Online Resource for Victims of Psychopaths and Narcissists

Psychological and Biological theories of criminal conduct

By Darragh Scully

The elements of criminal behavior are by no means a simple equation. A small percentage of crime is attributed to abnormality or genetics. Criminal activity can be explained in terms of the learning of societal norms were an individual has mistaken or been influenced to develop a way of living that is not compatible with the laws of a given society, therefore a conflict is created that may lead to a criminal confrontation.

Another aspect though is that small percentages of a given societies people will suffer from abnormalities or mental infirmities that are actually the predominant cause of an individuals criminal conduct. This is exasperated by the social phenomena of stereotyping, prejudice and racism that heavily contribute to social injustice (Mcknight & Sutton ch, 5 1994). Seen in the light of “frustration”(Bartol, 1999, p. 124) and “escalation”(Bartol, 1999, p. 197) theories it can be seen that biological explanations of behavior are far too limited in that it is next to impossible for a person to change there genetic structures.

Conflict between in-groups and out-groups of society has been shown to be highly dependant on attitudes that are prejudiced (McKnight and Sutton 1999, p. 232). Prejudices were intolerance towards out-group member’s causes frustration and leads to frustration induced criminality. The conflict is then two sided. In-group members incite out-group members and out-group members who are provoked exert some form of response. Following the response the in-group members perceive the response as “provocation”(Bartol 1999, p. 197), and thus is the vicious circle created were the disadvantaged or abnormal individuals find themselves in conflict with the law more often than ingroupers.

Therefore normal criminals and abnormal criminals are better accounted for their behavior by both biological and psychological theory though the more comprehensive theory is psychological as this takes into account biological factors as well as environment, the individual, cognitive processes and social and group processes.

To explain these concepts of criminal behavior theories from biological, learning and social cognition are outlined and evidence is presented that shows why more than just biological determinants of criminal behavior are important.

Lombruso’s work is a biological theory, which he believed accounted for why criminals committed crimes. Bartol (1999) in unison with the contemporary views makes the statement that Lombruso’s work did not fully account for criminal behavior. One major critic is that Lombruso’s theory is prejudiced against people perceived as different by dominant groups of society. Social cognition and more specifically stereotyping and prejudice theories claim that many injustices occur from stereotyping as it leads to negative categorization of people into out-groups, McKnight and Sutton refer to this as the “outgroup homogeneity effect”(McKnight and Sutton, 1994, p 232). Bartol (1999) points out that despite the methodological flaws and ethical shortcomings, a connection between genetics and crime has paved the way for more realistic research.

Turvey (2000) states a common view of Lombruso’s work that it is concerned with natural progress and degeneration of mankind and is thus similar to Darwinism. Lombruso claimed that criminals were degenerative to the point of being similar to early mankind. He coined the term “Homo delinquens”(Bartol 1999, p 49); criminals are set apart from homo sapiens whom are believed to be non-criminal. Homo delinquen is further categorized into born criminal, insane criminal and criminaloid (Bartol 1999). Although this theory has some scientific merit as a genetic theory it is unrepresentative of human nature perspectives and scientific perspectives that more thoroughly account for criminal behavior (Bartol, 1999, p 51)

 Sheldon is responsible for relating temperament to physique (web page reference here). The major proportion of his work was centered on 3 main physiques (Bartol 1999, p. 51). These are the ectomorph, endomorph and mesomorph. The mesomorph emerged as the predominant physique in criminal behavior. Characterized as muscular the mesomorph criminal behavior correlated with high levels of physical activity and less cautious behavior choices. Bartol (1999) concludes though that the research in this area is substantial proof of the biological link to criminal behavior however it is not representative of human behavior in terms of observable behavior. Moving on now to another biological theory, which is less concerned to physique and more concerned with neurobiology.

