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Criminology Project Research Paper

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Updated: Aug 30th, 2019

Introduction: Theories of Crime Causation

An important goal for many criminologists is to develop valid and accurate theories that can be used to explain the major causes of crime. The theories of crime are usually used to explain the occurrence of crimes and what factors lead individuals to commit crimes.

A theory is defined as a statement that is used to explain why certain aspects occur and for theories to be viewed as accurate and valid; they must have the ability to predict future happenings and occurrences based on the phenomenon that is under observation. Theories should be designed in way that they can be tested and validated against specific phenomenon through the use of experimentation or empirical observation (Siegel, 2009).

Criminologists around the world have began to focus on the major causes of crime by collecting relevant information related to crime and criminal activities that can be used to interpret scientific data in a meaningful way. These criminologists have identified crucial scientific information that can be used to develop empirical, verifiable statements and hypotheses that can then be used to create crime causation theories.

A review of the early criminology theories has demonstrated that crimes are caused by people who suffer from genetic abnormality, insanity, poverty and physical anomalies. Theories that have been developed at the later stages have shown that crime is caused by factors such as peer pressure, poverty, the social framework, family dysfunctions and poor education (Siegel, 2009).

A variety of theories have been advanced to explain the causes of crime and what drives individuals to commit criminal acts. The most common methods that exist to explain the causes of crime include the early theories, which include demonology, classical or neoclassical theories and the Marxist theories. The physical and mental trait theories that are used to explain the causes of crime include the mental deficiency theory, phrenology and morphology.

The psychological theories that exist to explain the causes of crime include the psychoanalytic theories, self-talk theories, psychodynamic theories and the aggression theories. Sociological theories that explain the causes of crime include societal control, deviant subcultures, social labeling and differential association (Zastrow, 2010). The two theories that will be focused on in this research paper include the psychodynamic theory and the rational choice theory that falls under the classical school of thought.

Rational Choice Theory and Major causes of Crime

The rational choice theory has its basis in the classical school of thought that proposed crime was caused by individual traits and characteristics. The rational choice theory was developed by Cesare Beccaria, who was an Italian social thinker and who proposed that people choose their behavior and how they were going to act.

This choice of behavior also included the selection of criminal behavior where individuals selected behavior based on whether their decisions would offer pleasure or reduce any forms of pain and suffering. Beccaria believed that people were self-centered and egotistical in nature and they were therefore motivated by fear of punishment, which provided a motive to obey the law (Siegel, 2009).

According to the rational choice theory, criminal activities were caused when an offender decided to pursue behaviors that broke the law. The decision to choose law-breaking behavior was usually determined by an evaluation of personal factors such as finances, poverty levels, revenge on attackers or personal entertainment where the offender derived pleasure from causing harm to other people.

Other factors that were used to explain law-breaking behavior included situational factors such as the level of protection the intended target had as well as the efficiency and effectiveness of the local police authorities to deal with criminal acts. The rational choice theory explained the causes of crime to be the ability of an individual to commit the crime, their need for valuable possessions and money, their physical health and ability to commit the crime and their fear of being punished (Siegel, 2009)

Beccaria’s social thinking explained the causes of crime to be the choice of behavior that people made to experience the various levels of pleasure and pain. The individual traits of people helped in determining whether they choose behavior that would produce pleasure and happiness.

The classical theorists argued that people made decisions on whether they wanted to engage in criminal or non-criminal activities based on their anticipation of pleasure or pain. Each individual according to the rational choice theory was believed to have a will to act based on hedonistic calculations of their freedom. Criminologists who advocate for the rational school of thought viewed this to be an exhaustive explanation of what caused crime (Zastrow, 2010).

The rational choice theory advocated for the allocation of punishments based on the type of offense that had been committed. The penalties that were assigned to the criminal offenders were based on the anticipated pleasures that would be derived from the punishment, which would serve to deter the offender from illegal activities.

This theory advocated that juveniles and people who suffered from mental deficiencies were unable to calculate the pleasures and pains of punishments and they, therefore, were not liable to being punished for their crimes (Zastrow 2010).

Psychodynamic/Psychoanalytic Theory and Major Causes of Crime

According to the psychodynamic or psychoanalytic theory, criminal behavior is derived from the personality of an individual as they try to adjust to various circumstances or situations. Adjustment problems are generally perceived to be in conflict with the various characteristics that define an individual’s personality, which include personal drive, ambition, fear, and loyalty.

According to this theory, situational factors such as the effectiveness of law enforcement agencies and the level of protection that an individual has were not causes of criminal behavior. The psychodynamic theory therefore deemphasizes situational factors when determining the causes of illegal activities (See, 2007).

