Causes of Criminality

by Suzanne Sibole, Youth Risk Prevention Specialists

What makes a given individual engage in criminal behavior? The answer to this question has great import, not only to scientists, criminologists, psychologists and law enforcement, but also to parents and family members seeking to understand the behavior of a loved one. The question of whether the causes of criminality are primarily due to nature or nurture goes back to at least the nineteenth century when Cesare Lombroso theorized that criminals are “born” rather than “made”. Lombroso believed that criminals were biologically inferior to others in terms of physical characteristics, lack of moral sense, greater pain threshold, better eyesight, and a number of other characteristics. He suggested that up to 70% of offenders were genetically programmed for violence and could be identified by their physical attributes (Davie, 2003). While Lombroso’s theory has been revised over time, some elements have persisted.

In fact, researchers have revealed a number of factors correlated with the increased probability of an individual engaging in criminal behavior. Some of these are related to the individual him/herself, such as distinctive traits, characteristics, and personalities. Others are related to the circumstances surrounding the individual, such as peer pressure, norms relating to criminal activity and situational factors that may provoke a criminal response.

In our society, a small number of individuals account for an inordinately large amount of crime. This prompts the question, “what is it about these individuals that creates this predisposition or predilection toward crime?” According to Wortley (2011, p. 6), research increasingly supports the finding that individuals who engage in criminal behavior tend to be “criminally versatile”, that is, they engage in multiple types of crime over periods of time. Wortley goes on to discuss the “80/20” rule, stating that a small number of offenders are responsible for a disproportionately large amount of crime. Moffit (1993) classifies this type of offender as life course persistent (LCP). Some offenders, those most likely to be categorized as life course persistent, have been found to possess distinctive traits that meet the DSM-IV criteria for antisocial personality disorder. Is the criminal behavior of this type of offender strictly grounded in genetics? More than likely, it is a combination of genetics and environment, that results in the long-term pattern of criminal activity.

I will begin with an examination of the effect of nature or genetics on criminality. The first question I would ask to determine whether one individual is more likely to commit crime than another is whether there were early indications of traits that research has linked to criminality. As a child, has this individual displayed the traits of antisocial behavior such as callousness, lack of remorse or lack of empathy?

Robins (1966) studied children with behavioral problems into adulthood and found that a majority of psychopathic adults studied displayed antisocial characteristics as a child. By reviewing the records of children seen at the St. Louis Municipal Child Guidance Clinic over a five-year period followed by interviews with them as adults in their 40’s, Robins found that 45% of the adults who had been seen in the clinic as children had five or more antisocial symptoms as adults, compared to just 4% of the control group. Further, 80% of the adults seen as children had experienced some form of psychiatric illness during their lifetimes. The early indicators of deviant and antisocial behavior foretold of the psychiatric illness and antisocial symptoms to come.

Moffit (1993), in her paper detailing the adolescent-limited and life-course-persistent taxonomy, stated, “knowledge of a subject’s preadolescent behavior is required for making the differential diagnosis between life-course-persistent and adolescent-limited types of antisocial teenager” (p.5). She argued that the stability of childhood antisocial traits is a key determinant of whether one will desist from delinquent behavior after the period of adolescence or continue a life of crime as a life-course-persistent offender. Moffit proposed that an interaction between neurological vulnerabilities and a disadvantaged or deviant child-rearing environment increase the risk for becoming a life-course-persistent offender.

Researcher Dan Waschbusch, mentioned in Jennifer Kahn’s New York Times article, “Can You Call a 9-year-old a Psychopath?” has studied children with callous-unemotional traits and seeks to determine whether early intervention may be helpful in keeping these traits from persisting into adulthood. Children with callous-unemotional traits exhibit a lack of remorse or empathy and are highly manipulative and dishonest.

Researchers Lynam, D. R., Miller, D.J., Vachon, D. D., Loeber, R., & Stouthamer-Loeber, (2009) assessed boys at age 13 using the Childhood Psychopathy Scale (CPS) and reviewed their arrests and convictions between ages 18 and 21. They determined that “juvenile psychopathy is relatively stable across adolescence and into adulthood” (p. 201).

A number of studies have shown that conduct disorder in children is linked to adolescent and adult criminality. Wortley (2011) discusses the progression into adult criminal behavior that begins in childhood with conduct disorder, includes delinquent behavior as an adolescent and finally, serious criminality as an adult. He notes that these individuals display antisocial characteristics in all areas of their lives (p. 134).

It should be noted that not all children displaying antisocial tendencies go on to commit crime, but the research does support a greater tendency toward criminal behavior for such individuals than for those who do not possess these traits.

