"The faults we first see in others are the faults that are our own." (Honore de Balzac)

    Within the psychological-psychiatric perspective, it has been psychiatry, and primarily psychoanalysis, that has made the most inroads into criminology.  Psychiatry is the older profession, going back to the earliest days of medicine in dealing with the problems of mental disease.  Psychoanalysis emerged out of psychiatry with the work of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939).  Psychology, particularly that branch of it with the most relevance for criminology, abnormal psychology, came into its own during the twentieth century.  Central to the psychological perspective is the idea that almost all causes of criminal behavior originate in the personality.  Personality is defined as the complex set of emotional and behavioral attributes that tend to remain relatively constant as the individual moves from situation to situation.  Psychiatry goes a step further by postulating that mental illness and crime both have similar properties (in being responses to the same stressors and each having maladaptive qualities).


    As long ago as 1870, Henry Maudsly, in his book, Body and Mind, wrote that criminals would go insane if they didn't engage in crime.  This is because their pathological urges must find expression in something.  So, it has long been recognized that there is a strong relationship between mental illness and crime (not to say that one is the cause of another).  The most widely cited psychiatrist on the subject is Seymour Halleck (1971) who postulated that the pathological urges which lead to crime are rooted in emotional experiences of oppression which is characterized by an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.  Criminal adaptation to this condition of helplessness occurs because choosing crime over other possible alternatives provides certain psychological advantages or gratifications, as follows:


    The central concept of psychoanalysis, and the one that Freud first put forth, is the unconscious.  The concept had been around before Freud, but he was the one that made the most out of it, arguing that traumatic experiences in early childhood left their mark on the individual despite the fact that the individual was not aware of these experiences.  The idea of unconscious determination of behavior flew headfirst against the idea of free will, and was quickly jumped on by positivistic criminology. 

    The next most important idea is conflict, and Freud postulated the existence of a three-part personality (an idea going back to Plato) consisting of id, ego, and superego which operated in constant conflict with one another (primarily between the id and superego) producing the basic problem of guilt which required the use of one or more defense mechanisms.  The idea of personality conflict as a cause of crime became quite popular among both scientists and the general public.

    The id is a part of the unconscious that contains all the urges and impulses, including what is called the libido, a kind of generalized sexual energy that is used for everything from survival instincts to appreciation of art.  The id is also kind of stubborn, for it responds only to what Freud called the pleasure principle (if it feels good, do it), and nothing else. 

    The ego is the only part of the conscious personality.  It's what the person is aware of when they think about themselves, and is what they usually try to project toward others.  The ego is dominated by what Freud called the reality principle (an orientation to the real world in which the person lives).  It is continually trying to mediate the demands of the id and prohibitions of the superego.

    The superego is a part of the unconscious that is the voice of conscience (doing what is right) and the source of self-criticism.  It reflects society's moral values to some degree (how much the person wants to "fit in"), and a person is sometimes aware of their own morality and ethics, but the superego contains a vast number of codes, or prohibitions, that are issued mostly unconsciously in the form of commands or "don't" statements.  The superego is also somewhat tricky, in that it will try to portray what it wants the person to do in grandiose, glowing terms, what Freud called the ego-ideal, which arises out of the person's first great love attachment (usually a parent).  The assumption is that children raised by parents experience love conditionally (when they do something right), and the child internalizes these experiences as a series of real or imagined judgmental statements. 

    Using this id-ego-superego model, the basic cause of crime is oversocialization, leading to an overly harsh superego, which represses the id so harshly that pressure builds up in the id and there is an explosion of acting-out behavior.  This pressure build-up in the id contains both silenced and repressed urges as well as a kind of frustration called guilt for impulsive actions which did manage to slip out.

    Guilt is a very common problem because of all the urges and drives coming from the id and all the prohibitions and codes in the superego.  There are a variety of ways an individual handles guilt, and these are called defense mechanisms (see table for complete list).

