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Criminal mind


The following is an excerpt from one of my graduate research papers on criminological theory. I have included the references but have eliminated the footnotes to preclude anyone from submitting the paper in a college class.

When reading about these criminal behavior theories. Think about how they relate to current events such as protests and political beliefs.

Criminal mind

When defending yourself against an attack, you are not concerned with why the criminal feels the need to attack you—you are only concerned with stopping the attack. However, it is helpful to know something about what makes people commit crimes. This knowledge may help you avoid getting into a position where you must defend yourself from an attack.

Crime is a complex psychological, sociological, and situational behavior. Criminals may externalize that their life of crime is out of their control, or conversely, they may view their crimes as an internal means of shifting control of their lives from the environment to themselves. Criminals may internalize by believing they have control over events and can deal with the situation with or without committing crimes, or conversely, they view crime as a means of controlling what appears to be a capricious situation.

No single variable has been significantly associated with criminal behavior, but several researchers have empirically studied crime to explain why people commit crimes. Six factors have been identified from research literature as having a significant influence on criminal behavior:
  • Stress. Stress in the form of pressure from parents, job, family, or peer groups. 
  • Environmental conditions under which crime flourishes. These conditions include such things as inadequate security, a pervading emphasis on being successful, the opinion that everyone commits some type of crime, and the absence of the apprehension and/or punishment of criminals.
  • Criminal intelligence. There are conflicting results as to the relationship between IQ and crime. Most of the research indicates a strong negative correlation but some evidence suggests that the relationship depends on the capability of the criminal to assess the degree of risk involved in committing a criminal act at a particular place and time. 
  • Personality characteristics of criminals. People with a high need for approval commit crime more often and people concerned about negative evaluations commit crime even more often. Males self-report committing crimes more than females do.
  • Lack of understanding and consensus among some people as to what constitutes a crime. The more that people perceive a particular criminal behavior as occurring, the less likely they will view it as a crime.
  • The level of moral judgment and will that is expressed by criminals. In theory, people who think at a more sophisticated level of moral reasoning are less likely to commit crime because it is difficult for them to justify such behavior on rational moral grounds. However, research on the influence of moral reasoning on conduct and will is inconclusive.
Some psychological traits of criminals and violent people:
  • Extreme egomania/selfishness/me-based orientation.
  • Poor impulse control.
  • Manipulative behavior.
  • Inability to accurately "read" other people's emotions.
  • Little or no ability to delay gratification.
  • Disassociation from the negative effects of their actions or guilt.
  • Your "value" is defined by what you can do for them.
  • The only constant in their behavior is what benefits or pleases them.

Criminological theories

The following are some of the criminological theories that have been used to explain why people commit crimes.

Deterrence theory by Beccaria. Deterrence theory argues that behavior is inhibited or deterred in direct proportion to the perceived probability and severity of punishment expected for the behavior. 

Rational choice theory by Becker. Rational choice theorists address the perceived probabilities and magnitudes of both rewards and punishment, whereas the deterrence theory omits this reward component. The expected utility principle states that people make rational decisions based on the extent to which they expect the choice to maximize their profits or benefits and minimize their costs or losses.

Social structural theories

Social structural theories attempt to explain why people commit crimes as related to the social structure of society. Social structural theories do not simply try to locate individuals above or below one another in the social structure; they try to locate individuals in terms of their relationship to one another within the structure. 

Differential opportunity theory by Cloward and Ohlin. Differential opportunity theory proposes that deviant behaviors can be explained by their location in both the legitimate and illegitimate opportunity structures. Higher incidences of crime are related to greater opportunities to commit crimes. Many people will commit crimes opportunistically if the climate is an advantageous one.

Social control theory by Hirschi. Social control theory argues that people are motivated to obey the law by social controls but that they do not need any special motivation to violate the law—this occurs naturally in the absence of any social controls. Since social control theorists assume everyone would violate the law if they could get away with it, they concentrate on explaining why people do not commit crimes. Delinquent behavior results when the bond to society is weak or broken. This bond is made up of:
  • Attachment to others.
  • Commitment or stake in conformity.
  • Involvement in conventional activities.
  • Belief or endorsement of conventional values or norms.
Culture conflict theory by Black. Culture conflict theory posits that deviants (criminals) are members of peer groups that support norms that conflict with the norms of conventional society. Society is not held together by agreement but rather is held together in a dynamic equilibrium of opposing group interests and efforts. Power is the principal determinant of the outcome of this conflict.

