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How Psychology Can Explain Criminality

Written by Zeina Ewiss

Criminality defined as “behaviour that is contrary or forbidden by criminal law” has often been hard to explain, with many competing theories explaining why someone would resort to crime. A variety of disciplines have attempted to explain this phenomenon but there lacks consensus, even within psychology there are several potential explanations. There are three overarching approaches: biological, cognitive, and social. Raine’s biological theory suggests there is a correlation between brain function and aggression, Crick and Dodge’s cognitive approach suggests that criminals are less capable of interpreting social cues, and Box’s theory suggests the main explanation for crime is poverty. However, each theory as a standalone has a major drawback, and as result it would be more effective to understand each in conjunction with the others.

One psychological explanation follows Raine et al’s study, which compared the brain activity of a group of murderers that pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity with a group of law-abiding citizens, through PET scans. Raine found that the criminals had less activity in the prefrontal cortex (associated with rational thinking and self-restraint) and parietal lobe (abstract thinking such as morality), but more activity in their occipital lobe (vision), as well as other imbalances in brain activity. He concluded therefore that there is a link between aggression and brain structure, and that criminality can be caused by biological defects. Interestingly however, Raine did the same PET scan on himself and found similar results in how own brain activity to the criminals, which suggests there are wider factors at play than brain structure alone that result in criminal behaviour.

An alternative explanation is Crick and Dodge’s Social Problem Solving theory within cognitive psychology. They argue that the average individual makes sense of the world around them by picking up on social cues, and through understanding these cues they ca respond to the social situation they’re in. However, violent offenders are less capable of picking up on these cues, and the cues they do pick up on are interpreted in a much more hostile fashion than how a non-offender would interpret them. As a result, they’re less capable of understanding the consequences of their actions and are more likely to think that violence is the only response to the situation they’re in. However, this theory doesn’t really consider why criminals have this way of thinking; is it because of a biological predisposition like Raine suggested? Is it an environmental cause?

Contrastingly, there is the crime, inequality, and poverty theory, which suggests that the driving cause for crime is poverty. The greater the inequality between the rich and the poor, the higher the rate of crime, specifically property crime. Hence, crime is a result of deprivation. However, why do wealthy or “well-off” individuals also commit crime? We hear news of celebrities committing various crimes on a regular basis, but according to this theory they shouldn’t be.

Consequently, each theory that attempts to explain crime has a major flaw or fails to explain a key element of criminal behaviour. It seems that the best way to understand crime is as a combination of these theories, rather than through one stand alone explanation.


Zeina Eweiss is a second year LLB student at King’s College London, who aspires to become a barrister one day, but still isn’t sure which area of law she enjoys the most. When she’s not reading random novels, she can be found binge watching cringey sitcom shows or just hanging out with her friends.

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