Sublimation Desires of the id are diverted to healthy outlets approved by the superego
Repression Desires of the id are stuffed back into subconscious and the person denies they exist or engages in Freudian slips
Regression Desires of the id are followed impulsively to escape from hearing the superego (reality)
Denial/Intellectualization Anxiety about following desires of the id goes unacknowledged or treated unemotionally
Projection Prohibitions of the superego are applied as standard for judging others and not oneself
Fixation Prohibitions of the superego are so strong that the person develops fears/phobias
Undoing Superego is so strong that the person continually makes amends or apologies for what they do
Reaction formation Both id and superego are so strong that person does the opposite of both, sometimes identifying with aggressors
Displacement Both id and superego are so strong and ego is so weak that person settles for second best or any available substitute (something better than nothing)

    Of the defense mechanisms, psychoanalysts have put forward displacement as their number one choice for explaining crime.  A few criminologists have explored the others, most notably, reaction formation, but the list remains largely unexhausted because, essentially, the ideas are untestable.

    Freud also provided a theory of human development.  These ideas revolved around his terms for the three stages of early childhood.  The oral stage (age 0-2) is when a person develops their sense of satisfaction or satiation, of figuring out how much is enough (e.g. of food and drink) which has implications for much of an eater, drinker, or smoker a person is in adulthood.  The anal stage (age 2-3) is when a person develops their sense of orderliness, of figuring out their preferred levels of cleanliness (e.g. as in toilet training).  The genital stage (age 3-4) is when a person develops their sexuality, of figuring out their sexual preferences and whether they are capable of real love or not.  Male children go thru what is called an Oedipus Complex (with a comparable Electra Complex in females).  Both complexes involve sexual feelings for the parent of the opposite sex (and are called "inverted" complexes in cases of homosexuality), and how these feelings are resolved determines how capable the person is of real love later in life.

    The primary technique of psychoanalysis is transference, the process of the patient, through free association and "talk therapy", re-enacting or reliving their early childhood experiences with the therapist.  The therapist, in short, becomes a love object, for the patient, but without the therapist going too far or becoming too involved, which is called counter-transference.  Without therapy, a person will engage in amateur transference with other people, a process whereby they play out a "script" or replay the same failed relationships over and over again.


    Freud never really had much to say about crime, other than to say it was most likely motivated by guilt, committed by people with overdeveloped superegos, and characterized by unconscious errors (Freudian slips) which appeared to represent a desire to get caught and be punished (presumably as the superego punishes the id).  Some of the inconsistencies in this (is it Repression, Fixation, or what?) were never reconciled by history, and this is why it's often said that there is no purely Freudian theory of crime (other than the idea the criminals want to get caught).  It was up to the followers of Freud who revised his theories (the Neo-Freudians) to shed light on the psychoanalytic explanation of crime.

    One of the first and best-known neo-Freudians to do so was August Aichorn, author of Wayward Youth, who took the position that it was not overdeveloped superegos but an underdeveloped superego that primarily caused crime.  Specifically, Aichorn argued that a lack of guilt would develop from too many selfish desires for immediate gratification, and that the superego would be overwhelmed most of the time (leaving little time for guilt).  He believed that some criminals, raised as children without loving parents or parents at all, developed unregulated ids.  Others were overindulged at the oral stage and required different treatments.  Aichorn's ideas about encouragement as a way to heal the superego popularized the notion that delinquents needed unconditional love rather than a punitive, institutionalized setting.  The ideas of maternal deprivation or love deprivation as a cause of crime are still popular.

    Redl & Wineman were another group of neo-Freudians who studied Children Who Hate, and took on the Freudian notion of Oedipus Complex.  According to orthodox Freudian theory, criminals should hate their fathers more than their mothers, but Redl & Wineman found that criminals hate both their parents, both father and mother.  In fact, they hadn't gone thru a genital stage at all.  Their egos were therefore undeveloped, and with nothing to mediate between the id and superego, their personalities were nothing but an endless series of raging conflicts, and this is what they called the "delinquent ego."

    Healy provided what is perhaps the greatest contribution to Neo-Freudian theory.  He clarified that Displacement (compensating, substituting, ditching) was the most common defense mechanism used by delinquents.  He discovered this by using the "life history" method at his psychiatric clinic in Chicago where he pioneered the process of a nurse taking vitals, a physician examination, a social worker taking a social history, a clinical psychologist testing, and a psychiatrist treating.  He estimated that 91% of delinquents were emotionally disturbed, 50% because of a broken home, and the rest because of too much or too little parental discipline.


