Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Criminality

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The motivations behind it and ways to prevent it
This page is part of the Motivation and emotion book. See also: Guidelines.

Overview[edit | edit source]

Criminal behaviours plague human existence. I’m sure many of you know someone who has engaged in criminal behaviour, or perhaps it has been you involved in criminal behaviour. Either way, criminal behaviour is not unknown to many of us. In fact, there are daily reports on the news, websites and newspaper about individuals committing crimes. Have you ever thought something along the lines of ‘that person is an idiot, why would he/she do that? Don’t they know they’ll get caught? Well, what about your friend or yourself engaging in criminal behaviour? Have you ever thought about the reasons? Did you do it because you were angry? Pressured into doing it? Revenge? Or were you simply bored?

This chapter will look at the motivations behind these criminal behaviours including physical motivators, psychological motivators and social motivators. Ways to prevent criminal behaviour will also be outlined in this chapter. There has been a vast array of research conducted in this area so naturally each individual may have a different set of belief systems, opinions or different morals to others. This chapter will cover some of these theories/ideas. The main issues that this chapter will look at are the Psychological motivations such as personality, personality disorders and genetic dispositions. The chapter will also take a look at how social environments can motivate criminal behaviours, through the social learning theory and the aspect of belonging.

Of course, not all the motivators will be motivated in this chapter as there are too many but will aim to give an overview of the main ones argued by the professionals in this field.

What is criminality?[edit | edit source]

To put it simply, crime can be defined as ‘the behavioural process, which violates laws’ (Gottfredson & Hirschi. 1990). The word crime is derived from the latin root cemõ meaning ‘I decide, I give judgment’ (Klein). Morrison (2005) indicates that crime is more complex than just breaking the rules. Culturally, different actions may be considered a crime, while others will not be.


Defining crime is difficult, as each culture is different. Morrison (2005) supports this by stating that crime is more complex than just breaking the rules. Culturally, different actions may be considered a crime, while others will not be.

Think about it: Have you ever “borrowed” stationary from your workplace and not returned it? What about that music you are listening too? Did you download it? Would you call yourself a criminal in these situations?

The answer is probably no. When it comes to crime, many individuals automatically think of offences like rape, murder, assaults etc and dismiss incidents like that of workplace stationary stealing. Why is this the case?

Sammons tries to explain this by indicating that crime may be a socially constructed concept based on the environment around it. By this he means that society determines what a crime is and how severe the punishment should be if one should violate the law.

For example in Australia, individuals can freely chew gum, whilst in Singapore it is a crime and a chargeable offence. In Australia, drug traffickers might get a few years in prison whilst in Indonesia; offenders can face the death penalty for the same crime.

Lanham indicates that perhaps then a better explanation would be:

This definition indicates that crime is determined by the state highlighting the different societal and cultural norms of each country.

Causes[edit | edit source]

Physical motivations[edit | edit source]

Alcohol and substance abuse


69% of heroin users were arrested for criminal behaviour in 2003 (Makkai). In 2000, Canada reported 87,945 incidents stating that three quarters were drug related. Canada also found that many of the violent crimes committed by individuals occurred while the individual was under the influence of alcohol or both alcohol and illicit drugs (Cassavant & Collin. 2001). In a self-reported survey of inmates in the United States, it was found that 24% of federal inmates and 49% of state inmates were illicit drug users at their time of their offence (Cassavant & Collin. 2001). 28% of the inmates questioned believed that the drug facilitated their criminal behaviour (Makkai. 2000). In 2000, it was found that out of 1631 offenders detained in police lock ups around Australia, 65% detained for violent offences and 82% of those detained for property offences tested positive to illicit drugs (Makkai & McGregor. 2001). The majority of the crimes that drug users committed were usually property related, for example theft, break in, trafficking or fraud. This is because these offenders see these crimes as a way to survive (Makkai. 2000).

Risk-taking and Competitiveness

We risk take for a variety of reasons, maybe it’s for the adrenaline? Boredom? Or maybe it is because we want to see how far we can push the boundaries. Risk taking, in regards to crime fits into numerous other categories as well such as personality. Some people have a more risk-taking personality than others. One of the major drives behind risk-taking is competiveness, especially in adolescent males. It was found by researchers in Chicago that young males were overly represented in crime statistics, indicating the main reason for this was the thrill of risk-taking. Out of 134 cases 95% of crimes committed were caused by social conflict. It was found to be more common amongst males than in females (William & Daly. 2005).

