Psychology of Crime

A trait is understood as an inherited characteristic or a feature or a quality that distinguishes the person and provides information about one’ personal nature, such as, extraversion, neuroticism, kindness, openness, honesty so on and so forth are regarded as traits of an individual (Abel, 2018).

Trait theories which are also referred to as dispositional theories aim to study the personality of humans. The primary focus of the trait theories is related to the measurement of these traits which is often understood as habitual patterns of behavior, thought and emotion.

Emergence of trait theories can be traced backed to the works of Allport who is regarded as the pioneer of trait theories and described traits in terms of cardinal, secondary and central traits (Allport, 1961). Following his work, traits came to be identified as important focus on studying the behavior, thoughts and emotions of the humans by understanding their personality characteristics. Further, the field of psychology experienced number of trait theories in such as the works of Cattell, Eysenck, Big Five personality traits. Traits theories and how they have an effect on one’s behavior, thoughts and emotions are often studied in light of the genetic influences on these traits of an individual. Socio- biologists focus on how both biological and genetic conditions have role to play in affecting the perception and learning of the social behavior, which in a manner are also associated with the existing environmental structures that one is part of (Siegel, 2012).

Traits which are seen as determinants of the personality characteristics have a major role to play in any kind of behavior and its individual demonstrations. Therefore, the link between the personality characteristics or traits of the individual with the criminal behavior cannot be ignored. Different personality traits have been identified to develop the link with the criminal behavior (Sinha, 2016).

Criminal behavior is more likely to occur when there is lack of proper socialization among the individuals and they feel that they do not have restrictions by the laws, rules and the norms that are being established and followed by the society (Wormith & Schafers, 2016). Criminal behavior especially that is accompanied with violent behavior and antisocial tendencies is a serious social problem and has causes that are often very complex. Myriad of environmental, evolutionary, genetic, personality traits, psychological, and social factors come together to push an individual engaging in any criminal activity. Criminality and criminal behavior are interrelated with factors such as poverty, low socioeconomic status, low educational background and attainment, poor housing, high levels of social inequality, low self-esteem and impulsivity (Levitt, 2012).

The term psychopath sometimes who is used for people who are considered sociopaths or antisocial and are regarded as criminals. The characteristics of these people are understood by them showcasing behaviors such as un-empathic considerations, bold, egoistic traits, disinhibited and remorse (Stone, & Brucato, 2019). Psychopathy is seen as highly correlating with criminal behavior, antisocial actions and violence. Regardless of this strong association, distinction had been made stating that the psychopaths who engage in sexual crimes and violent behaviors are considered to be more dangerous than individual who are the criminal offenders (Theodorakis, 2013). Other than psychopaths, a term which is closely associated with criminal behavior is antisocial behavior, which is characterized by patterns of behavior such as disregard for the rights of the other people.

The presence of certain traits and their relationship with evolutionary existence have also been studied and explored. Certain traits have been identified with the occurrence of criminal behavior and psychopathy that tend to be adaptive socially and related to the socially parasitic strategy. The theory sets to assume that all these may work as long as the population of altruistic and trusting individuals is large in comparison to the population with psychopathic characteristics (Sörman, 2015). In addition this, some straits that are seen as correlating with criminal behavior and psychopathy like adulterous, coercive sexuality also results in higher reproductive tendencies. These people have urge to follow the pattern of mating more and abandoning the women more quickly which results in high fertility rate and the children may inherit a predisposition to criminal behavior (Skeem, Polaschek, Patrick, & Lilienfeld, 2011).

Gender differences in the existence of certain personality traits and the relationship with criminal behavior have been reconnoitered. For instance, a study reported that antisocial behavior was more strongly related to impulsivity in men and openness to experience in women. In addition to this, antisocial personality pattern is the result of psychopathy in men whereas psychopathy leads to histrionic personality patterns in females. Criminal behavior was also associated with higher rates of suicide in women than in men. The etiological differences between the two genders were repotted wherein maximum degree of severe callous and unemotional traits were accorded to environmental factors in women, and very minimal variance was attributed to genetic dispositions but the scenario was totally reversed in males.(Fontaine, Rijsdijk, McCrory & Viding, 2010).