    While Freudians and Neo-Freudians alike continued to view criminals as id-dominated individuals, there were those in psychology who never accepted this nor the whole psychodynamic model that frustrations build up from experiences in early childhood.  The abnormal psychologists were one such group, preferring to replace terms like neurosis and psychosis with various disorders, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and conduct disorders. Abnormal psychology is concerned with mental health, defined as the capacities to think rationally, cope effectively, and demonstrate stability and growth.  Mental disorders exist on a continuum, like blood pressure or cholesterol levels. The cutoff between health and disease is somewhat arbitrary.  Many people who have diagnosed mental illnesses are far better off than undiagnosed persons presumed to be mentally healthy.  

    The current approach to classification and diagnosis of the mentally ill is multiaxial.  Rather than using a single term, such as schizophrenia, to label a person, the American Psychiatric Association prefers to describe a person in terms of clinically important factors, or axes.  The first multiaxial system was developed in 1980 as the DSM-III (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), revised in 1987 as DSM-III-R, and revised again in 1994 as DSM-IV.  It's a multiaxial system with five axes.

Axis I Any disorder or condition other than personality disorders and mental retardation
Axis II Personality disorders, mental retardation, and maladaptive defense mechanisms
Axis III Medical conditions relevant to the case
Axis IV Psychosocial and environmental problems, stressful life events, adjustment difficulties
Axis V Global assessment of functioning (GAF) on a scale from 1 to 100, a low score indicating danger to self or others

A typical DSM-IV classification, for a patient reporting unwelcome thoughts, for example, might look like this:

Axis I: Paranoid Schizophrenia
Axis II: Avoidant Personality Disorder
Axis III: No serious medical conditions, heartburn
Axis IV: Severe problems with work and housing
Axis V: GAF = 55 (moderate symptoms)

Axis I Disorders:

Schizophrenia or other psychosis
Sexual and Gender Identity
Eating or Sleep
Impulse control
Delirium and Amnestic
Other: not specified

Axis II Disorders:

Other: not specified
Mental retardation (IQ)

    The Axis I disorder known as schizophrenia has been statistically linked to violence and crime (Modestin & Ammann 1996), particularly when schizophrenia (a condition that leads to perceiving reality differently, to be socially withdrawn, and to react to social stimuli in inappropriate ways) is combined with characteristics of antisocial personality disorder.  The Axis II antisocial personality disorder (APD) has received the most criminological attention (a condition in which individuals have no sense of empathy, are highly impulsive, seek immediate gratification, and often harm or take from others in criminal ways).  It has been associated with criminal behavior as far back as the Freudians who believed that three childhood behaviors were associated with it: (1) bedwetting; (2) fascination with fire; and (3) cruelty to animals.  As such, despite those who say it cannot be detected early, APD may perhaps be the one disorder that can be detected earliest in childhood.  The Porteus Maze test, for example, works along the same lines by giving a child a drawing of a maze to solve, measuring antisocial tendencies by how well they stay inside the lines.

    The APA does not recommend labeling anyone antisocial until they have reached the age of 18, and to not use any behaviors committed before the age of 15 (chronic conduct disorders before the age of 15 are considered under Axis I).  From the standpoint of abnormal psychology, antisocial personality is not so much a matter of recording behaviors as it is a deeply ingrained pattern to life.  They always seem to be using other people as gamepieces, and they seldom show anxiety or feel guilty. The clinical features of the disorder include:


    Various instruments, inventories, tests, rating scales, and questionnaires exist to measure personality differences.  They are shortcuts, and shortcuts only, and not as good a measure as taking a long time to get to know a person.  Abnormal psychologists rely on them quite extensively, and the most well-known personality test is the MMPI.

    The MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) was first developed in 1943. The current version is MMPI-2, published in 1989.  The MMPI-2 produces sixteen scales.

