issues from their childhood through their behavior. In this case, crime is thought to be a response to internal conflicts and psychological problems.

Behavioral Theories: Behavioral theorists propose that people act out based on their experiences and interactions with their environment. Criminal actions can be a learned response to their surroundings, influenced by the people around them.

Cognitive Theories: These theories postulate that criminal behavior results from distorted or dysfunctional thought patterns, where individuals might justify or engage in illegal behavior due to their thoughts and interpretations.

Biological Theories: Biological theories consider genetic, structural, and neurological factors as risk factors for criminal tendencies. Proponents of it believe individuals may have a biological predisposition to criminal behavior.

Social and Environmental Factors

Social and environmental factors play a significant role in shaping our actions. An individual’s family and early life experiences may directly influence their behavior. Similarly, peer influence has a strong impact on one’s choices. Being friends with people who commit crime often leads to a more relaxed and understanding attitude toward it, making crime seem much more “normal.”

Economic and neighborhood factors, such as poverty and living in a crime-ridden area, also can contribute to a higher likelihood of criminal activity.

Risk Factors for Criminal Behavior

Certain risk factors are known to increase the likelihood of criminal behavior. Substance abuse, for example, is a significant risk factor. People struggling with addiction may commit crimes to support their habit or because they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Childhood trauma and abuse can also be a contributing factor, as can a lack of education and opportunities.

Mental Health and Crime

Many researchers have tried to connect mental disorders with criminal behavior. While some evidence supports this correlation, it has often been overestimated and has led to public stigmatization of certain disorders. 

Some individuals who engage in criminal conduct do have underlying mental health issues. However, the link to violent or impulsive behavior and mental health is not direct. A lot of complex factors can lead an individual to crime, so a more nuanced discussion is essential.

Understanding what causes criminal behavior helps shape prevention and intervention strategies. Programs and rehabilitation efforts have been made to help youth and adults who are considered at-risk for crime.  Some criminal defense lawyers work to ensure that their clients receive appropriate rehabilitative services rather than solely punitive measures. By providing support and addressing the root causes of criminal behavior, we can work toward reducing crime and repeat offenses.


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