Criminal behaviour may be defined as the violation of the normative laws of a given society or culture, punishable by the imposition of sanctions in varying degrees from an official caution to the loss of ones liberty (or even death in some cultures).
Biological explanations for criminality look to explain deviant or anti-social behaviour in terms of genetics. Biological theories have been criticised for reducing such a complex issue down to biological endowment.Critics argue that such reductionism leaves no scope for freewill or individual choice, and these deterministic explanations have, arguably, done little to defend the psychologists’ position. For example, Jock Young’s (1971a; 1971b) study on the “amplification of deviance” argues that individuals are drawn into an underworld of deviancy through social and environmental pressures.
Contemporary research however has the tendency to view biological endowment as only part of the picture; one in which the utilisation of scientific evidence may establish how an individual may be predisposed to crime, rather than predestined.Modern research may also take into account environmental factors and acknowledge that humans are social as well biological beings. Environmental explanations for criminality seek answers outside of biological determinism. Within a social context the influence of peers, family and the media are also important.
The individual needs certainty in life in order to minimise anxiety. If the individual is uncertain s/he becomes increasingly open to suggestibility (Sherif & Sherif, 1969 in Paicheler, 1988: 71).Openness to suggestibility, the influence of peers and so on is based on the individuals need to be accepted and to accept others. Moscovici (1976, in Paicheler, 1988:21-2) argues that the transition of the individual – though unavoidable – from unilateral adaptation to social adaptation; from reliance on the environment, to dependence on others allows the individual to be influenced. It can also be argued that acceptance by others leads to a reinforcement of self esteem, which in turn reduces anxiety.Dependence is a fundamental determinant of the influential process, and is a consequence of the individuals need for others. This need becomes apparent and is revealed in the search for social approval and leads to affiliation. However, not all psychologists and criminologists acknowledge the influence of the social when seeking explanations for criminal behaviour.
Biological and psychological explanations for criminality argue there is something within the individual that leads to criminal behaviour, and both largely ignore the influence of the social on criminality.The first concept of ‘born to be a criminal’ was suggested by Franz Gall in the early 1800’s, who posited irregularities in the skull could determine criminality in an individual. Phrenology (as this concept was called) illustrates the beginnings of empiricism; the idea of knowledge through measurement. Around the same time Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) proposed criminals were a product of genetic constitution, unlike that found in non-criminals. Lombroso later expanded his theory to include the way in which environmental and psychological factors may interact with heritability to contribute towards criminal behaviour.Lombroso also suggested the idea that criminality could possibly be a result of ‘indirect heredity’ arguing that criminal behaviour could be acquired through contact with other ‘degenerates’ such as insane people and alcoholics (Blackburn, 1993).
The concept ‘born to be a criminal’ could be argued from a psychodynamic perspective also. Freud (1856-1939) argued that childhood experiences greatly influence adult behaviour. Since all behaviour is goal determined, the immediate goal of the ego defence mechanisms is to avoid and/ or reduce anxiety, resulting from this distress.For example, if an individual has not successfully resolved conflicts in childhood, through the – largely unconscious – early internalisation of childhood experiences, this will lead to trauma or distress. Experiencing this, the individual becomes dissociated through the depression of their emotional feelings, leading to alienation from wider society.
As individuals are essentially anti-social beings, biologically endowed with egocentric desires and destructive impulses, this facilitates conflict with the demands of society. In order to function within a social environment these impulses must be controlled or channelled by the individual.Therefore, the immediate desire of the id must be suppressed by the emergence of the ego, guided by the reality principle. The development of the reality principle should ensure that immediate gratification is delayed. The ego is then subjected to the constraints of the superego which essentially represents the norms and values of society. If the impulses of the id become conscious thought or behaviour the superego should impose feelings of guilt on the individual. However, inadequate superego formation may correlate with deficiencies in ego control and a failure to delay gratification, which may lead to criminal behaviour.
This perspective, however, is similar to the argument for phrenology and suggests that due to genetic determinism, the individual has no free-will. However, the idea that criminality may be wholly related to genetic factors and physical characteristics has been pursued until quite recently. There are three main methods used by researchers attempting to ascertain the influences of genetic endowment on criminal behaviour; family, twin and adoption studies. The underlying theory for Family studies is that since family members share genes to a large extent, criminal behaviour should be evident from generation to generation.