Causes of Violent Acts and Criminal Behavior

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Almost every human society has established laws as a way of encouraging the people to behave in accordance with the values of the society and as a way of punishing or deterring people from transgressing the standard codes of conduct.  However, almost every culture also experiences individuals who use their thinking skills for the destructive purpose of committing crimes and harming others just to achieve personal gain for themselves.  The scientific, psychological and criminological communities have developed a diverse range of theories that have been proposed to help explain the reasons or causes that impel people to commit crimes.  

The classical theory of crime causation was developed in the late 18th century by Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham.  This theory indicates that crime is caused by the ability of humans to exercise free-will regarding the decisions they make and the actions they exert (Schmalleger, 2012).  As a result, people often use reasoning skills to calculate and determine the costs and rewards of each particular action, which provides people with the choice to commit crimes and harm others if they believe that the pleasure or gain they will receive from the behavior significantly outweighs the punishment that will be inflicted because of the criminal behavior.  However, if an individual believes that his crime will be discovered and that he will incur a severe punishment that dramatically outweighs the benefit of the crime, he will most likely avoid the criminal behavior.  Thus, classical theorists contend that crime should be harshly punished, with the severity of the punishment depending on the egregiousness of the crime, for the fear of punishment can prevent people from committing crimes, and the harsh punishment should prevent people from ever repeating crimes.  The advantage of this theory is that it accounts for the fact that humans have free-will to choose their actions, rather than their actions being determined by divine or biological causes.  The free-will theory is empowering because it provides hope that all people can avoid criminal activities.  However, a flaw in the classical theory is that it fails to account for psychological and environmental factors, which inevitably have significant influences on the particular decisions that individuals make.  

The biological theory of crime causation was initially asserted by Gall, Dugdale, Lombroso, Sheldon and Goddard.  Supporters of the biological theory, and in-kind, the trait theory, propose that crime is caused by certain physical characteristics or biological genes that force particular people to behave aggressively and to commit crimes.  Factors that might cause a person to commit crime include genes inherited from ancestors, brain structures, imbalanced hormones, serotonin levels and evolutionary factors (Theories of the Causes of Crime, 2009).  This theory also has lead to the belief that families who participate in criminal activities possess harmful genetic problems and that these families will inevitably produce children who also have a genetic propensity to commit crimes.  A benefit of this theory is that it addresses the ability of genes we inherit from our ancestors to influence our behavior.  However, glaring problems with the theory include the fact that it does not adequately address the many environmental factors that influence our behavior or the ability of people to demonstrate free-will regarding their decisions.

The biopsychological theory has been supported by Jacobs, Mednick, Wilson and Hermstein.   This theory builds on the biological theory by adding that environmental and nutritional factors can influence and corrupt a persons’ biological chemistry in a way that makes them biologically more inclined to commit crimes (Schmalleger, 2012).   A problem with the biological and biopsychological theories of crime causation is that they suggest that certain people are either born predisposed to inevitably commit crimes or develop biological characteristics that force them to commit crimes, which is a pessimistic attitude that offers very little hope that these people can be prevented from engaging in criminal behavior through treatment, education or punishment.

The psychology theory has attained an abundance of support from the psychological community and especially from significant psychologists such as Pavlov, Freud and Cleckley.  The psychological theory suggests that criminal activity is caused by people who have mental or cognitive problems as a result of insufficient childhood conditioning or inadequate behavioral development (Theories of the Causes of Crime, 2009).  Thus, supporters of the theory contend that adults who engage in destructive or criminal activities are often caused to do so because of personality defects that developed because the parenting they received as children did not successfully condition them to suppress aggressive urges and to behave in accordance with the laws of society.  A benefit of the psychological approach to crime causation is that the theory acknowledges the importance of a person’s mental condition and childhood upbringing as factors that can influence and cause a person to commit crime.  However, the theory still does not emphasize that social and environmental factors can also cause a person to commit crimes.  