Hypochondriasis (Hs) Bodily preoccupation
Depression (D) Lacking in self-confidence
Hysteria (Hy) Psychosomatic symptoms
Psychopathic deviate (Pd) Antisocial tendencies, impulsive
Masculinity-Femininity (Mf) Sex-role conflict
Paranoia (Pa) Suspicious, resentful
Psychasthenia (Pt) Anxiety, insecurity
Schizophrenia (Sc) Bizarre thinking
Hypomania (Ma) Excessive psychomotor activity
Social introversion (Si) Shy
L scale Need to give favorable impression
F scale Pathological lying
K scale Defensiveness
Fb scale Inattention to some items
VRIN scale Inconsistent responses
TRIN scale Acquiescent responses

    The scales that have received the most criminological attention are: Psychopathic deviate (Pd), which measures antisocial tendencies, impulsiveness, authority conflicts, and shallow attachments; the F-scale, which has become pretty much a shorthand way of assessing psychopathology; Schizophrenia (Sc), which has been somewhat predictive of things like mass murder; and Hypomania (Ma), which has been used to track hyperkinetic children that become delinquent.  In addition, some versions of the MMPI contain an Over-Controlled Hostility (Oh) scale, which has been especially useful in predicting uncommonly violent acts.

    There are at least a dozen of other personality tests that regularly find their way into criminological research.  Some of the more popular ones include the CPI (California Personality Inventory) which fairly regularly predicts criminality with its Low Socialization, Low Responsibility, and Low Self-Control scales; the TJTA (Taylor-Johnson Temperament Analysis) which tends to do as good a job as authoritarianism tests in distinguishing dominance and submission; the MPQ (Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire), which measures control, aggression, alienation, and well-being; Eysenck's Extraversion Scale, which has been quite influential in linking "stimulation hunger" with criminality; and Zuckerman's Sensation Seeking Scale, which measures "stimulation seeking" as well as impulsivity.

    Impulsivity has, in fact, been the trait most consistently associated with the personalities of criminals.  This was true even back in 1950 when the Gluecks were listing the personality traits of criminals to more recent writers such as Wilson and Herrnstein.  Impulsivity is defined as the need for a high level of activity, a tendency to act without thinking, a tendency to be impatient, a tendency to become easily distracted, and a need to seek immediate gratification.  The factor of immediate gratification does seem to characterize crime.  The rewards from not committing crime are always in the future while the rewards from committing it are always in the present.


    It's not a well-organized theoretical area, but the work of Yochelson & Samenow (1979) and by Walters (1990) does build on the concept of impulsivity.  This particular approach, however, doesn't recognize childhood or socialization problems as other areas of psychology does.  Instead, it sees criminals as poor conditioners and people who just "think differently".  Poor conditioning means that delayed punishment amplifies criminality, and thinking differently means that criminals have learned to tell themselves various excuses and justifications that make it all right for them to commit crime.  These excuses and justifications are best seen as criminal beliefs or self-talk.

    Walters, for example, describes mollification (reminding oneself of the unfairness in life), cutoff (some verbal cue like "f___k it" which helps to terminate further thought), entitlement (a belief they deserve something), sentimentality (looking back at all the good things done), superoptimism (believing that nothing bad will happen), indolence (ignoring details), and discontinuity (ignoring commitments).


    This term is the subject of considerable debate.  Society has gone back and forth in preference for the term sociopath, also.  One of the things you'll see in the literature is the distinction between an antisocial and a psychopath.  Basically, the way it goes is that treatment programs for antisocials are less than promising while treatment programs for psychopaths are futile.  In other words, psychopaths are the "incurables" of psychological criminology.  Not all of them are criminals.  Criminals at least have a code of conduct.  True psychopaths are beholden to nobody and nothing.  They are rarely distinguishable from people in power, and they do a good job of "faking normality", in fact, some are quite charming and possess high intelligence.

    It's probably the case that they were undersocialized as children, but research into the origins of psychopaths is almost nonexistent.  Like antisocials, they don't have a superego, but they also can't express genuine desires, urges, or emotions that presumably come from the id.  Essentially, they are extremely ego- or reality oriented.  They live their lives looking out for number one, always careful to put on what Cleckley called a "mask of sanity".  Psychopathy involves:

Links to Psychological Disorder sites
Personality Disorder Test (online)
Psychology Resources

Psychopathic Personality website
Social Psychology Network

The Freud Page at

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Last updated: Aug. 27, 2009
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