With reference to psychological theory, discuss whether criminals are born or made. Over the years, much debate has surrounded the question of Criminality, why it occurs and how it can be controlled. Can a person simply be born evil or are they merely a product of circumstance? A wealth of research has been done on the subject of Nature versus Nurture and a number of esteemed theories have been put forward. This essay will address the various arguments in favour of each theory, evaluating both their merits and limitations, starting with the ideas of Physiognomy as expressed by Lombroso, through to the Biological theories of Hans Eysenck and the Psycho-Dynamic approach of Freud.
Thorough consideration will also be given to the Behaviourist/Cognitive perspectives of Watson and Bandura as well as the Humanistic approach of Maslow, Rogers et al. It is also vital to explore other external factors that might influence the emergence of criminal behaviour such as the family background of the individual with likely indicators being examples of neglect, abuse, familial dysfunction and parenting issues.
Attention here will be drawn to the work of Bowlby his theories on childhood attachment and development. The introduction of case studies will serve to illustrate how accurate some of the theories mentioned are when related to specific individual criminals.
Finally after considering all of the assembled evidence, conclusions will be drawn as to which argument holds the greater sense of validity and whether nature or nurture ultimately holds the key to our destiny. In 1876 an Italian Army Doctor by the name of Cesare Lombroso published a book called L’Uomo Delinquente or Criminal Man. Heavily influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution, he put forward the theory that criminals were a sort of sub-species of the human race, less evolved than their fellow man. They were easily distinguishable by their primitive physical characteristics such as a narrow sloping brow, prominent jaw, high cheekbones, large ears and extra appendages such as nipples toes or fingers. He asserted that such ‘biologically predisposed criminals were incapable of distinguishing right from wrong, showed no guilt or remorse and, because they had no feelings for others, were unable to form deep, meaningful, loving relationships.’ (Dwyer 2001 p16). Lombroso’s ideas have been heavily criticised for encouraging prejudice and stereotyping whilst also lacking sufficient evidence to substantiate his claims. A study by Goring (1913, 1972) compared the physical features of 3000 offenders and 3000 non-offenders and concluded that no significant differences could be found. Lombroso modified his theories in later years acknowledging that biological, environmental and psychological factors played a significant part in engendering criminal behaviour and it is this ground breaking approach to analysing the criminal psyche that has led him to be described as the “father of modern criminality” (Schaffer, 1976). Another proponent of the theory that criminals are biologically or genetically predetermined to offend is Hans Eysenck (1977).
He believed that certain personality traits could make a person more susceptible to involvement in criminal behaviour. Personality was measured in terms of a sliding scale of introversion to extroversion and also of neuroticism to stability. An average person would be expected to rank around the mid-point of each scale, whereas readings on the extremes of each scale pointed to dangerous personality flaws which could make individuals more vulnerable to involvement in criminality. Personalities tending towards the neurotic end of the scale could exhibit characteristics such as low self-esteem, emotionality, depression and anxiety. Eysenck suggested that such high levels of emotionality can lead a person to repeat behaviour until it becomes a habit. Negative or anti-social behaviour can therefore develop into criminal behaviour. Similarly, he believed that a person scoring highly on the extroversion scale would exhibit a tendency toward risk taking or thrill seeking. They are also more likely to be aggressive and unreliable.
Those scoring highly in both neuroticism and extroversion would therefore display a set of characteristics which would make them highly susceptible to involvement in criminal activity. Readings were measured by the reactions of an individual’s nervous system to environmental stimuli. Extravert personalities are under aroused and seek additional stimulation from their environment. They are also resistant to conditioning. Conversely, neurotic personalities have a more unstable nervous system which causes them to react strongly to adverse stimuli. They are also resistant to conditioning as a result of their innate anxiety. While Eysenck’s theories have been influential on later theorists such as Pavlov, his complete dismissal of the field of psychoanalysis, combined with his controversial links with the Eugenics industry have led to him being discredited by many.
