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Updated: Jun 7, 2022

Author: Anushree N. Murthy, IV year of B.B.A.,LL.B. from Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad

It is crucial to acknowledge that there are many distinct reasons for the mens rea of a crime. One of the main reasons contributing to this element of crime is based on psychological theories, focused on the link between intelligence, learning and experience, personality, and criminal conduct.[1]

One must be aware of the three main theories when analysing psychological nature of crime. In the first instance, the psychodynamic theory focuses on the assumption that the early childhood experience of an individual increases their chance of committing crimes in the future. The second is the behavioural theory, which states that a person’s learning and experiences shape their conduct, as a result of society’s reaction to the same. The third is cognitive theory, the main premise of which implies that the perception of an individual and its manifestation have an influence on their crime potential.[2]

Psychodynamic theory

Psychodynamic theory advocates argue that the personality of an individual is governed by unconscious early-childhood mental processes. The theory came from the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. The three aspects or structures making up the human personality are imperative for this theory: (1) the id, (2), the ego, and (3) the superego. The id can be though of as the basic element of a person's mind at birth. It is essentially the unconscious biological desire for food, sex and other basic requirements of a person.[3]

The second part is the ego, which can be explained as the need for wishes to be instantly gratified, and the reaction that is stimulated when that happens or does not happen. The ego depends on the principle of reality.The third aspect of personality, the superego, manifests itself as the moral norms and values of the community. Morality is the centre of the superego. The superego is used to judge the conduct and behaviours of persons. The ego mediates between the wish of the id and the rigorous moral of the superego.[4]

In short, psychodynamic theory suggests the frustration and aggravation of persons as the main reason for criminal conduct. The incidents that transpired in their early childhood always tend to affect them well into adulthood. A criminal offender could have a weak ego because of a careless, unpleasant, or unhappy childhood that is most typically characterised by a lack of love and/or nourishment by caregivers.

Behavioral theory

Behaviourism is the second main psychological theory. This notion maintains the development of human behaviour through learning and formative experiences, and that people adapt or change their conduct in accordance with the reactions it induces in others.[5]

Social theory is the most relevant for criminology and is a subset of behaviour theory. Albert Bandura is the most notable social theorist in this regard. He argues that people are not born with an underlying capacity to act aggressively, and that violence is a learned behaviour.[6]

Aggressive conduct is modelled upon three basic causes: (1) familial relationships, (2) the environment and (3) the media. Literature on family interaction shows that violent children are more likely to be brought up by aggressive caregivers.[7]

The second source of behavioural disorders and environmental experience shows that those living in crime-prone areas are more likely than people living in safer areas to be aggressive.[8]

In addition, social learning theorists argue, that an individual may be more criminally inclined when subjected to a violent attack, assault, immense humiliation, or the general inability to attain their objectives and desires.[9]

Mass media is the third source of behavior concerns. Researchers strongly believe that movies, video games depicting graphic violence are hazardous to youngsters. Moreover, constant violence in the media desensitises children and young people to the horrors of crime.[10]

Cognitive Theory

Cognitive theory is the third main psychological theory. Psychologists concentrate here on personal mental processes, and try to understand how the world around them is perceived and represented mentally.[11]

A cognitive theory pioneer is Lawrence Kohlberg, who has used the concept of moral development in crime theory. Kohlbergargued that people go through moral development phases during the course of their life. His theory is divided across 3 levels, i.e., pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional phases, consisting of 2 stages in each level.[12]

Obedience and punishment are the most important aspects involved in Stage 1. This level is usually found in the ages between childhood and pre-teens, where individuals are behaving in a way which complies with socially acceptable standards. This conformity is attributed to figures of power and authority, and is enforced by a threat of punishment. Stage 2 is marked by individuality and exchange. As part of this stage, it is suggested that people try to meet their own interests and understand that others ought to do the same.[13]

Persons with conventional thinking are said to be more likely to assess the morality of activities by comparing them to social points of view and expectations. This degree of development covers the third and fourth stages. The person acknowledges in stage 3 that they are nowa part of society, and the associated gender roles.[14]

In Stage 4, the premise is centred on law and order. Individuals here are aware that laws, regulations and conventions are important. In contrast, if someone who violates the law is punished, others will recognise it and show obedience. Kohlberg claimed that most people in our culture remain at this stage, when morality is influenced by external factors.[15]

The post-conventional phase consists of stages 5 and 6. Stage 5 is referred to as the “social contract stage.” Here individuals are involved in the moral value of social laws and ideals, but only inasmuch as the fundamental values of freedom and human welfare are consistent with them. Majority decision and compromise are fundamental phrases connected with this stage. Stage 6 is often referred to as “principled conscience.” The universal ideals of fairness and respect for individual autonomy characterise this phase.