Psychological motivations[edit | edit source]

Free will & choice

The idea of free will one often associated with religion, however, you do not need a religion to have free will. Free will is where an individual chooses his or her own actions. Self-control and rational choice may be the most common forms of free will (Baumeister, Bauer & Lloyd. 2010). An individual with good self-control has the capacity to control their actions and refrain from impulsive behaviours, which may need to criminal behaviour. Self-control helps an individual keep their behaviour in check with the standards and norms of the society. Alongside self-control is the notion of rational choice. This involves the process of determining the most suitable, rational action for something and then carrying that action out (Baumeister, Bauer & Lloyd. 2010). Criminal behaviour often can occur due to foolish choices. William Henley, author of the poem Invictus summarises the idea of free will nicely in the last two lines of his poem:

Humans are given the choice to do what we like, but consideration should be considered as our own actions do have consequences, so if you are planning to engage in criminal behaviour, be prepared to face the consequences.


The opposing argument to that of free will is Determinism. The idea of free will suggests that individuals have full control over their actions and can act the way they choose, whereas determinism focuses on the idea that biological and personality aspects can pre-dispose an individual to anti-social and criminal behaviour. Despite individuals still choosing to act in particular ways, there is an underlying cause behind this behaviour. People act according to their biological disposition and the surrounding environment (Delaney). Moffitt (as cited in Delaney, 2005) found that children who were low in the enzyme monoamine oxidase A had increased levels of anti-social behaviour. This anti-social behaviour can lead to criminal problems later in life (Fergusson, Horwood & Ridder. 2005). Anti-social behaviour and conduct problem can affect the behaviour of an individual in adolescence and through to adulthood.


Hans Eysenck

Personality also plays a role in the motivations behind criminal behaviour. There are number of disorders that can account for the motivations behind criminal behaviours, but research has also indicated that personality traits themselves can directly correlate to criminal behaviour. An example of this is the Extraversion, Neuroticism and Psychoticism theory by Eysenck and Gray. This theory has played a major role in Crime and Personality theory. It has been found that these three factors are predictors of criminal behaviour. Using the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire, individuals who scored high Extraversion, Neuroticism and Psychoticism were found to be susceptible to criminal behaviour (Eysenck & Eysenck. 1971; & Gudjonsson & Sigurdsson. 2001). Eysenck proposes that a high level of extraversion requires an increased need for stimulation and that introverts are more influenced by punishment (Levine and Jackson. 2004). High levels of Neuroticism in relation to crime, indicates routine, therefore an individual with high levels is more likely to maintain the same behaviour once established (Levine and Jackson. 2004). High levels of Psychoticism in an individual tend to make them tough minded and less sensitive to guilt. Other personality traits have also been linked to crime and motivation. Gudjonsson proposed that compliance was also a trait related to crime and created the Gudjonsson Compliance Scale to test this theory. Gudjonsson found that there was a significant correlation between compliance and crime, with the main reasons for committing crimes was coercion, peer pressure, eagerness to please or being tricked (Gudjonsson & Sigurdsson. 2001). Eagerness to please and peer pressure also fits into the idea that individuals have a need for belongingness.

Antisocial Personality Disorder

Anti-social personality disorder (APD) is the highest correlated disorder with crime (Decaire. 2000). More commonly known as psychopaths, individuals with this disorder have a disregard for the rights of others. Usually an individual with this behaviour lacks conformity and respect for the law, resulting in criminal activity (Decaire. 2000). Often these individuals tend to be aggressive and tend to frequently involve themselves in physical fights or assault. APD individuals tend to have no sense of safety for themselves or others. The behavioural actions displayed by APD individuals tend to result in arrest (Decaire. 2000).

Paranoid Personality Disorder

Paranoid Personality Disorder (PPD) has also been linked to criminal behaviours. With this disorder, individuals display symptoms primarily of paranoia, as the name of the disorder suggests. An individual with this disorder is likely to involve themselves with criminal actions when the fear and paranoia that an individual is going to hurt them. The individual with PPD tends to act aggressively to either prevent the perceived event or towards the individual who is planning the perceived attack (Decaire. 2000).

