Comparing Biological and Psychological Theories of Crime

Comparing Biological and Psychological Theories of Crime

CRJ305 – Criminology

Colorado State University – Global

Theories allow us to explain aspects of the world that would otherwise seem unexplainable. They allow us to take known facts about certain aspects, in addition to notions we aren’t sure of, and help us create a possible answer. All parts of life have theories surrounding them, so, of course, the subject of crime is no different. Crime is not a simple thing, it is deeply complex and can have lasting impacts on society. Those impacts are what guide people in how they think about and deal with crime, and what the punishments should be. Of the four main theories, biological and psychological theory will be the focus. These theories are important in that they allow us to deal with crime in different ways.


The biological theories of crime postulate that crime is hard wired into our genetics. You are either “born bad” or you simply aren’t. The basic tenet of this theory as stated by Lanier, Henry & Anastasia (2019), is that some people have unique genetic or physical characteristics that, when under certain conditions, will lead them to act in a criminal manner. Simply put, the behavior of the individual can be strongly influenced because they have these genetic or physical defects, but this behavior will only appear in specific environments (Lanier, Henry & Anastasia, 2019). An example would be an individual who, while sober, is rather normal most of the time, but once under the influence of alcohol will become easily angered and reactive. Had the alcohol not been introduced, they would not behave in this manner.

Criminologist who side with biological theories focus more one the criminal than they do they crime (Hagan, 2017). In the mid 1800’s Cesare Lombroso studied corpses of criminals to identify the physiological traits that “born criminals” would present. Lombroso believed that criminals were not as evolved as normal people and that this lack of evolution is what caused the criminal behavior and that the criminality was inherited (Crossman, 2019).


Psychological theories of crime are actually quite similar to the biological theories. Psychological theories of crime focus more on the individual’s personality or behavior rather than the actual crime that was committed (Hagan, 2017). In the late 1800’s, Charles Goring determined that there are no physical differences between criminals and noncriminals but that there was a correlation between lower levels of intelligence and crime (Ilan & Walter, 2017). After studying 3,000 criminals he came to the conclusion that criminals are more likely to exhibit signs of insanity, unintelligence and poor social behavior.

When Freud came along in the early 1900’s, his take on the matter is that the mind is similar to an iceberg – you can see the top sticking out of the water, but the part that lies beneath the surface is representative of unconscious thoughts and ideas (Ilan & Walter, 2017). His theory of psychodynamics assumes that the major causes of behavior originate in the unconscious part of the mind. McLeod (2019) states that behavior and thoughts are based on childhood experiences and those experiences are in constant struggle with the different parts of the unconscious mind. Psychological theories would side more nurture rather than nature as the proponent to criminality.


There is no doubt that biological and psychological theories have been instrumental in assisting psychology, science and the study of crime, but they have always been subject to professional criticism. Some of these criticisms do hold some merit.

In the case of Cesare Lombroso, he interpreted that anyone convicted of a crime is a criminal, meaning that some of those individuals could have actually been innocent and this would cause errors in his reasoning. Additionally, by today’s standards, phrenology is considered a pseudoscience, not an actual science.

The major criticism about psychological theories is that they don’t take into consideration any inherited or cognitive factors of learning (McLeod, 2013). This makes the explanation of the learning process, the nurture side of the argument, incomplete. With consideration to Freud’s psychodynamic approach, many feel that it is unscientific as analyzing human behavior is impossible to investigate empirically (McLeod, 2013).


Crossman, A. (2019, July 14). Why Some Biological Explanations for Deviancy Have Been Discredited. Retrieved December 5, 2019, from

Hagan, F. E. (2017). Introduction to criminology: theories, methods, and criminal behavior. Los Angeles: SAGE.

Ilan, Jonathan & Walter, Dorine. (2017). Biological theories of crime versus psychological theories of crime — Comparison and evaluation of their contributions to our understanding of crime and/or criminal justice. 10.13140/RG.2.2.14740.14726.

Lanier, M., Henry, S., & Anastasia, D. M. (2019). Essential criminology (2nd ed.). London: Routledge. Retrieved from

Mcleod, S. (2013, January 1). Psychology Perspectives. Retrieved December 5, 2019, from