The second question I would ask to determine whether one individual is more likely to commit crime than another is, does the individual currently display personality traits linked to criminality?

Theoretical approaches to the psychology of personality can be divided into two camps – single-trait and super-trait approaches. Single traits linked to the perpetration of crime include higher than average levels of impulsivity and sensation seeking, and lower than average levels of altruism and empathy. Impulsivity, in particular, has been supported by numerous studies relating this trait to criminal behavior (Wortley, 2011, p. 99).

Eysenck (1967, 1982 as cited in Wortley, 2011, pp. 100-104) proposed a three-factor super-trait theory of crime that has endured in some form for nearly five decades. This model groups personality traits into three categories that are termed “super-traits”: psychoticism, extraversion and neuroticism. The single traits of impulsivity, sensation seeking, empathy and altruism fit neatly into these categories. Eysenck used the acronym of PEN to describe his model where P=Psychoticism, E=Extraversion and N=Neuroticism. An individual is categorized by either high or low levels of each super-trait. High levels of both psychoticism and neuroticism are believed to increase risk of criminality. High levels of all three are particularly concerning when it comes to criminal behavior.

Individuals possessing a cluster of traits and behaviors related to antisocial behavior may be classified by a label of antisocial personality disorder (APD) or psychopathy. The DSM does not currently utilize the diagnosis of psychopathy, however. Changing and challenging DSM criteria aside, these are considered by some to be two distinct, but related, disorders. According to the DSM-IV-TR, a diagnosis of APD requires that an individual display “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood” (American Psychological Association (APA), 2000, p. 701 as cited in Wortley, 2011, p. 109), and have a history of conduct disorder, be over the age of 18 and meet three out of seven criteria determined by the APA.

While psychopathy is relatively rare, found in only 1% of the population, those who meet the criteria are found in disproportionately high numbers among criminal offenders. Moffit (1993) links persistent antisocial behavior with life course persistent offending. In addition, a number of researchers have found that offenders with APD have high rates of recidivism.

My third line of inquiry would be into the dynamics of the individual’s family and upbringing. Did the individual experience family dysfunction, physical, emotional or sexual abuse, or neglect as a child?

In order to develop healthy, “normal” patterns and behaviors, children need caregivers who attend to their needs and provide nurturing and stimulating experiences. When this is absent, a child’s developmental course is likely to be skewed in a negative direction. The presence of loving parents or caregivers serves as a protective factor during early life. When a parent is absent or factors such as substance abuse or mental illness interfere with healthy early attention to an infant’s needs, parent-child bonding is unlikely to develop. As a result, an individual may experience continual, lifelong difficulty establishing bonds and relationships with others (Bowlby, 1956). In his evolutionary theory of attachment, Bowlby stated that if the maternal attachment is disrupted in the first two years of life, a child will suffer irreversible and long-term consequences including delinquency, aggression, depression, lowered intelligence, and lack of warmth and affection toward others. In his 1944 study of juvenile thieves, Bowlby found that more than half of the young thieves had been separated from their mothers for a period of over six months during the first five years of life. He reported that 32% of the thieves were “affectionless psychopaths” showing little concern for others and an inability to form relationships. None of the control group displayed these characteristics.

Parent disciplinary styles also contribute to a child’s development by the nature of what is taught and modeled. Of the three types of parenting styles identified by Baumrind (1991), authoritarian, permissive and authoritative, both authoritarian and permissive styles are linked to later criminal behavior (Wortley, 2011, p. 123). In contrast to an authoritative parenting style that is fair, firm and includes structure, communication and reasonable, developmentally appropriate expectations, authoritarian discipline is characterized by an inflexible set of rules that must be obeyed to avoid punishment. This type of parenting can create anger and rebellion in children without instilling the values and reasoning behind rules. A permissive parenting style provides little guidance or consequence for children’s behavior, allowing a child to make developmentally inappropriate decisions about peers and rules without the benefit of appropriate socialization and an understanding of values and laws.

Research also supports the theory that children who suffer abuse have an increased likelihood of engaging in criminal behavior as an adult. Pincus (2001) found that people accused of murder often suffered abuse as children. Of the 150 subjects studied with his colleague Dorothy Lewis, he found that 94% had experienced severe physical and sexual abuse as children. In his research, this neurologist found support not only for damage of the brain caused by the direct trauma of child abuse, but alterations in the actual physiology and function of the brain caused by abuse.