Borderline Personality Disorder

The third main personality disorder related to criminality is that of Borderline Personality Disorder. Individuals with this disorder tend to be unstable and unpredictable. They will show signs of unstable relationships, poor self-image, impulsive behaviours and self-harming behaviours. There are also signs of intense anger and unstable moods. (Decaire 2000). In this disorder, there is a tendency for individuals to act on their impulses often resulting in violent behaviours from the intense bouts of anger (Decaire. 2000).

Social motivations[edit | edit source]

Albert Bandura outlines the importance of modelling appropiate behaviour in his Social Learning theory

Social Learning

Albert Bandura put forth the theory that individuals learn behaviour through a process called modelling. He proposed that individuals observe the behaviour of those around them and learn to act the same way. This idea of social learning is more relevant to children, as this is the developmental period where the correct behaviours are learnt (Mihalic & Elliot. 1997). Studies have found that violent and abusive adults learned this behaviour from having either been a victim of this behaviour or having witnessed the same behaviour during childhood (Mihalic & Elliot. 1997). Mihalic and Elliott (1997) suggest that these violent patterns of behaviour can become an intergenerational cycle, where the same behaviour can be modelled down throughout the generations.


Humans need to belong, as outlined in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Humans have a desire to form relationships, find soul mates and fit in (Baumeister & Leary. 1995). When this need is not met, individuals may turn to a life of crime. Baumeister and Leary (1995) found that individuals with a stable job and a successful marriage negatively affected the crime rate while those who had no sense of belonging felt the need to join a gang. Being part of a gang is like a ‘surrogate’ family, in which members form close bonds, fit in and feel accepted (Baumeister & Leary. 1995).

Socioeconomic status

Socioeconomic status can also be a social motivator for crime. It has been found that crime rates are higher amongst those individuals living in disadvantaged or lower class area. It was found that high levels of unemployment contributed to property crimes amongst these individuals. Poverty and crime rates have been positively correlated (Blau & Blau. 1982). It has been found that these lower class neighbourhoods are prone to a higher level of criminal activity due to the economic stress. It has been suggested that teens and younger age group act criminally due to the economic stress within their environment (Evans & Kantrowitz. 2002).

What are some ways that crime can be prevented?[edit | edit source]

This section will outline a couple of ways, crime can be prevented as there are far too many to cover in this short chapter.

Improved Policing

Crime is always going to occur, but law enforcement can try and reduce the levels of crime and prevent serious crime problems occurring. There have been attempts to improve policing in high crime areas. Economic stress in these environments also needs to be reduced as Evans and Kantrowitz (2002) argue that economic stress is one of the motivators behind young offenders. The Australia Crime Commission and Institute of Criminology are also focused on social reforms to help prevent crime. Strategies they use include, increase lighting in dim areas, strengthen locks, CCTV, limiting the amount of money kept on premises and installing locks on windows (Australian Institute of Criminology, 2011). Weisburd and Eck (2004) suggest ‘hot spot policing’. This is where the policing focuses on the areas with a large concentration of crime. Aspects of this system include random patrols, effective response times to emergencies and increasing the size of the police force in the community (Wiesburd & Eck, 2004).

Balanced and Restorative Justice (BARJ)

Restorative Justice is focused on young offenders and preventing them from recommitting. It is focused on the emotional needs of the offenders. It takes a somewhat parental role, rather than using the judge and juror roles. The model consists of three main areas. These are offender accountability, competency development and community safety. (VanderWaal et al. 2001). Offender accountability is focused on restoring the damage between the victim, community and offender. Competency development is all focused on behaviour of the individual and improving functional skills. Thirdly Community safety focuses the community monitoring the juveniles’ behaviour. VanderWaal and colleagues outline this as utmost important. Amongst juvenile offenders, Balanced and Restorative Justice is the preferred option for law enforcers (VanderWaal et al. 2001).

What you can do[edit | edit source]

Preventing Criminal behaviour begins in childhood.


Be alert about your child’s behaviour. If any of the following occur, it might be useful finding some help such as a behavioural therapist to find the source of these actions. If ignored, these behaviours could become criminal.

  • Detachment: A lack of bonding and "connectedness" to others
  • Withdrawal or perceptions of hopelessness
  • Threats --- and the efforts to establish the means and opportunity to carry out the threats
  • Disciplinary problems in school and/or delinquent, criminal activity in schools or communities
  • Unusual interest or preoccupation with weapons, bombs, and violent forms of "entertainment"
  • Abuse of animals, suicide threats or attempts, self-mutilation, etc.