The sociological theory has been asserted by Berges, McKay, Cohen and Miller.  Supporters of the sociological theory argue that the structural organization of society provides a situation in which certain people are more likely to commit crimes than others.  Additionally, the theory indicates that being a member of certain subcultures can also impel a person to commit crimes (Theories of the Causes of Crime, 2009).  I believe that the sociological theory is the most credible, comprehensive and accurate explanation regarding the causes of criminal behavior,  for environmental and social realities are the most consistent factors that encourage people to engage in criminal activities.  Environment is a factor because people who are raised in an area that is conducive and supportive of violent crime are likely to adopt those values and also resort to violence and crime as an acceptable option to solve problems, whereas a person raised in an environment where crime and violence is rarely experienced and harshly shunned is more likely to refrain from resorting to such forms of criminal activity.   I also agree that the social structure of a society causes crime (Theories of the Causes of Crime, 2009).  The dramatic and glaring economic inequality and the ever-increasing financial disparity between the rich and the poor have provided many communities with a drastic lack of resources.  Without resources, educational opportunities or employment opportunities, people living in impoverished situations are often forced to resort to crime as a method of obtaining money, being successful and perhaps feeding their families.  Thus, environmental factors and social inequalities are the primary causes of criminal activity, and correcting these problems would significantly reduce crime rates.

The social process theory suggests that people commit crimes because of the peers with whom they associate.  Supported by Sutherland, Becker and Sampson, proponents of this theory maintain that when a person spends a significant amount of time with people who are violent or who otherwise engage in criminal activity, the peer pressure and the desire to satisfy the peers can cause that person to also engage in violent or destructive criminal activities (Theories of the Causes of Crime, 2009).  Similar to the sociological theory, a benefit of this theory is that it rightfully acknowledges that a person’s environment and surroundings influences his behavior, and that a violent environment increases the chances of that person becoming violent.  Additionally, the labeling aspect of the theory elaborates on how punishing criminals with prison actually increases the chances of them continuing their behavior, for after being released from prison the label of being a criminal makes it difficult for such people to obtain employment or contribute to society (Crime Causation: Sociological Theories - Labeling Theory, n.d.). 

Largely supported by Turk and Pepinsky, the conflict theory suggests that many sources cause conflict within a society and that these various conflicts are the causes of crime.  For instance, the competition and struggle between individuals in a society to obtain money, status, power and possessions leads people to harm each other for their own personal gain (Schmalleger, 2012).  Additionally, conflicts between different races, ethnicities and religions also stimulate violence and crime among the different groups.  Although societal and cultural conflicts do tend to result in crime, the theory fails to account for people who commit crime without being motivated by competitive ambition or ethnic differences.  

One of the emergent theories of crime causation is the newfound focus on feminist criminology.  This notion contends that the previous studies of crime causation are limited because such studies only focus on men.  As a result, such theorists assert that the scientific, psychological and criminological communities should dramatically shift their studies to include women when analyzing the causes of crime and the methods of preventing crime (Schmalleger, 2012).  This shift would enable us to have a more thorough and extensive understanding of the physical, psychological and environmental factors that cause criminal behavior.  

Although there are several theories and sub-theories that have been explored to examine the causes of crime, it can be very difficult to determine one exact answer, for there are many different types of crimes and many different motivations that can entice people to commit crimes.  However, I do believe that our environment is the most consistent indicator of crime.  As a result, I think that the sociological theory is the most accurate explanation regarding crime causation, for people who live in an environment where crime is taught, appreciated, or perceived as the only option are much more likely to acquire those values and to also commit crimes.  


Crime Causation: Sociological Theories - Labeling Theory - Individuals, Labeled, Conventional, and Official- JRank Articles.  (n.d.). Law Library - American Law and Legal Information. Retrieved from

Schmalleger, F. (2012). Criminal justice today: an introductory text for the 21st century (12th ed.). New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Theories of the Causes of Crime. (2009, March 1). Ministry of Justice Taha O Te Ture- Retrieved September 18, 2013, from