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August 7, 2007
Factors Influencing the Commission of Crime*

* Crime, commission of an act or act of omission that violates the law and is punishable by the
state. Crimes are considered injurious to society or the community.
Contemporary scholars believe that criminal motivation is the product of one or more of a
complex set of factors. These factors are so numerous and so varied that no system of
classification can describe the current theories of crime causation with complete accuracy.
However, broadly speaking these theories may be considered in one of the following three
(1) Theories attributing criminal behavior to biological or congenital (inherited) defects
of the offender,
(2) Theories relating crime to psychological factors or mental disorders, and
(3) Theories relating crime to environmental or social factors. Many criminologists have
suggested theories of multiple causation involving factors from more than one of these
I. Biological Theories of Crime
Two different types of biological or, more accurately, biosocial theories exist. One set of theories
emphasizes genetic factorsthat is, the traits transmitted from parents to offspring. Other studies
emphasize irregularities in neurological development that might undermine certain self-controls
that inhibit criminality. These irregularities may occur in the structure of the brain or in the
chemical composition of the brain.
The evidence for an association between genetic makeup and criminality comes from empirical
studies of identical twins (who have the same genetic makeup) and adopted children (who are
genetically dissimilar from other family members). These studies attempt to show that biological
inheritance affects the tendency toward criminality independently of or in conjunction with the
social environment.
Studies of the interrelationship between the criminal tendencies of parents and children have
found that children whose parents are involved in crime are more likely to engage in criminal
behavior than children whose parents were law abiding. This finding is unsurprising due to a
number of sociological factors that influence the children. Studies of twins provide somewhat
more persuasive evidence.
Researchers have compared identical twins to fraternal twins (who share no more genes than
siblings who are not twins). In most studies of twins, the degree of consistency between the
criminality of identical twins is approximately twice that of fraternal twins. While this evidence

is more persuasive than family studies, it is still possible that identical twins may be treated more
similarly in social environments than fraternal twins. Studies of identical and fraternal twins
reared apart would provide more accurate indications of the relative contributions of biology and
socialization. However, such situations are very rare and only scattered case studies of this type
have been done.
Finally, comparisons have been made between the criminal involvement of parents and their
adoptive children and that of the children's biological parents. In most cases criminality of the
biological parent is a better predictor of the child's criminal involvement than the criminality of
the adoptive parents.
The evidence for a link between genetic makeup and a predisposition to criminality remains
inconclusive. New technologies to map DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) may identify specific gene
patterns that are associated with predispositions toward criminal behavior.
Abnormalities affecting aggression may occur in the structure of the brain. Researchers have
discovered a positive relationship between aggressive behaviorincluding violent crimeand
an impairment of the frontal lobe of the brains cerebrum. This means that when researchers look
for one factor, either abnormality or aggression, they often find the other factor as well.
Another type of dysfunction that may be related to aggression is chemical imbalances in the
brain. Human thoughts, behavior, and emotions depend upon the transmission of electrical
impulses within the central nervous system. The gaps between cells in the nervous system are
called synapses and the chemicals that enable the flow of electrical impulses across the synapses
are called neurotransmitters. Scientists believe that abnormally low levels of neurotransmitters
interrupt the flow of electronic impulses, thereby short-circuiting emotions such as sympathy or
empathy that can inhibit aggressive behavior. Researchers have found a relationship between
levels of specific neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, and certain antisocial behaviors, including
II. Psychological Theories of Crime
Personality theories assume a set of enduring perceptions and predispositions (tendencies) that
each individual develops through early socialization. These theorists propose that certain
predispositions or personality traits, such as impulsiveness or extroversion, increase the chances
of criminal behavior.
According to Jean Piaget, children evolve through four stages of cognitive development. From
birth to age two, children experience the world only through their senses and motor abilities and
have a very immediate, experience-based knowledge of the world. Between two and seven years
of age children learn to think about and understand objects using thoughts that are independent
of immediate experience. During this stage children are egocentricthat is, they believe that