Eysnec developed a biological/ psychological theory though the theory itself has a heavy neurobiological component (Bartol, 2000). Certain neurobiological factors are described in the theory such as a relationship between the “reticular activating system”(Bartol 1999, p. 65)  and the “sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system) (Bartol, 1999, p. 67). Eysnec proposed the extraversion introversion scale and stable-neurotic scale as a reflection of specific differences in neurobiological structures (Bartol, 1999). A brief summary of Eysnec theory will now follow.

The Extraversion – introversion scale is dependant on either low or high cortical arousal (Bartol, 1999). The extravert has low cortical arousal and seeks stimulation well above average levels. The introvert has “amplified”(Bartol, 1999, p. 64) cortical arousal and prefers low levels of stimulation. Extraversion is associated with risk taking behaviors, which is then linked to criminal behavior.  Eysnec proposes that Offenders seek out exciting activities rather than environmental or social influence factors acting on the offender. Thus for Eysnec, individual factors of neurobiology are the predominant determinant of criminal behavior in terms of crimes associated to high levels of arousal however moving on Eysnec also proposed criminal behavior relates to Neuroticism.

Another aspect of Eysnec theory is the “Neuroticism/ emotionality scale” (Bartol, 1999, p. 67). This relates to the adverse response to stress. Those suffering from emotionality tend to also be narcissistic and unable to return to a stable condition once set off (Bartol, 1999 p. 66). A stable condition may be described as cool calm and collective. Neurotic behavior is also associated to phobias and obsessions. Eysnec states that the neurobiological factor which accounts for this condition is a “sensitive limbic system” (Bartol, 1999, p. 67) and over “regulated sympathetic nervous system” (Bartol, 1999, p. 67) No doubt the Eysnec theory is heavily dependant on evidence from the field of neurobiology which is considered to be good medical law it is not the be all and end all of the problem of criminal behavior.

Eysnec preferred to explain psychological aspects of crime with reference to “Pavloninan conditioning” (Bartol, 1999, p. 69). The premise was that good behavior is classically conditioned in early states of human development, and subsequently a “conditioned reflex” (Bartol, 1999, p. 71) for good behavior will develop. In terms of criminal tendencies Eysnec suggested that a child would be unable to associate punishment to misbehavior. Eysnec then suggested that this is due to biological or social causes. 

One aspect of Eysnec theory is the narrow view that biological factors predetermine criminal behavior and the treatment of criminal behavior is going to be limited in the approaches to treat it(Bartol, 1999) as it is virtually impossible to change the anatomy of a person’s brain though many neurological problems can be kept under controls with many modern medicines. As an example attention deficit disorder/attention defecit hyperactive disorder is brought under control for 70-90% of Dr. Greens patients with administration of a stimulation medicine such as dex-amphetamine (Green & Chee, 1994, p, 140).

 Biological theories do not account for the success of applied psychological theories as will be demonstrated however biological theories rather put emphasis on cruel and inhumane ways for dealing with criminal behavior.  Research by Gudjonsson & Drinkwater (1986) has accounted for Professional’s in the clinical area of aggression and presented evidence of the preferred treatments for criminal behavior problems in the perspective of those who are accountable for the job of dealing with criminal behavioral problems.

The professionals in the experiment included 15 psychologists, 10 nurses, 4 probation officers/social workers and 5 unspecified participants. The professionals were presented with two tasks (Gudjonsson & Drinkwater, 1986, p. 45). Firstly the professionals answered a questionnaire regarding traditional and psychological interventions for aggressive patients over the duration of related experience. Secondly there was a case study of a schizophrenic patient who suffered from severe violent outbursts. The case study included his behavior, and the course of treatment that he received and the outcome of the treatment.

The results of the study showed a significant indication of Professionals to favor psychological treatments for violent patients (Gudjonsson & Drinkwater, 1986, p. 45). The traditional methods are Seclusion, Physical Restraint and Sedation and scored very low altogether. The preferred psychological techniques that are outlined by Bernstein (cited in (Gudjonsson & Drinkwater, 1986, p. 40) are Anxiety management techniques, Time out from positive reinforcement, Extinction and Differential Reinforcement.

