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The Causes of Crime: Techniques of Neutralization

Updated on March 14, 2015

Origins of Neutralization Theory

Today, there is a natural tendency to associate crime with mystery. Who, what, when, where, why, and how are all questions brought forth to a crime story no matter if it is real or fictional. All six of these fact-finding queries allow for the imagination to conjure various, obscure answers. However, the question of why has been pinned into the minds of criminologists for decades. It is the most laborious question to be answered because only the offender can truly understand why a crime was committed.

One of the earlier attempts to answer the question of why was produced by the criminologists Gresham Sykes and David Matza in 1957. It is an incarnation of the delinquency theories known as the techniques of neutralization (Sykes & Matza, 1957). In their original publication, Sykes and Matza condensed the basis of their theory into one argument:

"It is our argument that much delinquency is based on what is essentially an unrecgonized extension for defenses to crimes, in the form of justifications for deviance that are seen as valid by the delinquent but not by the legal system or society at large." (pg. 666)

Sykes and Matza are essentially stating that delinquents justify their criminal actions to themselves through a series of defense mechanisms. A defense mechanism is a process by which a person protects, or neutralizes, themselves from the threat of an event (Baumeister, 1998). In their original theory, Sykes and Matza separated these defenses into five major categories, or techniques. It was their argument that the majority of crime can be explained through one or more of these techniques (Sykes & Matza, 1957).


The Five Techniques of Neutralization

  • The Denial of Responsibility
  • The Denial of Injury
  • The Denial of the Victim
  • The Condemnation of the Condemners
  • The Appeal to Higher Loyalties

The Denial of Responsibility

In many cases offenders will argue that their actions are not their responsibility. This can be represented in one of two ways: The offender claims that the acts are unintentional or that their criminal acts are due to forces outside of their control such as unloving parents, peer pressure, or poverty (Sykes & Matza, 1957). When in denial of responsibility, it is likely that the offender and those who know him will often believe him to be a good person who was led onto a path of deviance (Vitos & Maahs, 2012). Typical expressions such as, "they made me do it" or "I did not have a choice," are frequently indicators of this form of denial (Siegel, 2013).

The Denial of Injury

The second technique of neutralization is focused on the resulting injury from a delinquent or criminal act (Sykes & Matza, 1957). Offenders may deny the wrongfulness of an act by insisting that no one was actually harmed by their actions. One example of this is the belief that gang fights are private quarrels between two willing parties and are of no concern to the community (Sykes & Matza, 1957). In some cases it may also be viewed that the victim can easily overcome any impacts of the crime. This is most commonly seen with vandalism and stolen property because the offender is under the belief that the victim can have the property fixed or replaced with ease (Vitos & Maahs, 2012).

The Denial of the Victim

For victim denial, the offender will often believe that while the act may be wrong in itself the circumstances of their crime is able to neutralize their wrong-doing (Siegel, 2013). In these cases a social distance between the victim and the offender, causes the victim to lose their humanity in the eyes of the offender (Vitos & Maahs, 2012). This is represented through many hate crimes as well as crimes against rival gang members. Victim denial may also take place in the absence of a store owner or employee during vandalism and other property crimes because they cannot sympathize or respect someone who is not present (Siegel, 2013).


The Condemnation of the Condemners

Going hand-in-hand with the topic of "who guards the guardians?," the condemnation of the condemners is when the offender views the world as corrupt and thus attempts to shift the responsibility of their wrong-doings onto others (Sykes & Matza, 1957). They believe that they live in a "dog-eat-dog" world where the police are dirty, teachers show favoritism, and parents take everything out on their children (Siegel, 2012). Another common representation of condemning the condemners is the belief that everyone steals so why am I getting in trouble for it (Siegel, 2013). It is through this idea that they neutralize their guilt by comparing it to their own perspective of society's guilt.