others experience the same reality that they do. From age seven to adolescence the child learns to
think logically and to organize and classify objects. Beginning in adolescence, the child develops
the ability to think logically about the future and to understand theoretical concepts. Theorists
relate these stages of cognitive development to stages of moral development. At first, rules are
given by powerful others. Later, children perceive that they can invent and modify rules. Finally,
humans perceive the ultimate importance of abstract rules.
Influenced by Piagets theory that development occurs in stages, in the mid-1960s American
psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg proposed a multistage theory of moral evolution. In the early
level of development, children strive to maximize pleasure and avoid punishment. Children at
this level consider the needs of others only to the extent that meeting those needs will help the
child fulfill his or her own needs. During the next period, which is characterized by conformity
to social rules, the child demonstrates respect for and duty to authority. The child also seeks to
avoid disapproval from that authority. As the child matures, his or her moral judgment is
motivated by respect for legally determined rules and an understanding that these rules exist to
benefit all. Eventually, universal principles are internalized. These principles, such as liberty and
justice, may even transcend aspects of the existing legal system.
Moral development process may or may not be completed, and people who remain unable to
recognize right from wrong will be more likely to engage in inappropriate, deviant, or even
criminal behavior.
Social learning theories propose that people internalize moral codes more through the process of
socializationlearning behaviors through interaction with othersrather than through a stageby-stage development process. Specifically, social learning theorists maintain a young person
learns how to behave based on how elders (primarily parent figures) respond to the persons
violations of and compliance with rules. Rewards for acceptable behavior and sanctions
(penalties) for transgressions indicate what appropriate behavior is.
Repeated instances of reward and sanction also lead to the internalization of these standards.
Over time the transgression becomes associated with the sanction, and it produces anxiety even
when no one is present to administer sanctions. Through this process children begin to control
themselves in a manner consistent with moral and legal codes.
Social learning theories of criminal motivation and behavior have substantial empirical support.
A number of studies indicate that delinquents were treated differently by their parents than
youths with no record of delinquency. The socialization of delinquents is marked by lax and
erratic discipline or by unduly harsh discipline, such as physical punishment. These studies do
not describe in detail what effective socialization should be, but they do suggest that social
learning is related to criminal involvement. Such studies also indicate that social learning theory
is a promising approach to understanding criminal motivation and behavior.

Personality theories attempt to explain how people acquire predispositions toward certain
behavior. These predispositions are sometimes discussed in terms of personality traits, such as
impulsiveness and stubbornness, or personality types, such as introvert and extrovert. All other
things being equal, people will consistently display behaviors that they are predisposed toward.
Accordingly, some social scientists believe that certain predispositions or personality types may
be associated with criminal tendencies or activities.
Austrian physician Sigmund Freud described emotional development as the process of achieving
a balance between conflicting desires. According to Freud, humans must resolve the tension
between their purely self-interested tendencies, which he called the id, and the control of these
forces by the combination of conscience and moral attitudes, which Freud called the superego.
This process begins in infancy, at which time the id reigns without conflict.
As the child develops, conflicts occur between the id and superego, which are ultimately
resolved by the egothe sense of self. This process results in a person who strikes a balance
between individualism and society, between hedonism (pleasure seeking) and repression of his or
her desires. According to Freud, when this development process goes wrong any number of
personality disorders can result, including a tendency toward criminal behavior.
III. Environmental and Social Theories of Crime
One of the first theories describing the influence of social factors on crime came from French
sociologist Gabriel Tarde who asserted that the causes of crime are chiefly social.
He believed that persons predisposed to crime are attracted to criminal activity by the example of
other criminals. He also felt that the particular crimes committed and the methods of committing
those crimes are the products of imitation. The predisposition to crime, while in part reflecting
many factors, is explained principally by the offender's social environment, particularly the
environment of his younger years. Tarde was also one of the first to study the professional
criminal. He noted that certain offenders pursue careers of crime. These career criminals may
engage in periods of apprenticeship that are similar to those that characterize training for entry
into other professions.
Another French social theorist of major importance to modern criminology was mile
Durkheim, who believed that the causes of crime are present in the very nature of society.
According to Durkheim, whose major works were written in the 1890s, crime is related to the
loss of social stability. Durkheim used the term anomie to describe the feelings of alienation and
confusion associated with the breakdown of social bonds. According to Durkheim, individuals in
the modern era tend to feel less connected to a community than did their ancestors, and thus their
conduct is less influenced by group norms.