A short description of the preferred treatments is as follows. Anxiety management techniques were maladaptive behavior can be modified by developing incompatible responses to the stimuli provoking the behavior (Gudjonsson & Drinkwater, 1986). They included relaxation and hypnotic arousal reduction. Gudjonsson notes that this form of therapy is not a form of behavioral modification itself but rather a release after an anxiety attack or violent outburst. Time out from positive reinforcement in isolation in a non- reinforcing environment to deny positive reinforcement of behavior. Patients are aware of the treatment process and the treatment is only a matter of minutes. The critic of timeout is believed to be that it lacks a replacement behavior. Differential reinforcement is rewards for appropriate behavior that are present as a form of positive reinforcement. One model was the token economy system. Behavior modification theories have advanced to include other techniques though the token economy is still regarded as a successful part of treatment.

 Behavior modification theory states that behavior that is learned can also be unlearned through conditioning (Weiten, 1995). This brings forward an important point in that the biological stimulus such as sexual arousal are often paired with conditioned stimuli and response as sometimes is the case with pedophiles and sexual arousal (Bartol, 1999, p 313). The problem key then to behavior is that it can be leaned but it can also be replaced with more appropriate responses.

The Gudjonsson & Drinkwater study (1986) concludes that although the serious biological criminal conditions such as the schizophrenic patient in the case study will not benefit from Psychological treatment the study indicated that the popularity of psychological preferences in treatment reflected a high success rate in the majority of patients. Further more the treatments reflect an eclectic approach to a complicated problem as they incorporate environmental and cognitive aspects of many of the psychological theories, which will now be outlined.

 “Behaviorism is defined as a perspective that focuses on observable measurable behavior and argues that the social environment and learning are the key determinants of human behaviour”(Bartol p. 408, 1999). Bartol (1999) would say that Watsonian behaviorism was determined for the acquisition of the knowledge, comprehension and development of human behavior, achieved through the science of psychology. Watson took Pavlov’s conditioning theory and advanced upon it. Watson’s hypothesis was that the environmental stimuli are precursory to behavior. Skinner had a similar scientific approach hypothesizing that independent & dependant variables allow observation of controllable behavior. Bartol (1999) claims that the advantage of skinners concept was that the results could be seen openly. Skinner and behaviorism is deficient of cognitive aspects of behavior noting that Skinner was concerned with the environment as the sole cause of behavior. Environmental stimuli are observable and therefore have scientific value as opposed to internal thought mechanisms, which are less conveniently observed. Skinner also adopted a “human nature perspective”(Bartol, 1999, p. 115) in that he casts attributions of Darwinism to imply that mankind is alike to the animal kingdom. To his merit, the subsequent research on human behavior uncovered vital clues to behavior that have been successfully applied to aspects of human behavior (Bartol, 1999), for example social learning theory incorporates many aspects of conditioning theory which was a result in part of Skinners human nature perspective.

Bartol (1999) describes skinners theory as follows. Through a process of “situationism and reductionism” (Bartol p. 116, 1999) Skinner developed the theory of operant conditioning. Behavior (Bartol, 1999, p. 117) according to Skinner was ultimately at the hands of a given situation and environment, which is very complex, however once broken down to the “simplest stimulus response chains of behavior” (Bartol, 1999, p. 117) the observable determinants of behavior can readily be seen and accounted for. Skinner determined that the individual is capable of operating on his given environment. The relationship is illustrated through both behavior and consequences, “people do things solely to receive rewards and avoid punishment” (BARTOL, 1999, p. 117) Positive reinforcement is a reward for behaving, negative reinforcement is avoiding a punishment through avoidance behavior. Extinction is where neither reinforcement nor punishment is present, the premise is that the behavior is not stimulated at all and the memory trace becomes weakened and eventually forgotten. Criminal behavior is behavior that is reinforced or punished and would not be present if the principle of extinction is relied upon. People however display a large degree of self-control that is internal to each individual i.e.: cognitive factors not yet accounted for.

