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The Criminology School of Thought : Why do People Commit Crime?

Updated on March 18, 2017

Most people in the world wonder why certain individuals choose to commit crime yet the consequences of doing so are very grave. This leads us to the fundamental question that is being asked by a lot of people : Why do people commit crime? Well, scientists and criminal experts have come up with various reasons as to why some individuals choose to engage in criminal behavior. These reasons can only be divided into two theories; Classical Criminology and Positivist Criminology.

Classical Criminology

This theory states that criminal behavior is freely chosen by an individual. Therefore, one chooses whether or not to commit crime. This choice is dependent on one's intelligence and rationality. Each person is a master of his own fate and destiny and he dictates what would happen to his life including whether he would engage in criminal behavior.

This classical theory has been adopted by almost all legal systems in the world. Medieval Europe adopted this theory and this was evidenced by the cruel and excessive punishment imposed upon criminals. Jeremy Bentham; a legal author; gave the view that punishment upon criminals should offer more pain than the transgression of the law is worth.

The legal doctrine of mens rea; conscious intent; further demonstrates the adoption of classical theories into our legal systems. In sentencing principles, there is the idea of culpability where you can only sentence one who was responsible for the commission of the offense. This theory has also been adapted in the punishment of criminal behavior; where there is the gradation of penalties according to the seriousness of the crime. In a crime such as murder; one may be given a death penalty or sentenced to life imprisonment while in minor crimes such as workplace theft; one is just jailed for a limited time or sentenced to pay a fine.

Criticism of Classical Criminology

The classical theory to the explanation of criminal behavior has been widely criticized by a number of crime experts.

While it argues that criminal behavior depends on the choice, rationality and intelligence of an individual; it does not provide insight as to how to deal with cases where the crimes resulted from an incapacity to reason. These are crimes committed by intoxicated persons, persons of unsound mind and minors where their intelligence and rationality do not match to that of a sane adult person.

Moreover, classical concepts of rationality and equality before the law do not take into account social inequalities and its contribution to rational choice. The problems of fairness in individual cases still remains where a system focuses on the offense and not on the offender. In most cases; social inequalities and individual differences contribute to criminal behavior. They also influence the choices one makes and this includes whether to commit or abstain from crime. Who is most likely to commit an offense of workplace theft? Is it a rich man or a poor man?

However, classical theories can be said to promote an open, systematic system of justice. It places limits on judicial discretion and this advocates for fairness within our judicial system. The courts can only sentence individuals who are guilty and punishment is always proportionate to the crime.

Positivist Criminology

This theory states that criminal behavior is caused by forces beyond the control of an individual. The behavior of a person is predetermined and intelligence and free will is not a controlling factor to the commission of crime. Positivists explain crime by references to forces and factors outside the decision-making ability of an individual. They examine individual differences and how these linked to certain biological and psychological factors predispose certain people towards criminal behavior. Therefore, positivists attempt to explain crime in the following ways;

  • Attribution of Crime to Supernatural Powers

Spiritualists such as St. Thomas Aquinas attribute crime to the devil. He argues that crime is not caused by the voluntary will of a person; rather by demonic influence. This belief has led to the demonization of crime in most of Medieval Europe and in African Countries where it is believed that crime is caused by witchcraft. Refer to the case of Joshua Matata vs Republic, a Kenyan case where a father killed his five children and his own mother. His wife, being one of the key witnesses of the prosecution, alluded that the cruel murders executed by him was due to witchcraft influence.

Also, most spiritual scholars agree that the fate and destiny of a person is predetermined by the gods. One can therefore be born a murderer, a rapist e.t.c. This can be evidenced in most of Greek Mythology where a prince was born and his fate; as predetermined by the gods; was to be a murderer and kill his own father. This spiritual explanation to the commission of crime is limited since it cannot be proved by physical and observable means.

  • Physical Appearance in Relation to Crime

Positivists argue that one's physical appearance may make one to be predisposed to criminal behavior. Franz Joseph(1758-1828) developed the doctrine of phrenology which links crime to the external shape of the skull. People who have larger skulls are more predisposed to criminal behavior. Those who have experienced head injuries during their lifetime and infants with pregnancy and birth complications have a higher tendency to commit crime. Moreover, brain imaging procedures reveal that those with structural and functional abnormalities are more likely to be repeat offenders.

  • Body Type in Relation to Crime

There is a high degree of correspondence between the body type of a person and his criminal behavior. William Sheldon studied the relationship between mesomorphy and crime. Mesomorphy is a term used to describe the body type of individuals with large muscles and heavy chests. According to Sheldon, these individuals are more aggressive with a high tendency to criminal behavior. They are most likely to engage in crimes involving violence and theft since they are associated with a great need for achievement and power.

  • Intelligence Quotient and its Attribution to Crime

It is a widely known fact that various individuals have higher IQs compared to others and this just occurs naturally. Unfortunately, there is an emerging theory that states that criminals have lower IQs compared to law-abiding citizens. People with low IQ are characterized by undesirable traits and this includes the tendency to commit crime. Most criminals are said to be feeble minded.

  • Biological Hormones in Relation to Criminal Behavior

Individuals who have higher neuro transmitter levels are more predisposed to crime. Men who produce higher levels of testosterone are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior than their counterparts. The hormone hypoglycemia is common in habitually violent criminals. Individuals who have gone through lead exposure have a higher tendency to crime. Hormonal changes in women,most of the time, account for their irritability and hostility. The automatic nervous system is always active in fight and flight situations and extreme extroverts may fail to develop adequate consciences because of the way their automatic nervous system functions hence exposing them to a greater risk of committing crime.

  • Genetics and Heredity in Relation to Crime

In most cases, children inherit appearance, mannerisms and dispositions from their parents. Goring Charles applied scientific techniques to establish how children inherit mannerisms and dispositions from their parents and he concluded that crime can be inherited. He established the connection between imprisonment of parents and that of their children and this was strongly supported by Ellis Lee(1982) who said that crime runs in the family. Moreover, Johannes Lange, 1929, found a relationship between imprisonment of one twin and the other. His studies showed greater similarity of criminal behaviour among identical twins than their fraternal counterparts.

  • Personality and its Attribution to Crime

The personality of an individual is uniquely different to that of the other and this occurs just naturally but yet, one's personality may predispose one to criminal behaviour. Personality is determined by post traumatic experiences of which an individual was not conscious of. It is in one's unconscious mind which is the superego. Criminal behaviour is attributed to disturbances and malfunctions in the superego. Scientists have found out that extroverts are more likely to engage in criminal behaviour than introverts since they tend to be more impulsive and rational.

Positivist criminology can be seen as an explanation for failure of classical theories. Not all criminals choose to commit crime; sometimes, it is not just within their realms of decision making ability but within forces beyond their control. New crime statistics have revealed failure of classical punishment policies. Positivists argue that crime is an inevitable feature of social organizations and some people are more likely to commit crime than others. Therefore, the only reasonable way to deter crime is to diagnise offenders on an individual basis and to do early intervention before an individual commits more serious offences.

This theory has been recently adapted in the rehabilitation of criminals where criminals are assessed on an individual basis. It is also used in criminal profiling where our judicial system studies criminal behaviour in certain individuals and makes approppriate recommendations.


Well, those are my thoughts based on research as to why people commit crime. Which theory do you think best explains as to why individuals engage in criminal behaviour? Is it the classical theory or the positivist theory? Be free to drop your comments here below.

© 2017 Mikal Christine


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