Kohlberg therefore contended that the search for justice finally calls for unjust laws to be disobeyed. He believed that people could proceed chronologically through the six stages. Importantly, Kohlberg suggested that criminals were considerably reduced in the evolution of their moral judgement, and their progress through these 6 stages could be indicative of their actions.


The relationship between psychology and crime has existed since the beginning of time, but has only come to light in the last few decades. It is extremely important to understand and study this link, because crime does not exist in isolation; it is more often than not a cumulative act that either mirrors, or is enabled by society. Gendered crime is the biggest example of the same, perpetrated for centuries because of the overwhelming presence of the patriarchy, under the pretence of “what happens behind closed doors should stay behind closed doors.” This has resulted in women taking several decades to unlearn internalised patriarchy and to take a stand for themselves.

It would ultimately lead to the betterment of society if a criminal is understood to be more than just a person who has committed a crime, and to explore the deep-rooted reasons that lead them to do so. This is because research is evident on the fact that a negligible amount of crime happens without any motive or causation.

From the study of literature above, it is clear that there may be many contributing factors that induce a person to commit a crime: abusive/negligent behaviour from parents and caregivers in early childhood, the need for validation from peers and family members and the apparent lack thereof, or a massive blow to self-esteem due to immense humiliation or failure at a particular skill. As an extreme example, there are several pieces of literature by psychologists which suggest that Adolf Hitler’s consistent rejection from art schools is what could have perhaps triggered him over the edge.

Another important aspect is the portrayal of crime in mass media. It is no news that the media loves to sensationalize and fetishize crime, in extremely graphic tones. While this is a true representation of art, obsessive consumption of crime related media could easily desensitize one to the horrors of reality. It therefore becomes extremely important to monitor the content consumed by children and adolescents, as that is the most mentally impressionable age of a person, and is the age where most people tend to form long-lasting opinions about society.

Mental health and the impact it has on human actions can and should no longer be ignored. The very recent (and once again, over-sensationalised) case of the Burari Deaths, where a family of 11 members, including minor children, were believed to have died by suicide, is a great example of how untreated mental trauma can manifest itself in dangerous ways. While the conversation on mental health has been around for a few years, it is necessary that more action in terms of healthcare and legislative policies must be implemented, and a deeper attempt must be made at providing mental rehabilitation to at-risk persons as well as convicted criminals.

[1]John E Conklin, Criminology (2007). [2]Joseph E Jacoby, Classics of criminology (2004), (last visited Oct 16, 2021). [3]Sigmund Freud, The origins of psycho-analysis: Letters to Wilhelm Fliess, drafts and notes: 1887-1902 xi, 486 (1954). [4]Id. [5]Albert Bandura, Social Learning Theory of Aggression, 28 Journal of Communication 12–29 (1978). [6]Id. [7]Jacoby, supra note 2. [8]Robert M Bohm & Brenda L Vogel, A primer on crime and delinquency theory (2011). [9]Larry J Siegel, Criminology (2009). [10]Randall G. Shelden & Emily I. Troshynski, Delinquency and Juvenile Justice in American Society, Third Edition (3rd edition ed. 2019). [11]Clive R. Hollin, Cognitive Theories of Crime, inThe Cambridge Handbook of Forensic Psychology 19–34 (Jennifer M. Brown & Miranda A. H. Horvath eds., 2 ed. 2021), (last visited Mar 24, 2022). [12]Lawrence Kohlberg, Psychology of Moral Development: 2 (1984). [13]Id. [14]Jerome J. Platt & Maurice F. Prout, Cognitive-Behavioral Theory and Interventions for Crime and Delinquency, inBehavioral Approaches to Crime and Delinquency: A Handbook of Application, Research, and Concepts 477–497 (Edward K. Morris & Curtis J. Braukmann eds., 1987), (last visited Mar 24, 2022). [15]Kohlberg, supra note 12.


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