The variation is crime is explained in accordance to the severity of the punishment one would be getting post being convicted for that crime. Crimes are usually graded into three types: 1) summary- crime that is generally minor for which the punishment is fairly small such as monetary fine and/or spending a short duration in jail such as a few days to a few months. 2) misdemeanors- the crime is serious but less serious generally, this includes a lower degree of intent to harm anybody or per se lower intent to kill someone specified victim or society. The individual who commits the crime get convicted at least for the period of 1 year in a jail. 3) felonies- this type of crime is considered to be the most serious crime. This includes causing severe loss or injury to someone, this also involves highest intent to kill someone, and destruction of property. This can land up the criminal in the prison for more than a year or so (Sinha, 2016). Different countries have different laws and relating to the trial that the criminals will be exposed to. Nonetheless, the degree or the extent to which the individual has committed crime and the amount of harm or loss caused to the victim are taken into consideration at almost same level in every country.

In understanding the personality characteristics or traits of the criminal, it is eminent to focus on the information that a criminal not only focus on the external forces or connections in accordance to one’s own feelings, inner forces or thought processes but also give regard to the entities outside who push one another rather than seeing people and their actions simply driven by their own thoughts, or an expression of their own feelings or as directed internally. The traits theories put forth a point that instead of just focusing on the environment to which the criminal is exposed to or simply focusing on the criminal experience such as lapse in will power or temptation to steal food, it is also important to direct one’s attention on the idea that their behavior is also the result of their crime-prone personalities (Reid, 2011).

In understanding the influence of traits on the criminal behavior, a study was conducted by Sharma, Prakash, Sengar, Chaudhury & Singh, (2015) that aimed to explore the relationship between criminal behavior and emotional intelligence. The study consisted of 202 participants divided equally as convicted offenders and matched normal controls. They were assessed on the General Health Questionnaire-12 and Mangal Emotional Intelligence Inventory (MEII). The results of the study indicated that convicted offenders scored significantly lower on all the domains of MEII such as interpersonal awareness, interpersonal management and aggregate emotions quotient in comparison to the matched normal controls. It was concluded that the convicted offenders had lower emotional intelligence or quotient as compared to their normal unconvinced counterparts and certain intervention strategies were suggested.

Psychological personality traits were also related to criminal behavior in a study done by Kamaluddin, Shariff, Othman, Ismail & Saat (2015). The study concluded that Personality traits, low self-control, aggressive behavior, and cognitive distortion act as underlying factors that determine the existence and maintenance of the criminal behavior. Other than this, criminal behvaiour, personality traits and their relationship with substance abuse was explored in a study by Aggarwal, Sharma, Sushil & Sudarsanan (2015). In addition to identifying the personality traits of these abusers, sociodemographic variables, family history, socioeconomic condition and status of the family were also taken into consideration. The study recorded that the major influence on the criminal behavior of the individual and its relationship with substance abuse came in through the difference in the personality characteristics of the convicted individual and people with no criminal background.

The case study given mentions the personal history, familiar conditions, personality characteristics and environmental situations of a boy named Barry who is of 20 years. Barry has been convicted under the probation of theft of money, videos, jewelry and other minor offences. He has not been receiving any type of schooling or any exposure to education since the age of 16 when he was convicted and brought to juvenile center. His family history is also inclined towards criminal activities, wherein his father and brother have been well known to police and had been convicted for their criminal behaviors. Certain personality traits of Barry have been explained. This includes in personal nature of getting bored easily and always looking for some or the other kind of excitement in his life. In addition to this, the case also mentions his habits of drinking and but does not use any kinds of illegal drugs. He has a girlfriend with whom he likes spending his time. He also spends a lot of time with his friends driving around in high speeding car. Personality traits that can be identified in Barry acting as a prerequisite to criminal behavior can be his tendency to get bored easily, always looking for some kind excitement and his habits of drinking heavily. His need for excitement in his life and kill his boredom are demonstrated in his behavior oh hanging out with his friends and being “thrilling” by racing the cars or driving at high speeds.