Moral-development theories

Moral-development theories propose that the development of moral reasoning follows a universal sequence of distinct stages wherein cognitive structures provide the framework within which information is processed and organized. Cultural factors may stimulate or retard trends of development, but they do not affect the order of development. There are three major levels of moral judgment development:
  1. The first level is the "pre-conventional" (lowest level) where moral rules are understood as "do’s" and "don’ts" associated with punishment. 
  2. The second level is the "conventional" where the person understands, accepts, and attempts to uphold the rules of society. 
  3. The first level is the "post-conventional" level (highest level) is where social rules are critically examined in terms of universal human moral principles. 
Social learning theory by Akers. Social learning theory proposes that if close friends and local peers are perceived to regard crime positively, the probability of crime is increased, and vice versa. Criminal behavior embraces variables that operate to both motivate and control criminal behavior and to promote and undermine conformity. The major concepts of the theory are:
  • Differential association.
  • Definitions one attaches to a behavior.
  • Differential reinforcement, which is the balance of anticipated or actual rewards and punishments that follow or are consequences of a behavior.
  • Imitation, which 
  •  is gained from observing similar behavior in others.

Neutralization and rationalization theories

Neutralization is a type of control theory in which the offender attempts to justify future or ongoing behavior. Rationalization is when the offender attempts to justify past or present behavior. 

Generally, people support and conform to the law and usually condemn lawbreakers, so the lawbreakers need these two theories to justify their illegal actions. Most forms of crime are clearly understood by most people as being criminal, such as stealing is a crime, but some people neutralize or rationalize their criminal acts as not being crimes, such as stealing from the rich is not a crime. People who help someone else commit a crime may agree that the other person committed the crime, but they neutralize or rationalize their actions as not being criminal.


Neutralization is the process by which individuals justify their violation of accepted behavior to protect themselves from self-blame and the blame of others. They profess a conviction about a specific law but then argue that special circumstances existed that caused them to violate the law in a certain situation. By using positive or neutralizing definitions of criminal behavior that justify or excuse it in certain circumstances, persons can rationalize their criminal behavior. But every person who commits a crime does not need to neutralize their behavior since some people have little moral inhibition against committing certain types of offenses.

Neutralizations are commonly accepted rationalizations for committing criminal acts. However, neutralization is not just ex post facto rationalization. Since it occurs before the offense occurs and it forms a part of the motivation for the original act. 

Neutralization not only allows the offender to commit a crime; sometimes it may also encourage it. Neutralization of society’s ethical constraints is one component that is necessary for criminals to formulate motivations for their crimes. Criminals, who are not caught committing crimes and who are not concerned with sanctions from their peers, often need to neutralize their ethics that act as an internal barrier to their cheating. Neutralization allows them to believe that general crime is wrong, but that in certain circumstances it is acceptable or even necessary.

In 1957, Sykes and Matza proposed their neutralization theory. In their study of delinquency, they found that delinquents used specific methods to justify their behavior in attempts to neutralize their actions. Sykes and Matza considered neutralization to be types of "definitions favorable" to crime as referred to in Sutherland’s differential association theory. Sykes and Matza developed five techniques of neutralization to explain how delinquents move back and forth between traditional and delinquent norms (drift theory) and to explain how delinquents rationalize their delinquent behavior. These same techniques can also be applied to the way many people justify their inappropriate behavior.

The five techniques are:
  1. Denial of responsibility. If offenders see themselves as lacking any responsibility for their actions, then the effectiveness of disapproval of self or disapproval of others, as a restraining influence on behavior, is sharply reduced. Offenders may see themselves as "billiard balls" that are helplessly bumped around from situation to situation through no fault of their own. By viewing themselves as being more acted upon than acting on, offenders do not have to face responsibility for their actions.