One of the main patrons of the Psycho dynamic approach, so denigrated by Eysenck, was Sigmund Freud. He put forward the theory that personality is made up of three aspects: the Id, the ego and the super-ego. The id is the first component to develop. It is driven by the pleasure principle, which strives for immediate gratification of all desires, wants, and needs. If these needs are not satisfied immediately, the result is a state anxiety or tension. However, immediately satisfying these needs is not always realistic or even possible. The ego relates to the conscious part of the mind and operates on the principle of reality. It develops from the id and functions to satisfy its impulses in realistic and socially appropriate ways. The superego is the last aspect of personality to develop. It contains our sense of right and wrong acquired from our parents and wider society allowing us to make informed judgments. According to Freud, the superego begins to emerge at around age five. The ego then acts as a counterbalance between the needs of the id and the super-ego. If the id succeeds in becoming dominant, then the resulting personality would become childlike in its constant need for gratification without thought for the consequences. Conversely, a dominant Super-ego would result in a complex of guilt and a need to be punished, therefore, the key to a healthy personality is a balance between the id, the ego, and the superego. August Aichhorn is a well-known Neo-Freudian who theorized in criminology.
Aichhorn felt in order for criminality to surface as a lifestyle there had to be three characteristics: 1) seeks immediate gratification without concerns for others, 2) unable to retain a health relationship; prefers to satisfy personal desires, 3) no sense of remorse over acts committed. Based on these theories Aichhorn came to assume the powerful Id was too much for the Ego in criminals. An Ego which has been damaged at an early age could result in the over powering Id taking control and manipulating one’s behaviour, thus making it very difficult for a person with an dominating Id to live in society because they are unable to understand the impact of their behaviour towards others. (Holman and Quinn, 1992). Psychodynamic theory implies that the individual is not responsible for their mental disorder as this is a product of unconscious forces. Freud, in fact, suggests that any abnormality may be the result of childhood experiences. This infers that parents or primary care givers are largely responsible for any future dysfunction.
John B. Watson, an American psychologist working in the early 20th century, objected to the ideas of Freud, believing that he relied on concepts and processes that could not be measured or observed. Watson advocated a more scientific approach to assessing psychological behaviour. He believed that children enter the world as a ‘blank slate’ with an infinite capacity to learn from their experiences and environment. Therefore an individual’s unique way of behaving is a result of their unique learning experiences. This became known as the Behaviourist approach. Watson boasted “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, merchant-chief, and yes even a beggarman and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors.” (Watson, 1930). By applying the idea of conditioning to human behaviour, as first studied by Ivan Pavlov in the late 19th century, Watson believed that humans could be taught certain behaviours by association. Similarly they could be cured of bad behaviours in the same way. He demonstrated his theory in a 1920 experiment on an 18 month old child known historically as “Little Albert”. Albert was studied interacting with a white rat. He was unmoved by the experience and did not exhibit any fear or distrust of the rat. The rat was then reintroduced to the experiment and each time that Albert saw the rat, a loud clanging noise would be made just behind his head. The noise upset and frightened the child. After repeating this several times they were able to register a fearful response to the rat even when it was no longer accompanied by the noise. They had created a conditioned reflex within the child that made him anxious.
It was found that the anxiety response did not confine itself to rats, but was generalised to small white fluffy objects which reminded him of the rat. If this theory was applied to criminality, it could be said that a child that grew up with a dominant, overbearing mother could develop a conditioned, negative, response to all females, thus making him more likely to commit violent crimes against women. Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory draws on aspects of behaviourist and cognitive learning theories and expands on them, determining that people learn from one another via observation, imitation, and modelling. Maladaptive behaviour could therefore be learnt from poorly functioning parents through imitation. This ‘modelling’ can also be used, however, to treat the maladaptation by presenting someone with a good model of behaviour to copy. As with the behaviourist theory, it is easy to see how criminals can be ‘made’ if dysfunctional behaviour is proven to be learnt by copying bad examples.
In contrast to the Behaviourist and Psychodynamic approaches, The Humanist approach favoured by Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow et al, believed in viewing each person as an individual. They believed that people were basically good, and were motivated to fulfil their own potential, provided that they had a positive view of themselves (positive self-regard). Problems occur when people experience inconsistency between their real self and their ideal self, leading to feelings of low self-esteem. This state of mind can be linked to drug addiction and alcoholism, which in turn often lead to criminal behaviour.