The fourth question I would ask is, what is the age of the individual? According to the FBI’s 2008 report on crime, for both whites and blacks, men ages 17 to 30 were the most “typical” victims and killers (Stout, 2009). Moffit (1993) distinguishes the afore-mentioned life course persistent offenders from adolescent-limited offenders, whose criminal careers are time-limited, peaking at around age 17. Moffit reports that the majority of offenders are adolescents. According to Wortley (2011), the age-crime curve is one of the most robust findings in criminology and is thought to be related to developmental stages and social experiences that take place during adolescence. This curve has been observed across all societies (Wortley, 2011, p. 76). The theories accounting for this age-related surge in violence range from the evolutionary psychologists’ assertion that adolescent males are at their most aggressive, impulsive and competitive during adolescence for the purpose of intensifying their chances of obtaining a mate, to a neuropsychology view of adolescence as a time characterized by increased sex hormone production and immature brain structures involved in executive function. This area of the brain controls such traits as reasoning, planning, impulse control, problem solving, emotions and social skills (Wortley, 2011, pp. 71 & 137). Developmental psychologists believe that a majority of adolescents engage in delinquent behavior, which lessens as individuals mature and are able to meet their needs for status and independence via sanctioned adult means. Those who do not desist from criminal behavior at the commencement of adolescence, termed life-course-persistent offenders, account for a significant percentage of crime in our society.

The fifth question I would ask is, what is the individual’s gender? The gender gap, whereby males commit vastly more crime than females, is a well-known tenet in criminology.

Wortley (2011, p. 36) refers to a number of research studies when stating that males are responsible for over 80% of crimes committed. The FBI’s 2008 report on crime states that in 2008, men were several times more likely than women to be the victims and the killers (Stout, 2009). A number of theories have been applied to the gender gap, but none have definitively explained it. Yet, statistically, we can say with certainty that a male individual is more likely to commit crime than a female.

The sixth question I would ask is, what is the individual’s race? The FBI’s 2008 report on crime states that based on 2008 census figures for white and black men of all ages, a black man was roughly six times as likely to be a homicide victim than a white man (Stout, 2009).

Research conducted by Haynie & Armstrong (2006) found that when examining race-, gender-, and relationship-disaggregated homicide rates for a sample of cities, Black males, on average, had the highest level of offending, ranging from 30.8 per 100,000 for acquaintance homicide to 3.46 per 100,000 for intimate partner homicide. The same study revealed that White male homicide rates are below those of Black males, ranging from 14.5 per 100,000 for homicides

directed against acquaintances to a low of 2.08 per 100,000 for those homicides against family members. Both Black and White female rates were significantly lower than those for males, with rates for White females being lowest, overall.

Lee (2006) found that in rural areas, female-perpetrated crime was higher for Black females than for White females, and he suggested that in geographic areas with a higher concentration of Blacks, female crime shows higher rates.

Moving to an examination of situational factors and circumstances surrounding the individual, the seventh question I would ask is, what opportunities for crime exist in the individual’s life sphere?

Individuals do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, they bring a combination of their traits and experiences to their environment, and it is the interaction between the two that results in specific behaviors. Opportunities for crime exist around all of us, but it is the individual already motivated to commit a crime that is most inclined to act on these opportunities.

The routine activities approach to opportunity theory (Cohen & Felson, 1979) explains that crime results from the interaction between three elements: motivated offenders, suitable targets and the absence of capable guardians against a violation. They propose that the lack of any one of these elements is sufficient to prevent criminal activity. Cohen & Felson go on to explain that offenders do not stray far from their daily routines and locations, and therefore, commit crimes in areas that are familiar to them and can be observed for changes and opportunities. An offending individual’s routine activities bring him or her into contact with individuals and environments that facilitate or stimulate crime.

Similarly, Brantingham and Brantingham (1984, as cited in (Wortley, 2011, p. 200) proposed the crime pattern approach to opportunity theory. In their view, the individual’s daily routine includes both “nodes” and “paths” where the individual has established a comfort zone. Most crime opportunities occur in these nodes or areas where individuals congregate or spend time, and along the paths to these locations. Proximity to, and interaction with, an environment rich in nodes that commonly provide an opportunity for crime will increase the level of opportunity for those looking to offend. If our individual in question travels along these pathways as a result of his/her home or work location, the opportunity for crime will be heightened, resulting in an increased likelihood of engaging in criminal behavior. It follows that an individual living in an area characterized by high crime rates will not only come into contact with a greater number of opportunities for crime, but will be at increased risk of participating.

Areas characterized by high crime rates tend to be more concentrated among those rife with poverty and disadvantage. Therefore, the eighth question I would ask is, is the individual a member of a culturally and socially disadvantaged group? Belonging to such a group can result in a gap between what an individual desires to achieve or attain in his or her life and the means and opportunity to do so, creating intense dissatisfaction, frustration and even hostility.