Bartol (1999) states that Social learning is based on the previously mentioned learning theories however social learning theory suggests that behavior that is learned can also be changed the same way it was learned (see Bartol p.119, 1999). People have social cognitive processes that interact with the environment. Bartol (1999) assigns the principle that social learning theory is the cognitive and environmental stimuli that is conductive of social learning.

The time between the stimulus perception and stimulus response is an important feature of learning that is not accounted for in previous learning theories, as it is a cognitive aspect. A good example of a cognitive process applicable to stimulus perception and stimulus response is the encoding specificity “hypothesis/principle”(Thulving & Thompson, 1973). People see and hear and those things are encoded into memory. This is a cognitive process as it is solely internal to the individual. In order to respond the person must first encode it to memory or learn it. The encoding specificity principle states that a person can only recall what is encoded. Strong memory is dependant on the strength of the storage procedure during encoding. What is stored is dependant on the value of the information stored. In social learning theory learning is acquired by seeing and hearing the way other people behave and once the behavior is learned principles of operant conditioning explain the maintenance or extinction of the behavior(Bartol, 2000). Although the social learning theories and the encoding specificity principle and hypothesis are independent of each other, they can help to explain the important aspect of social learning theory. The cognitive aspects as the encoding specificity principle are one example of a cognitive process and social learning theory simply attempts to account for such processes in the learning of behavior. Furthering the theory of social learning Albert Bandura and the theory of observational learning.

Bandura hypothesis that people learn from the examples of other people, hence the term observational learning. The important aspect of Bandura's theory is based on the degree to which a model can influence an observer. Bartol (1999) states that the actions of a model are more relevant as a determinant of imitational aspects than the spoken messages.


Bandura, Ross & Ross (1995), demonstrated the relationship between imitational learning and vicarious reinforcement. The theme of the study was aggressive behavior and TV viewing habits of children. A group of 80 boys and girls evenly matched were exposed to one of four treatments and then observed in a playroom. Toys for aggressive and non-aggressive games were made available. The TV cartoon consists of two characters Rocky and John. The first condition is an Aggressive model/model reward condition. Rocky attacks John, once finished Rocky starts to play and enjoys milk and cookies. In the second condition John counter aggresses Rocky who is left beaten, this is the aggressive model/punished condition. Finally Rocky and John play only, this is the non-aggressive model/control. The fourth condition consists of children not watching TV and this is the no model control group.

As predicted by Bandura, Ross and Ross (1963) Aggressive behavior is significantly modeled more intensely were reinforcement is present. Further more positive reinforcement of aggression provoked substantially more aggression than negative reinforcement. On an aggression scale of 0-16 the scores were 15, 8, 7, and 5 respectively, where a score of 16 is the most intense level of aggression possible. The mean scores of condition group 1 and 2 differs by 43.75%, that is, positive reinforcement caused 43.75% greater aggression levels that negative reinforcement. The significance of which is that concern about aggressive behavior on children’s TV is not unjustified in terms of possible responses to viewing. The mean scores between group 1 and 4 show a 62.5% difference between intensity of aggression. This evidence speaks for its self as it is probative of a causal link between aggression and crimes of violence as a result of being exposed to behavior that is imitated and is subsequently in conflict with the laws of society, although there is more to it. Bandura had begun the transition into cognitive variables of behavior. The next piece of evidence is regarding cognitive scripts. 