Another theorist who saw criminality as being a result of nurture rather than nature was John Bowlby and his ideas on maternal deprivation. Bowlby once said that ‘Mother love in infancy and childhood is as important for mental health as are vitamins and proteins for physical health.’(Bowlby, 1951). He believed that, should an infant be deprived of the love of its mother or primary care giver in the critical period before the age of 2 years 6 months, then it would suffer permanent damage to its emotional and psychological development. The long term consequences of maternal deprivation might include the following: delinquency, reduced intelligence, increased aggression, depression and affectionless psychopathy (inability to show affection or concern for others). He tested this theory in his 1946 study Four-four juvenile thieves. Forty-four juvenile criminals who lived with their biological parents were assessed for signs of affectionless psychopathy. Interviews with the parents then revealed whether the juveniles had experiences separation from their primary care giver during their first two years of life. The results were compared with a control group of non-delinquent juveniles.
He found that of the 14 children identified as affectionless psychopaths, 12 had experienced maternal deprivation during their first two years. Bowlby’s findings have been challenged in later years by the renowned child psychiatrist Michael Rutter. In his book entitled Maternal Deprivation Reassessed, Rutter asserts that, while there is no dispute that maternal deprivation has potentially serious consequences, it is not the sole cause of dysfunction. Children from broken homes may be affected as much by the disharmony and instability that brought about the separation as by the separation itself. He makes a distinction between deprivation – the loss of attachment and privation – the lack of attachment, suggesting that affectionless psychopathy may be the result of a failure to form any initial bond rather than a breaking of the maternal bond. Rutter concluded that it was important to assess not only the early years, but the whole of a person’s experience, taking into consideration factors outside of the home and the way that a child develops despite these adversities.
It is useful then, to take a look at some examples of convicted criminals and examine their backgrounds to determine which of the theories discussed above apply to them and if conclusions can be drawn as to whether criminals are born or made. Albert De Salvo, better known as “The Boston Strangler” was born in 1931 into an exceptionally violent household. His father, Frank, was an alcoholic who subjected his wife and children to constant physical and verbal abuse. He once made his children watch as he broke his wife’s fingers one by one. Frank would often bring prostitutes back to the family home and throw his wife out of their bedroom so that he could engage in sexual activity with them. Albert became socialised into a life of crime at an early age. At aged 5 he would go housebreaking with his father, and by aged 7, Frank had arranged for him to lose his virginity to a prostitute. It was this warped view of masculinity, and treatment of women they may well have influenced Albert to become a serial rapist and murderer. Consistent with the ideas of Watson and Bandura, Albert replicated his father’s example, embarking on a life of petty crime. He was sent to reform school at age 14, another violent place. Albert was not anti-social, he was very popular and gregarious which made him a very successful conman. He suffered further domestic frustration in his marriage to Irmgard, who would use sex as a means of power over him, withholding it as a punishment or to get what she wanted. It was around this time that Albert began his spree of rape and sexual violence which would eventually escalate into multiple murders.
Jeffrey Dahmer, was also the product of an unhappy home life. His mother had a history of mental illness and depression which could have led to him inheriting a genetic dysfunction. His parents’ unhappy marriage left him emotionally isolated. He displayed evidence of dissociation, whereby he would protect himself by shutting off all feelings for others or himself. He also experienced rejection by his mother and his peers which led him to immerse himself in a fantasy world where he could be in a position of control. This ties in with the Cognitive school of thought; he feels powerless to attract people therefore he needs to kill to find a compliant companion. Dahmer would often experiment with dead animals as a juvenile. His dad encouraged this behaviour seeing it as normal scientific curiosity – an example of behaviourist theory (reinforcement and imitation). Dahmer also displayed behaviours consistent with Psychodynamic theory, being obsessed with his genitals after the trauma of a double hernia operation aged 5. Finally, his attempt to build a shrine with the bones of his victims was never accomplished to his satisfaction. This shows his striving towards self-actualisation (Humanistic approach.) which could never be attained. (Masters 1993)
Recent research into genetics has made a breakthrough by identifying a gene that can be linked to anti-social behaviour. Absence of the gene MAOA has been linked to increased aggression. Furthermore, people with a low activity version of the gene are also more susceptible to criminal activity, but only if they had experienced maltreatment as children. (Young 2002)
In conclusion, while there is evidence that genetics can play a part in determining vulnerability towards criminal behaviour, there is insufficient proof that it can be seen to be the sole factor. The overwhelming argument seems to indicate that criminal behaviour is the result of a combination of nature and nurture. The biological propensity can exist in a person but may never be exhibited without the trigger of a traumatic event or experience to ignite it.
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