Although crimes have been committed since times immemorial, a systematic study of the causes of criminal behavior (or why crimes are committed) is a relatively recent phenomenon. Various theories have been put forward and numerous research studies have been conducted to better understand the criminal mind in order to prevent or reduce crime. It is, perhaps, a tribute to the complexity of the human brain that most of these theories remain just "theories" with little evidence to support definite and irrefutable patterns of criminal behavior. This is not to suggest that all theories of "criminology" are worthless -- most of them do provide useful insight into the criminal mind and at least partially explain the reasons why crimes are committed by certain individuals. In this paper we shall explore some of the theories of criminal behavior that have attempted to throw light on the causes of criminal behavior. It includes a discussion of the 'serial killer' and the possible reasons behind their deviant behavior.
The earliest theories about crimes attributed the 'evil' acts to the influence of demons or the planets (i.e., 'demonology' and 'astrology'). Religious scriptures and Christianity discuss crime in theological terms and consider it to be a sin. Punishment for crimes during early parts of human history was often brutal, although Christianity emphasized penitence by the criminal for forgiveness by God. (Lynch, "Criminology") Systematic study of crime and its causes in isolation from the concept of "sin" only started in the late eighteenth century.
An Italian jurist, Marchese di Beccaria published an important work in 1764 titled "Essays on Crimes and Punishments" in which he opposed the overly severe punishments that were in vogue during the times, including death penalty and argued that the certainty -- rather than the severity -- of punishment was a more effective deterrent to crime. (Ibid. para on "Classical Criminology") This was also the period when the famous British philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed that punishments should be based on the principle of utility and was instrumental in lowering the severity of punishments in Britain. The contributors to 'classical criminology' were more concerned with improving the existing standards of crime and punishment and did not specifically produce studies about the causes of crimes, but laid the foundation of scientific and systematic study in later times.
Lombroso's Theory of the 'Criminal Type'
Cesare Lombroso (1836-1909) was an Italian criminologist who advocated the theory that hereditary factors were responsible for the predisposition towards crime in certain individuals. Although his theories have largely been discredited by later research into the subject, they evoked considerable interest when they were first unveiled. Lombroso attributed distinct physical characteristics to criminal 'types' such as asymmetry of skull; low, retreating forehead; strongly arched brows; large, outstanding ears, and left-handedness. (Reckless, p. 164) He also attributed a number of mental attributes to criminals such as relative insensibility to pain; acuteness of vision; obtuseness of the sense of smell or of vision, taste, touch, and hearing; absence of remorse; lack of moral sense; violent temper and extreme vanity. (Ibid)
Most of Lombroso's theories were proved wrong by Charles Goring, a British criminologist in the early 20th century, who used comparative studies of prisoners and non-prisoners to show that the so-called 'criminal type' as described by the Italian did not exist. The importance of Lomboro's work in understanding of the causes of criminal behavior, however, cannot be denied since his work focused attention on the scientific study of the causes of criminal behavior and laid the foundations of 'modern criminology.'
Modern Biological Theories of Criminal Behavior
Lomboro's theories may have been largely discredited, but other more sophisticated 'biological' theories that are off-shoots of his theory have persisted. Instead of considering physical appearance as an indicator of the 'criminal type' these theories emphasize genetic inheritance or irregularities in neurological / brain development. Despite, some co-relation found in studies of twins toward criminal disposition, genetic disposition of criminality remains inconclusive. Similarly some evidence co-relates certain brain irregularities such as low levels of serotonin or and an impairment of the frontal lobe of the brain's cerebrum to aggressive behavior and violent crime. However, more research is required to verify these findings. (Lynch, Para on "Biological Theories of Crime")
The psychological theories about the causes of criminal behavior can be divided into (1) moral development theories, (2) social learning theories, and (3) personality theories.
The moral development theories contends that all individuals go through different stages of 'moral development' and those people whose moral development is not complete due to whatever reason, cannot differentiate between right or wrong. Such people are likely to exhibit criminal behavior. The social learning theories emphasize that the process of learning and internalizing moral codes has more to do with 'socialization' than with 'development stages.' Learning theorists believe that all children learn to behave in response to how elders (particularly parents) respond to their compliance with or violations of rules. The rewards and penalties prescribed by the elders / parents become so ingrained in the psyche of the children that such behavior becomes second nature for life -- hence it is believed that criminal or non-criminal behavior of a person depends on the 'type' of socialization that he/she has undergone. Studies of delinquent youth indicate that they were either subjected to overly lax and erratic discipline or by unduly harsh discipline. Personality theories are largely based on the theories of Sigmund Freud who believed that there was a connection between deviant behavior and the unconscious mind and that criminal behavior is the result of the failure to resolve the tension between individualism and society.
Perhaps the most common reasons for criminal or deviant behavior are ascribed to the environment or social factors. One of the first 'social' theories was put forward by a French sociologist, Gabriel Tarde who was opposed to Lombroso's theory about the physical traits of the criminal. While recognizing the influence of 'biological' factors, Tarde contended that the main causes of crime were social. He believed that the major reason behind the adoption of crime as a career by people was the imitation of criminals' behavior by others. (Reckless, pp. 166-67)
Another early and pioneering 'social theorist' was Frenchman Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), who believed that crime is related to the loss of social stability and the breakdown of social bonds that results in feelings of confusion and alienation.
Other important theories that also fall under the broad category of 'Social Theories' of criminal behavior include the 'structural strain theory' developed by American sociologist Robert Merton in the late 1930s. Merton's strain theory attempts to explain the prevalence of greater amounts of crime among the poorer sections of the population as compared to wealthier sections. It explains that all people aspire to achieve economic success but when they are denied legitimate means to reach their goal they experience 'strain.' One of the 3 possible responses to the 'strain' according to Merton is criminal behavior. (Lynch)
Opportunity theorists point out that criminal motivation alone was not sufficient to cause crime and the criminal requires the opportunity to commit crime. Hence, the theory contends that the physical and social environment of the offender and the victim are important factors in limiting or encouraging criminal opportunity.
Serial Killers are the 'ultimate criminals' since they are responsible for committing the most heinous of crimes, i.e., of taking another human's life without legitimate cause, perform the dastardly act repeatedly and usually derive pleasure by doing so. It is, therefore, instructive to briefly look at their behavior pattern as it gives us a useful insight into the functioning of the criminal mind. Studies made by FBI reveal that serial killers fall into two fairly distinct categories: the 'organized' and the 'disorganized.' (Reed, "Specialists look...") The organized killer is usually male, white and fairly intelligent, socially adept and ordinary looking who can easily blend into the background. He plans his crimes with great detail, leaving very little evidence behind. Jeffery Dahmer -- "the Cannibal" -- convicted of 17 young men and boys, is a classic example. Such killers are often 'sexually competent,' may be married or live with a girl friend. Their victims are usually strangers, mostly women of a particular type. They are usually mobile (and hence his victims can belong to a wide geographical location) and in short -- very hard to locate. (Ibid.)
The 'disorganized' serial killer, on the other hand tends to kill impulsively, without much planning or effort to cover his tracks. He is usually less intelligent and socially inadequate -- may be living alone or with a parent; is more than likely not to have been married, or have a girl-friend. Usually lives in the area where the murder(s) are committed and most of his sexual assault / mutilations are performed on the dead victim. Disorganized serial killers may also keep the dead bodies with them for long periods. (Ibid.)