Rowell Huesmann (cited in Bartol 1999) cognitive scripts model relies on the grouping of behavior into categories based on responses, and environment conditions that establish outcomes. The outcomes are forecasted on the readily available cognitive script. Scripting is begun early in development and is “ resistant to change” (Bartol, 1999, p 185). Scripts are encoded and maintained in memory. Frequency aspects of problems call for maintenance of the script for the particular problem, the greater the frequency of the problem the greater the degree of script maintainance and adaptation. Definition of scripts that become established is dependant on the extent of appropriateness ascertained from responses gained from using the script. For scripts to be strongly encoded they must find consistency with and individuals “ internalized standards” (Bartol, 1999, 185).

For example when a child becomes hungry he asks his mother for food he learns that he has to ask politely and due to the frequency of hunger he has to regularly maintain his learned politeness. In many cases the parent rewards politeness with extra helpings or the promise of desert or some other reward. Most children become accustomed to the norm that being polite is appropriate and that courtesy also pays. So the scripts that develop are also related to social norms. When this behavior develops further the principle that it needs to find consistency with already developed norms is important. If courtesy does not pay in other social conditions the child will have to choose to disobey the rule that courtesy pays or risk standing out. This may lead to “frustration”(Bartol, 1999, p 179) and “escalation in terms of provocation”(Bartol, 1999, p. 197).

In imitational learning, behavior is observed and imitated and is maintained depending on the extent of re-enforcment that occurs. When aggression is observed Bandura hypothesized that it may sometimes lead to a swing in the norm of aggression as unacceptable to being acceptable. (McKnight and Sutton, 1994, p. 321).  Furthermore Bandura secured the premise that behavior that is learned can also be relearned with more appropriate responses however Heuson (cited in Bartol. 1999, p 185) has contended that cognitive scripts are resistant to change and they are subject to observational learning and reinforcement theory. Therefore the age at which a given behavior is learned is dependant on the rewards it brings when it is imitated and the length of time it is maintained before it is the center of some form of criminal confrontation. The serious problem is that the behavior that is causing the criminal confrontation will be more resistant to change the longer it went undetected, reinforced and maintained therefore this behavior will be more resistant to being replaced with a more appropriate behavior. In theory the better a young person is raised with good models of social norms for a given society the less likely the individual is going to adapt antisocial behavior as cognitive scripts that are subject to observational learning and are resistant to change. 

The degree to which criminal behavior is controllable and correctable is determined by many interconnected factors none of which alone can explain crime as such. The eclectic approach of Psychological learning theories and the subsequent developments are more comprehensive the assumptions biological theories that are far too simple and do not account for all areas of individual and social behavior. To discount the knowledge of the biological theories is not the aim of this paper but rather to emphasize its value on a complicated issue that demands attention to detail and a broad minded approach that is willing to account for human behavior at all levels and not just point the finger at the disadvantaged or deprived members of society. 


Arraj, T. & Arraj, J., (1998) Tracking the elusive Human volume 1 [book available online],  

Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S.A. (1995) Vicarious reinforcement and imitative learning. In Weiten, W. Psychology: Themes and Variations. USA: Brooks/Cole.  

Bartol, C. R. (1999) Criminal Behaviour: a psychosocial approach. USA: Prentice Hall.  

Green, C. DR., Chee, K. DR., (1997) Understanding ADHD. Australia: Transwood Publishers Pty Ltd.  

Gudjonsson, G. H. & Drinkwater, J. (1986) Intervention Techniques for violent behaviour. In C. Hollin & K. Howells (Eds.), Issues in Criminological and Legal           Psychology (no. 9. p. 37-47) England: the Brittis Psycholocical Society.  

McKnight, J. & Sutton, J. (1994) Social Psychology. Australia: Prentice Hall.  

Tulving, E., & Thompson, D.M. (1973). Encoding specificity and retrieval processes in episodic memory. Psychological Review processes in episodic memory. Psychological Review, 80, 352-273).  

Turvey, B. E., (1999) An introdiction to Behavioural Evidence Analysis. USA: Academic Press.  

Weiten, W. (1995) Psychology: Themes and Variations. USA: Brooks/Cole.


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