The social-structural approach emphasizes the effects of an individual's position in society and
the constraints that the persons status puts on his or her perceptions and behavior. According to
this model, all members of society subscribe to the same moral code but some peoplebecause
of their position in societyare more able than others to follow that code. Social-structural
theorists assert that crime is an adaptation to the limitations that social position places on
individual behavior.
Social-structural theorists focus their attention on socioeconomic status or social class and the
strain that lower class status brings. According to the structural strain theory developed by
American sociologist Robert Merton in the late 1930s, people who aspire to the cultural norm of
economic achievement but are denied the education, capital, or other means to realize those ends
will experience strain. There are three possible responses to this strain. First, the person may try
what Merton calls innovation. Although the individual continues to accept the cultural value of
success, he or she will employ illegitimate means, such as theft or robbery, to obtain money
because legitimate means to achieve this end are not available. Another possible response is what
Merton termed retreatism. The person gives up the pursuit of economic success and engages in
self-destructive behavior, such as drug abuse. Finally, Merton identified the response of
rebellion, wherein the person abandons the culturally dictated goal of economic achievement and
engages in revolutionary activities or in attempts to reform the system.
American sociologists Edwin Sutherland, Richard Cloward, and Lloyd Ohlin have emphasized
learning that to become a criminal, a person must not only be inclined toward illegal activity, he
or she must also learn how to commit criminal acts. Sutherlands differential association theory
contends that people whose environment provides the opportunity to associate with criminals
will learn these skills and will become criminals in response to strain. If the necessary learning
structures are absent, they will not.
Another type of structural theory of crime is the ecological theory, which focuses on the
criminals relationship to the social environment. These theories emphasize migration and
urbanization as sources of criminal adaptation and attempt to explain the geographic distribution
of crime and criminals. Ecological theories often give special emphasis to urban areas.
In the 1940s, American researchers Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay theorized that as people
migrated from rural locations or from other nations into urban centers, their poverty forced them
into districts that were on the fringe of industrial zones. These areas of first settlement were
characterized by high levels of social disorganizationthat is, the residents of these areas rarely
interacted or communicated with each other.
Shaw and McKay also found the lack of communication in such areas was in part the result of
the diversity of language and culture among immigrant groups, as well as the fact that people
moved on after a short time. Thus it was difficult to form enduring relationships and to negotiate
an agreed-upon code of behavior. Furthermore, because informal social control was weak and
people did not share common norms, crime rates and arrests were high. When people left these
areas, their risk of engaging in or being the victim of criminal activity dropped. Others moving
into these disorganized areas experienced increased involvement in criminal activity.

Subcultural theories assume that certain groups have values quite distinct from those of the rest
of society. Moreover, these differences are enduring. Members of these groups will be
disproportionately involved in crime because they acquire and follow the values of their group.
According to the subcultural model, crime does not occur because people have been imperfectly
socialized; it occurs because they have been socialized in a deviant group and acquired its values.
Some subcultural theorists maintain there is a so-called lower-class culture that emphasizes
toughness, excitement, fate, and autonomy. According to these theorists, attempting to behave in
a manner consistent with these values disproportionably involves lower-class people in crime.
For example, individuals from a subculture that puts extreme emphasis on toughness and
individual respect may respond with violence to an insult that most people would consider
Social-control theory, developed by American criminologist Travis Hirschi in the late 1960s,
assumes that everyone has a predisposition toward criminal behavior. Whether or not a person
acts on those predispositions depends on whether he or she has ties to groups that impart values
opposing crime, such as the family, school, the community, and volunteer organizations. People
with such attachments initially hold certain values because they fear sanction from these groups.
Gradually, however, the values are internalized and followed because of a belief that to do
otherwise would be morally wrong. People without these attachments are not deterred by threat
of group sanction nor do they ultimately internalize legitimate norms, and thus they are more
likely to engage in criminal activity.
Some experts believe that poverty leads people to commit acts of violence and crime. Anger,
desperation, and the need for money for food, shelter, and other necessities may all contribute to
criminal behavior among the poor. Other experts caution that the link of cause and effect
between poverty and crime is unclear. In some cases, poverty undoubtedly motivates people to
commit crimes, although it may not be the only factor involved. Other problems associated with
poverty are often linked to crime. For example, to obtain money some poor people commit the
crime of selling illegal drugs; others may steal to obtain the money to buy drugs on which they
are dependent.
Studies concerning the influence of economic factors on criminal behavior have attempted to
link economic deprivation to increased motivation to commit crimes (especially property
crimes). Such studies assume that when economic conditions worsen more people experience
deprivation and turn to crime to reduce that deprivation. These same theories have been used to
explain why people of lower socioeconomic status are disproportionately represented among
known criminals.
Other studies attempt to relate the disproportionate involvement of poor people in crime to the
distribution of power in society. The assumption in these studies is that criminal law is a tool
used by the social group with higher economic status to advance its class interests.
Studies of the relationship between unemployment and crime have yielded conflicting results.

Some studies indicate a negative relationship between unemployment and crimethat is, when
unemployment decreases, crime increases, or vice versa.
(Reference: "Crime." Microsoft Student 2007 [DVD]. Redmond, WA:
Microsoft Corporation, 2006.)