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Crime, Psychological Theories of

J. C. Oleson

Subject Psychology
Sociology » Deviance and Social Control, Sociological and Social Theory

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405124331.2007.x


Psychological theories of crime suggest that some offenses may be caused by mental factors or conflicts. Like biological theories, psychological theories of crime deal with causes at the individual level, but instead of associating crime with observable phenomena like brain abnormalities, psychological theories associate crime with abstractions like mental illness, intelligence, or personality. For centuries, psychology has been essential to understanding criminal responsibility. Under criminal law, defendants who do not possess the requisite criminal intent ( mens rea ) are not guilty of a crime, even if they committed the criminal act ( actus reus ). This is why, for example, some offenders are found not guilty by reason of insanity. Mental states also regularly help distinguish varying levels of criminal responsibility, such as deciding between murder and manslaughter, or between first- and second-degree murder. Yet while legal evaluations of mental states extend back to ancient law, the search for the psychological origins of crime is only 150 or 200 years old. Nineteenth-century researchers, like Philippe Pinel and Benjamin Rush, claimed that criminal behavior was closely linked to forms of insanity. Henry Maudsley went even further, claiming that crime and madness were equivalents: criminals would go mad if they did not offend, and they do not go mad because they are criminals. ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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