Previous literatures have explored the relationship between intelligence, spontaneity, impulsiveness, rigidity, and emotional intelligence with the occurrence and maintenance of criminal behavior. Being less stable emotionally, lower level of intelligence and insensitivity all are personality traits that highly correlated with the criminal behavior (Sinha, 2016). Impulsivity is characterized by wide range of behaviors in which there is less thinking by the individuals. Engagement in high risk behavior, inability to delay or reduce temptations or gratifications and high arousal and sometimes accompanied with stress. Impulsivity is highly correlated with abnormal behaviors which include activities that are antisocial, violent and criminal acts. This also involves engaging in risky behavior, breaking the law, taking decisions that are the combination of impulsive tendencies and impaired cognitive functions. Impulsivity is also characterized by self-destructive behavior such as substance abuse and suicidal attempts (Foroozandeh, 2017). This can be linked to Barry’s situation also. His impulsiveness and impracticality is observed when he enjoys driving at a high speed with his friends. “Thrill seeking” and low level of self-control have been identified as the personality traits predisposing individual towards engaging in criminal activities (Burt & Simons, 2013). His “thrill seeking” behavior and ignorance of the rules and regulations of the law is evident from his engagement in this kind of behavior.

In addition to this, as he has never been exposed to any kind of formal education like visiting a school or getting any kind of classes, therefore even if his intelligent, there has been no trigger or usage of his intelligence therefore his attention getting diverted to places where there is conduction of inappropriate activities.

The relationship between boredom and involvement in criminal activities or socially deviant behavior has also been explored. Boredom is explained as inactivity, impotence, and tends to create discomfort. The consequences of boredom are often frustrations of primary needs, unpredictability, and absence of certainties causing an individual to engage in deviant activities. The point that should be highlighted is that shifting of boredom to criminal or deviant activities is not the result of social conditioning or any kind of environmental influence rather is associated closely with the self-determination of the individual. Therefore, rather than understanding environment or social conditions the determinants of boredom, it should be understood in terms of the personality characteristics that the individual demonstrates (Malizia, 2018). Similarly, Barry in his pre-sentence report mentioned that one the reasons that he engages in criminal activities is because he is extremely bored and have nothing exciting to do. In addition to this, his personality trait that he is constantly looking for something exciting to do or “seeking excitement” is also mentioned in his personal history.

Another factor that has to be taken into account when explaining the reason for Barry’s engagement in criminal activities is habit of drinking heavily. Past researchers have found the string association that exists between substance abuse and criminal behavior. Substance abuse has been highly correlated with violent crimes. This is because in the state of intoxication, an individual might do certain activities that are totally against the rules and regulations and are considered as deviating from societal norms and harming the law (Lundholm, Häggård, Möller, Hallqvist & Thiblin, 2013; & Håkansson & Jesionowska, 2018). Given his habit of drinking heavily, Barry is at heavy risk of conducting and engaging in criminal activities.

One has to understand that there are numerous factors and underlying facets that do not simply exist in vacuum. All these factors tend to interact with each other together produce the variations that are present in the behaviors. In addition to certain mentioned personality traits of Barry, one cannot ignore the other factors that are associated with his engagement in criminal activities. Factors such as the family history of criminality (his brother is in jail on conviction of rape and father has also been extremely known to police and conducted criminal activities in past), the socioeconomic status of his family, the fact that he was exposed to all these things at very early age in life and has never received any formal education. This also involves a setup where his mother was just struggling to take care of him and his brother. In addition this, he was kept in juvenile center where he also came in contact with other criminals. Also, his habit of drinking heavily is also taken into consideration. The combination of all these factors clubbed together has an influence on occurrence and maintenance of criminal thoughts, and criminal behaviors or activities.

