Cognitive explanations for criminal behaviour

Over the years psychologists have become interested in the reasons why people commit crimes and how they process thoughts differently to others. Some psychologists have looked more into the cognitive, developmental, and personality factors that could contribute to criminal behaviour. When looking at humans and why they commit crimes, the cognitive reasoning is important to consider.

This is because the average, 'normal', person processes thoughts before engaging in any actions, and this is something that some psychologists have discarded. Kohlberg and Dodge contributed separate research to support the cognitive theory, Bowlby looked into proving that maternal-deprivation can cause criminal behaviour, and others such as Freud and Eysenck looked at how the development of the personality can cause individual to engage in criminal behaviour. 

Kohlberg theory focuses on the area of morality in the thought processes of individuals. He believes that morality development occurs in stages throughout childhood. He proved his theory by assessing the moral reasoning of individuals through the use of moral dilemmas. These dilemmas generally involved the choice between two alternatives, both of which would be considered socially unacceptable. His most famous dilemma was the 'Heinz' dilemma, where a man who cannot afford the treatment to save his dying wife has the option to either steal the medication, or let his wife die.

From the responses that Kohlberg received, he concluded that individuals go through three levels of moral reasoning; these being, pre-conventional morality, conventional morality and post conventional morality. Within these there are six stages, stages one and two state that what is right and wrong is determined by what is punishable and what is not; what is right and wrong is determined by what brings rewards and what people want.

When relating to crime then it can be assume that those who commit crime to not complete this cognitive process correctly; or due to their environment or parents they could be rewarded for the 'bad' behaviour or not punished correctly and so there morals are then altered. Kohlberg suggests that these stages take place between the ages of 0-9 so the seeds for criminal behaviour could be sown into the mind from that young age. The stages three and four focus more on the moral reasoning that certain behaviour pleases others and is what they approve of; being good means doing ones duty and respecting authority.

These stages are supposed to take place during adolescents and early adulthood, however depending on how the individual is treated in society and whether they are part of a marginalised culture can determine whether their peers see their criminal behaviour as immoral. In some sub-culture criminal behaviour is praised and idolised, and so if the moral stages have not been developed in the correct surroundings and the individuals' morals are incorrect then the individual could still commit crime. Kohlberg also stated that offenders have a delay in the development of their moral reasoning and so when there is temptation they cannot resist it as they do not have the appropriate moral reasoning to do so. 

Kohlberg's study, although it provides some understanding of the processes of moral reasoning process that is undertaken, his theory is based on how individuals respond to hypothetical situations and so there is the issue of validity. Also he does mention the part that the conscience plays in the moral reasoning process. It can be argued from these points that although Kohlberg shows that there is some association between moral functioning and criminal behaviour, however there is no direct link.

Eysenck focused his work on the personality factors that cause people to commit crime. He expressed that there are subtle differences in the central and autonomic nervous systems of individuals that cause their criminal behaviour or tendency to commit criminal behaviour; these physical differences account for whether or not an individual can conform to social rules or not.

Those with less sensitive nervous systems are more likely to engage in crime due to the excitement 'buzz' it gives them as they cannot get it from other non-criminal activities. He places everybody along the two dimensions of extrovert-introvert and emotional stable. Criminals are most likely to be extroverts as they need more excitement and stimulation; they are generally impulsive and thrill-seeking and this is what leads them to engage in criminal behaviour. As extroverts are not conditioned properly they tend to forget past experiences.