The Appeal to Higher Loyalties

Moral guilt may also be neutralized through the appeal to higher loyalties. This is when loyalty to a smaller social group, like family, friends, or gangs, places offenders above their loyalties to the larger social group, the community (Sykes & Matza, 1957). Through these higher loyalties to the smaller groups, the offenders are able to neutralize social controls and moral guilt by putting the needs of the group first (Siegel, 2013). This is most often seen in gang related crimes when a member commits an offense for the sake of the entire gang (Vito & Maahs, 2012). A common excuse given by offenders is that they were merely protecting their friends or family (Siegel, 2013).


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Observations of the Theoretical Model

Sykes and Matza based the techniques of neutralization off of four observations:

  1. Criminals sometimes voice a sense of guilt over their illegal acts
  2. Offenders frequently respect and admire honest, law-abiding people
  3. Criminals draw a line between those whom they can victimize and those whom they cannot
  4. Criminals are not immune to the demands of conformity

In a nutshell, these observations suggest that criminals are subject to similar social values as the law-abiding citizens and thus must use one or more of the techniques to counteract the moral dilemmas posed by criminal behavior (Siegel, 2013; Sykes & Matza, 1957).

The Five Techniques

Denial of Responsibility
Offenders believes the crime was caused by factors outside of their control
A good person who was led astray through poverty, peer pressure, etc.
Denial of Injury
Offenders argue that no one was actually hurt by their actions
They believe the victim can easily overcome the impact of the crime i.e. stolen property, fraud, etc.
Denial of the Victim
Offenders see no real victim because of social distance between them
This is when the victim's status makes them lose their humanity in the eyes of the offenders i.e. rival gang members
Condemnation of the Condemners
Offenders rationalize that everyone is crooked and shift responsibility for their own crimes to others
This is done through mindsets involving corruption among police and public officials
Appeal to Higher Loyalties
Offenders see loyalty as permission to commit crimes and to stand above the law
Usually seen when a gang member commits a crime on behalf of the entire gang
Sources: Siegel, 2014; Sykes & Matza, 1957

Gaps in the Theory

There is a large variety of empirical tests that have attempted to support or deny the techniques of neutralization, but the results are inconclusive (Siegel, 2013). Some studies have led to the addition of new techniques, some have shown that offenders approve of criminal behavior, and others have shown that while criminals may commit a crime, they publicly disapprove of the illegal behavior (Siegel, 2013). One study on murderers for hire added a technique coined as "reframing," which is when the offender redefines the victim as a target rather than a person (Pistone & Woodley, 1987).

One of the major criticisms of this technique is the claim that neutralization techniques are not the cause of crime, but are simply rationalizations after a crime has been committed (Pennsylvania Crime Commission, 1991). This train of thought suggests that criminals do not justify their wrong-doings before they act, but instead wait until their behavior is called into question. While this critique does not support the techniques of neutralization as the cause of crime, it does however suggest that they are used by criminals after a crime and therefore is likely to reinforce criminal behaviors and norms (Vito & Maahs, 2012).


  • Baumeister, R. (1998). Freudian Defense Mechanisms and Empirical Findings in Modern Social Psychology: Reaction Formation, Projection, Displacement, Undoing, Isolation, Sublimation, and Denial. Journal of Personality,66(6), 1081-1184.
  • Pennsylvania Crime Commission. (1991). Organized Crime in Pennsylvania: A decade of change- 1990 report. 103-104.
  • Pistone, J., & Woodley, R. (1987). My undercover life in the mafia: Donnie Brasco: A true story of an FBI agent. 202-225.
  • Siegel, L. (2013). Social Process Theories: Socialization and Society. In Criminology: Theories, patterns, and typologies (11th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
  • Sykes, G., & Matza, D. (1957). Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency. American Sociological Review,22(6), 664-670.
  • Vito, G., & Maahs, J. (2012). Social Process and Crime. In Criminology: Theory, Research, and Policy (3rd ed.). Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

© 2015 Nicholas James


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      3 years ago

      Great article and analysis of Sykes and Matza's neutralization theory. It is one of the few theories to my knowledge that does try to offer a comprehensive explanation of why people commit crime. The problem of course is while there are trends and behaviour patterns, every person is an individual and their behaviour can be influenced by a variety of factors and this will be different for everybody. Interesting read, thank you for sharing this information.


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