(National School Safety and Security Services, 2011)

Role Model

The importance of modelling appropriate behaviour has been outlined earlier in this chapter. This is the practical part. Next time, you go to do something in front of a child think twice about it. Is it going to promote healthy behaviours? Or potentially dangerous behaviours? Children learn from those around them and their surroundings.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

  • Crime is difficult to define
  • Crime is socially constructed
  • Physical motivators include substance abuse and Competitiveness
  • Psychological motivators include personality traits and personality disorders
  • Social learning is important, as poor modelling can be a motivator for crime.
  • Criminality also motivated by poor Socioeconomic Status.
  • Effective policing, i.e 'hot spot policing' can help prevent crime.
  • 'Hot spot policing' is effectively focusing on areas where there is a concentrated level of crime.
  • Restorative Justice is the most sought out strategy when dealing with juvenile offenders.
  • Monitoring behaviour in children is the key to preemptively preventing crime.

References[edit | edit source]

Blau, J. & Blau, P. (1982). The cost of inequality: Metropolitan structure and violent crime. American Sociological Review, 47(1), 114-129.

Baumeister, R., Bauer, I. M., & Lloyd, S. (2010). Choice, free will, and religion. Psychology Of Religion And Spirituality, 2(2), 67-82.

Baumeister, R. & Leary, M. (1995). The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.

Cassavant, L & Collin, C. (2001). Illegal Drug Use and Crime: A Complex relationship. Parliament of Canada.

Decaire, M. (2000). Mental Disorders and Crime: Personality Disorders.

Delaney, D. Criminal Behaviour: Free will versus Determinism. Australasian Journal of Correctional Staff Development.

Evans, G & Kantrowitz, E. (2002). Socioeconomic status and health: The potential role of Environmental risk exposure. Review of Public Health. 23, 303-331.

Eysenck, S. & Eysenck, H. Crime and Personality: Item Anaylsis of Questionnaire Responses. British Journal of Criminology, 49.

Fergussen, D., Horwood, J., & Ridder, E. (2005). Show me the child at seven: the consequences of conduct problems in childhood for psychosocial functioning in adulthood. Journal of Child Psychology, 46(8), 837-849.

Gudjonsson, G & Sigurdsson, J. (2003).The Relationship of Compliance with Coping Strategies and Self-Esteem. European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 19(2) pp. 117–123.

Gudjonsson, G & Sigurdsson, J. (2004). Motivation for offending and personality. Legal and Criminal Psychology, 9, 69-81.

Gudjonsson, G & Sigurdsson, J. (2007). Motivation for offending and personality. A study among young offenders on probation. Personality and Individual Differences, 1243-1253.

Ernest Klein, [ A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language

Kuperminc, G. & Allan, J. (2001). Social Orientation: Problem behaviour and motivations towards interpersonal problem solving among high risk adolescents. Journal of Youth Adolescence, 30(5): 597–622.

Levine, S. & Jackson, C. (2004). Eysenck’s theory of crime revisited: Factors or primary scales? Legal and Criminological Psychology, 9, 135-152.

Makkai, T. (2003). Substance Abuse, Psychological Stress and Crime. The Medical Journal of Australia. 179 (8): 399-400.

Makkai, T. & McGregor, K. (2001). Drug Use Monitoring in Australia (DUMA): 2000 Annual Report on Drug Use Among Police Detainees, Research and Public Policy Series No. 37, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra.

Mihalic, S. & Elliot, D. (1997). A Social Learning Theory Model of Marital Violence. Journal Of Family Violence, 12(1), 21-47.

Morrison, W. (2001) What is crime? Contrasting definitions and perspectives.

Sammons, A. Problems in defining crime. Criminological Psychology.

VanderWaal, C., McBride, D., Terry-McElrath, Y. & VanBuren, H. (2001). Breaking the juvenile drug cycle: A Guide for Practitioners and Policymakers. NCJ.

Weisburd, D. & Eck, J. (2004). What Can Police Do to Reduce Crime, Disorder, and Fear? The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 593(65), 42-65.

Wilson, M. & Daly, M. (1985). Competitiveness, Risk Taking, and Violence: The Young Male Syndrome. Ethology and Sociobiology, 6, 59-73.

See also[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]