    Cheaters may consider laws so vague and ambiguous that it was not their fault they broke them. They may plead momentary insanity, ignorance, accident, or acting under orders or try to shift the blame to a higher authority. This denial of responsibility helps them free themselves from experiencing any culpability for their deviance by allowing them to perceive themselves as victims of their environment.
  2. Denial of injury. The law differs in its view of crimes that are Mala in se (wrong in themselves) and crimes that are Mala prohibita (wrong because they are prohibited). Offenders use this same reasoning to differentiate between their behaviors so they can deny any injury or harm from their actions. By denying the wrongfulness of their actions, such as by considering vandalism as mischief or larceny as borrowing, offenders can deny there was any actual injury or harm from their actions.

    Sometimes offenders even claim their activities were economically beneficial to their victims, and therefore, no harm was done. Since society sometimes supports these same distinctions between wrongs, it further supports the offender’s denial of injury since it makes the wrong appear as only common practice. This allows offenders to feel their deviance may be executed without any direct harm to others.
  3. Denial of the victim. Even if offenders accept responsibility for injuries caused by their actions, it may be neutralized by their insisting the injury was not wrong due to the circumstances. Offenders may claim there was no injury since their actions were in the form of justified retaliation or punishment.

    Denial of the victim may facilitate an offender’s deviance when the offender feels he or she can justify the action as retaliation upon a deserving victim. Offenders may view themselves as avengers of some wrongdoing by their victims, acting as if they were modern-day Robin Hoods.

    Also, if the victim is not present when the offender commits a crime, the offender may deny to him or herself that there was an actual victim. In some crimes, such as shoplifting, the offender may not have to deny the victim at all since there is no real target of the crime. Dehumanization of the victim is a form of denial of the victim. Criminals may feel a person is mean, unfair, and does not deserve the usual protection of the norms of society.
  4. Condemnation of the condemners. Offenders may shift the blame from themselves to the motives and behaviors of those who condemn their behavior by viewing their condemners as being hypocritical or spiteful. These feelings can gradually harden into bitter cynicism toward enforcers of the rules, which allows the offenders to project blame for their actions upon law-makers and law-enforcers.
  5. Appeal to higher loyalties. Offenders may sacrifice the demands of the larger society for the demands of a smaller social group to which they associate. The offenders do not necessarily repudiate the larger society, rather, they see themselves as being caught up in a dilemma between their loyalties to the two groups, which then causes them to break the law. The offenders feel their deviant behavior is legitimized because a nonconventional social bond dictates greater relevance to them than one more consistent with conventional society.
Minor identified two more techniques of neutralization in addition to the five techniques that were identified by Sykes and Matza. These two techniques are:
  1. Defense of necessity. Defense of necessity reduces guilt by allowing offenders to view their deviance as the only choice available to them in each set of circumstances. Offenders may claim their criminal behavior was necessary to survive or to achieve vital economic goals. 
  2. Metaphor of the ledger. In metaphor of the ledger, offenders feel they have built up a sufficient supply of "good" behavior to their credit and thus can indulge in some "bad" behavior without any feelings of guilt. 


Rationalization is usually thought of as referring to the process of finding some logical excuse for a questionable action that has already occurred, but it can also apply to the thoughts leading to the action and to the final decision to act. Rationalization usually comes into play after the crime has been committed but the mere availability of rationalization seems to play a role in committing crimes. 

Thinking up a seemingly good reason for unacceptable behavior is the simplest way to avoid feelings of guilt. By redefining the meaning of a certain behavior, people can rationalize their behavior as being justified under the circumstances.

Smigel found that the nearer people are to the situation, the easier it is for them to rationalize their illegal behavior. He found that people who had cheated to gain unemployment compensation rationalized that their behavior as not illegal since they had contributed half the money. 

Some criminals rationalize their actions by seeing themselves as "problem solvers" who are trying to better a bad situation. Others may claim "everybody else is doing it." Most criminals do not invent these rationalizations on their own, they are simply taking existing definitions that they have learned from others and applying them to their behavior (differential association and social learning theories).


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  • Smigel, E. O. (1970a) Public Attitudes Toward Stealing as Related to the Size of the Victim Organization. From E. Smigel and H. L. Ross (Eds.). Crimes Against Bureaucracy (pp. 15-28). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.
  • Sykes, G. M. and Matza, D. (1957). Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency. American Sociological Review, 22, pp. 664-670.
  • Thurman, Q. C. (1984). Deviance and the Neutralization of Moral Commitment: An Empirical Analysis. Deviant Behavior, 5, pp. 291-304.    
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