The psychoanalytic or psychodynamic theory suggests that the causes of criminal behavior are usually attributed to the psychological disturbances that individuals face, which might affect their mental reasoning and logical capabilities.

Freud, who developed this theory, argued that people who had underdeveloped egos were more than likely to commit criminal offenses than those who had developed egos. For example, children who did not experience any feelings of love as they grew up and were subjected to various forms of violence were more than likely to engage in criminal activities (See, 2007).

According to this theory, the causes of criminal behavior include mood disorders, anger, sexuality problems, psychosis and unconscious conflicts. The strengths of the psychodynamics theory are that it explains the onset of criminal behavior as well as why the crime was committed. This theory focuses on mental disorders, unconscious motivations, personality development deficiencies and emotional feelings that drive people to commit criminal offenses (Siegel, 2009).

Similarities and Differences between Rational Choice and Psychodynamic Theory

The similarity that exists between the two theories is that they try to explain the behavior of human beings when it comes to certain actions such as crime. The two theories view the psychological behavior of human beings to be the main determinant of criminal behavior and criminal activities.

Both theories focus on the behavioral aspect of human beings and what types of behavior illicit reactions that are viewed to be criminal in nature. The differences that exist between the two theories is that the rational theory focuses on the feelings of pleasure and pain which come from committing criminal acts while the psychoanalytic or psychodynamic theory focuses on the personal development of an individual in explaining the causes of criminal behavior.

Psychodynamic theories analyze the attitudes and behavior of individuals which usually result from motivational tensions while rational choice theories focus on the behaviors that individuals choose to follow which might also include criminal behaviors (Taylor et al., 2003).

Enhancements to Rational Choice and Psychodynamic Theories

While the rational choice or classical theory was commonly used in the 19th century to explain the causes of criminal behavior in correctional facilities, this theory has become less commonly used today. The current judicial and legal system only incorporates rational choice when it comes to punishing offenders to deter the increase in crime.

The rational choice theory has been criticized by several researchers and theorists because it does not allow for the causes of crime and the punishments that are used under this approach have not been successful in reducing criminal activities. This theory also ignores the fact that human behavior is usually determined by societal values and morals rather that pleasure and pain calculations (Zastrow, 2010).

A shortcoming of the psychodynamic theory is that it usually becomes difficult to determine the drives, ambitions, fears and ethics of a person who is motivated to commit criminal activities. For example, the drives that have been proposed by criminologists that motivate people to commit sexual offenses include low self-esteem and feelings of inferiority, unfulfilled sexual desires and the need to be violent.

These feelings usually become elevated as an individual commits a sexual offense as they create an elevated sense of power and superiority. The psychodynamic or psychoanalytic theory fails to determine which desires or feelings contributed to the assault. The use of this theory in determining the cause of criminal acts becomes limited as only speculations are used to determine why a particular crime occurred (Zastrow, 2010).

The two theories are subject to further improvements by conducting further research on how the two theories can be improved to explain the changing causes of criminal behavior.

The rational choice theory which is based on the classical school of thought can be improved by using it as a tool for explaining individual motivations and sociological issues as well as the various social exchanges that take place within the society. Researchers should broaden the scope of the rational choice theory to cover other aspects of individual behavior such as the external environment which covers the society, the economy and the technological environment (Chai, 2008).

To improve the psychodynamic or psychoanalytic theory, it can be incorporated into the other theories that explain the psychological causes of crime. These theories include the self-talk theory and the frustration-aggression theory that are used in explaining the various psychological issues that lead to criminal behavior.


The research paper has focused on the various theories that cause criminal behavior, which include the rational choice theory and the psychodynamic or psychoanalytic theories. These two theories have shown the various causal factors that lead individuals to commit criminal behavior.

Using theoretical work in explaining crimes is essential as it enables criminologists and the penal systems around the world to develop the appropriate punitive measures that are comparable to the crime that has been committed. The two theories are therefore important in determining the appropriate punishments for criminal acts.


Chai, S.K., (2008).Rational choice theory: a forum for exchange of ideas between hard and social sciences in predictive behavioral modeling. Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii, Department of Sociology.

See, L.A., (2007). Human behavior in the social environment from an African-American perspective. New York: Haworth Press

Siegel, L.J., (2009).Criminology, 10th Edition. California, US: Thomson Higher Education

Taylor, S.E., Peplau, L.A., & Sears, D.O., (2003). Social psychology. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Zastrow, C., (2010).Introduction to social work and social welfare: empowering people. Belmont, California: Cengage Learning

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