References for Trait Theories and Criminal Behavior

Abel, S. (2018). "What is a trait two basic formulations". Personality Psychology.

Aggarwal, A., Vaish, S., Sharma, D. K, Sushil, C. S., Usman, N., & Sudarsanan S. (2015). A Study of personality profile and criminal behavior in substance abusers. Indian Psychiatry Journal, 24(1):35-9.

Allport, G. W. (1961). Pattern and growth in personality (14 print. ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Burt, C & Simons, R. (2013). Self-control, thrill seeking, and crime motivation matters. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 40(11), 1326-1348. DOI 10.1177/0093854813485575.

Fontaine, N. M. G., Rijsdijk, F. V., McCrory, E. J. P., & Viding, E. (2010). "etiology of different developmental trajectories of callous-unemotional traits". Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 49(7), 656–664. DOI:10.1016/j.jaac.2010.03.014

Foroozandeh, E. (2017). Impulsivity and impairment in cognitive functions in criminals. Forensic Research & Criminology International Journal, 5(1). DOI 10.15406/frcij.2017.05.00144.

Håkansson, A., & Jesionowska, V. (2018). Associations between substance use and type of crime in prisoners with substance use problems: A focus on violence and fatal violence. Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation9, 1–9.

Kamaluddin, M.R., Shariff, N.S., Othman, A., Ismail, K., & Saat, G.A. (2015). Linking psychological traits with criminal behaviour: A review. Asean Journal of Psychiatry, 16, 135-147.

Levitt, M. (2012). Genetics and Crime Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics (Second Edition). 462-469.

Lundholm ,L., Häggård, U., Möller, J., Hallqvist, J., & Thiblin, I. (2013). The triggering effect of alcohol and illicit drugs on violent crime in a remand prison population: a case crossover study. Drug Alcohol Depend, 129:110–115. DOI: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2012.09.019

Malizia, N. (2018). Boredom and social deviant behavior: An empirical study. Advances in Applied Sociology, 8(2), 174-187. DOI 10.4236/aasoci.2018.82010.

Reid, J. A.(2011). Crime and personality: Personality theory and criminality examined. Student Pulse Academic Journal, 3(1), 4.

Sharma, N., Prakash, O., Sengar, K. S., Chaudhury, S., & Singh, A. R. (2015). The relation between emotional intelligence and criminal behavior: A study among convicted criminals. Industrial psychiatry journal, 24(1), 54–58.

Siegel, L. J. (2012). "Chapter 6: Trait theories." Criminology in Canada: Theories, patterns, and typologies. 4th ed. Nelson Education, Canadian. Nelson Education. Nelson Education. Web. <http://

Sinha S. (2016). Personality correlates of criminals: A comparative study between normal controls and criminals. Industrial psychiatry journal, 25(1), 41–46.

Skeem, J. L., Polaschek, D. L. L., Patrick, C. J., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2011). "Psychopathic personality: Bridging the gap between scientific evidence and public policy". Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 12 (3), 95–162. doi:10.1177/1529100611426706

Sörman, K. (2015). The psychopathy construct in a Swedish context - Conceptualization and validation of different assessments. Stockholm: Karolinska Institutet, 29.

Stone, M. H.; Brucato, G. (2019). The new evil: Understanding the emergence of modern violent crime. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 48–52.

Theodorakis, N. (2013). Psychopathy and its relationship to criminal behavior. IALS Student Law Review. 1(1). DOI. 10.14296/islr.v1i1.1705.

Wormith, J. S., Schafers, K. (2016). Criminality. Encyclopedia of Mental Health (Second Edition). 377-387.

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