Within criminal psychology there is no one particular theory of crime but there are many psychological accounts. Psychoanalytical theories examine the significance of unconscious and irrational motivations in criminal behaviour. Crime is explained as an expression of unconscious pathological processes. There are many other plausible explanations of crime including learning theories and cognitive psychology. In this short piece I will examine these three areas of psychology to explain that no one theory can offer a satisfactory explanation of criminal behaviour.
Sigmund Freud developed psychoanalytical theory however he did not give an explanation for crime but other psychologists later applied his ideas to criminal behaviour. Freud stated that the personality consists of a tripartite structure, the id, ego and superego. The id embodies natural drives and urges that are pleasure seeking and anti-social such as sexual or aggressive urges. The ego is that part of the id which had been modified by the direct influence of the external world through the medium of conscious perception.
(Freud 1923 as citied in Gross 1992:592) The ego can be described as the rational, logical part of us that enables us to distinguish reality. The superego embodies the moral rules that a person acquires through socialisation within the family, society and includes the conscience. Crime is explained as a result of unconscious conflict within these parts of the personality originating in childhood. In a well-adjusted person the ego is able to act in a way that satisfies the id's demands for self-gratification but in a way that is morally acceptable to the superego.
(Putwain & Sammons 2002:44) From this viewpoint anti social behaviour can be caused in three main ways. The superego can be too weak, too harsh or deviant. A weak superego has difficulty controlling the urges of the id, as there is no moral reasoning, sense of guilt or anxiety over actions. This could be because societal rules were not learnt at an early age or be caused by unloving or absent parents. Bowlby's theory of maternal deprivation theorises that a lack of attachment between a child and caregiver under the age of five could cause a child to be fearful and anxious.
The anxiousness would be repressed and this would cause the superego to be weak. Pyromania could be explained by a weak superego, as the urge to set a fire has no rational explanation. Parents who are too strict or harsh could produce a person with a harsh superego, which could cause an individual to commit anti social and criminal behaviour in order to be punished for it by the state. The desire too be punished is related to guilt over unconscious infantile desires. (Putwain & Sammons 2002:44) A deviant superego could be caused by a criminal but loving parent.
A child could internalise his parent's values in his development and so the superego would not react to thoughts of criminal activity. In evaluating psychoanalytical theory there are many criticisms. The theory has been seen as unscientific. The existence of the id, ego and superego can be questioned. The theory explains moral development as beginning from the age of five or six but it is seen as a continuous process from birth to adulthood. The theory is based on assumptions firstly that socialisation is dependant on childhood experiences and secondly that poor child parent interaction is related to later delinquency.
These two assumptions are also shared by other theories. The third assumption sees crime as the product of unconscious conflict, which is the most important, but the hardest to gather evidence for. According to Freud women have a weak superego, this would not explain the fact that they commit less crime however Freud explains this as women become narcissistic instead of criminal. Psychoanalytic theories can explain some forms of irrational crime but do not claim to be able to explain all crime.