The theory of relative deprivation proposes that criminal behavior is the result of this personal or group sense of discontent and inability to achieve one’s aspirations. These emotions and realities produce a sense of frustration and discomfort that is then reduced through criminal behavior, when it becomes too much to tolerate.

Haynie & Armstrong (2006) found that structural disadvantage was associated with an increase in stranger and acquaintance homicide among all demographic groups studied – Black males, Black females, White males, and White females. Disadvantage was also associated with family homicide rates for White males.

Fagan & Davies (2004) studied neighborhood violence in New York City from 1985-2000, finding that disadvantaged neighborhoods have higher rates of all types of violence.

Ullner, Harris and Steffensmeir (2012) state that a “sizable body of empirical research now exists showing that poverty and other measures of structural disadvantage, family structure, and residential stability are indeed correlated with rates of violence (especially homicide) both across a variety of ecological units and over time” (p. 802). While studies seek to tease apart the many variables that comprise the concept of disadvantage – poverty, transience, unemployment, crowding, lack of education and opportunity – it is clear from the research that disadvantage is indeed associated with higher crime rates.

Ultimately, the question of whether one individual is more likely to commit crime than another depends upon the interaction between the variables discussed in this paper, along with others such as the effects of peer pressure and the pressures of a group or authority figure. We cannot predict for certain whether one individual will indeed commit a crime in the future; we can only provide an analysis of risk factors in a given individual’s biology and social landscape. In fact, forensic psychologists and criminal justice professionals are frequently called upon to deliver an opinion on whether an individual approaching release from prison or treatment will re-offend. Using the best and most current tools available, they are still accurate only two-thirds of the time, at best (Ritter, 2013). Prediction of future criminality is important to our society, primarily from a standpoint of prevention. The greater our understanding of what causes and provokes criminal behavior, the better positioned we are to make societal changes that will affect outcomes.



Baumrind, D. (1991). The Influence of Parenting Style on Adolescent Competence and Substance Use, The Journal of Early Adolescence, 11: 56-95. DOI:10.1177/0272431691111004

Bowlby, J. (1944). Forty-four juvenile thieves: Their characters and home life. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 25(19-52), 107-127.

Bowlby, J. (1956). Mother-child separation. Mental health and infant development, 1, 117-122.

Cohen, L.E. & Felson, M. (1979). Social Change and Crime Rate Trends: A Routine Activity Approach, American Sociological Review, 44: 588-608.

Davie, Neil. (2003). Criminal Man Revisited? Continuity and Change in British Criminology, c.1865-1918. Journal of Victorian Culture (Edinburgh University Press), 8:1, 32.

Fagan, J. & Davies, G. (2004) Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 20: 2, 127-147 DOI: 10.1177/1043986204263769

Haynie, D.L. & Armstrong, D.P. (2006). Race- and Gender-Disaggregated Homicide Offending Rates, Homicide Studies, 10:1, 3-32.

Kahn, Jennifer (2012, May 11). Can You Call a 9-year-old a Psychopath? The New York Times. .

Lee, M. (2006). Gender-Specific Homicide Offending in Rural Areas, Homicide Studies, 10:1, 55-73.

Lincoln, Criminal Mind and Behavior, Lecture Notes, (week 8, spring semester 2014), UMass Lowell.

Lynam, D. R., Miller, D.J., Vachon, D. D., Loeber, R., & Stouthamer-Loeber, M. (2009). Psychopathy in adolescence predicts official reports of offending in adulthood. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 7, 189-207. DOI: 10.1177/1541204009333797

Moffit, T. (1993). Adolescence-Limited and Life-Course-Persistent Antisocial Behavior: A Developmental Taxonomy, Psychological Review, 100:4, 674-701.

Pincus, J.H. (2001). Base Instincts: What Makes Killers Kill? W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY.

Ritter, N. (2013). Predicting Recidivism Risk: New Tool in Philadelphia Shows Great Promise, NIJ Journal, 271.

Robins L N. Deviant children grown up: a sociological and psychiatric study of sociopathic personality. Baltimore, MD: Williams & Wilkins, 1966. (Reprinted: Huntington, NY: Krieger, 1974. 351 p.)

Stout, D. (2009, September 14). Violent Crime Fell in 2008, FBI Report Says.

Ulmer, J. T., Harris, C. T., Steffensmeier, D. (2012). Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Structural Disadvantage and Crime: White, Black, Hispanic Comparisons, Social Science Quarterly, 93: 3, 799-819. DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-6237.2012.00868.

Wortley, R. Psychological Criminology, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2011.