Trait theory aims to discover what determines the biological reasoning process for human behavior. In particular, it seeks evidence as to why some individuals deviate from social norms or otherwise commit crimes. Because trait theory has its roots in pseudoscientific practices such as phrenology, there is a healthy amount of skepticism towards trait theory as a viable explanation for criminal behavior. However, as trait theory is articulated and grounded more in real science, psychology, and biology respectively, it is more practicable to see the effects that it may have in public policy and criminal justice. Trait theory asserts that individuals who take part in criminal behavior do so because they are physically or mentally defective in some way. Since trait theory is based on our individualism and how it defines and inspires our feelings, beliefs, actions, and perceptions or our personal physical existence, its effect on public policy can manifest in prevention programs and rehabilitation programs.
Reasons for criminal behavior are layered and immensely complicated. According to our module, the biological branch of trait theory aims to explain the neurological links to criminal behavior that may or may not exist through four areas of focus. Firstly, the biochemical approach suggests that crime is the outcome of an individual’s diet (Siegel, 2010, p.156). Secondly, the genetic approach assumes people inherit the urgency to commit criminal acts is from their parents (Siegel, 2010, p.156). Thirdly, the neurological approach states that there is some mental deficiency related to deviant behavior, and lastly, the evolutionary approach claims that undesirable traits that are prone to deviancy eventually become adopted into people’s behaviors (Siegel, 2010, p.156). Peters (2010) asserts by “focusing on early detection through biophysical probes and psychosocial evaluation, and prevention…we prevent crime rather than punish criminals” (p. 290). However, the biological branch looks at individuals without their mind or society as factors into their behavior, and instead, it seeks out explanations that occur within the individual, across life, with the admission that an individual’s environment has a factor in his or her growth. It looks at their psychological actions and how they affect society at large such as exposing a fetus to nicotine or smoking marijuana and behaving aggressively. Therefore, one would have to assume life experiences are preventable. While we have the means to control ourselves, it does not necessarily mean we will, especially if our peers encourage us.
On the other hand, there is no one specific human trait that can be deemed responsible for deviancy and this is the strength of the psychological branch of trait theory. Since this branch examines externalities of human behavior, such as an individual’s environment or certain mentalities, it focuses on the effects that individuals learn from their environment, society, and culture that they incorporate into their daily perceptions.
Since the psychological branch naturally considers mental illness as a source of deviant behavior, there are certainly rehabilitation programs available for those suffering from particular illnesses that facilitate deviant mannerisms. For example, there are a variety of psychotherapies that focus on the same primary areas of the psychological branch, such as psychodynamic, behavioral, and cognitive-behavioral or CBT, that encourages patients to communicate their difficulties that may manifest into criminal behavior with their practitioners. At the same time, it can also be used as a means of prevention because it examines the potential roots of deviancy before it can actualize into actions. Therapy as a means of rehabilitation and prevention is apparent in its approach towards particular issues that an individual may have. In particular, the cognitive focus of the psychological branch investigates how individuals solve problems that are presented by their perception of the world. Conversely, the behavioral focus approaches the development of actions through the individual’s experiences. Perhaps, combining these two focuses will allow public policies and the criminal justice system to realize preventative measures and rehabilitation will depend on the individual. Consequently, any programs used to prevent or rehabilitate criminals cannot be, so to speak, one size fits all.
Peters, D. C. (2010). Personality disorders and biosocial trait theories: The argument for radical legal reform. Behavioral Sciences & the Law. doi: 10.1002/bsl.932
Siegel, L. J. (2010). Trait theories. In Criminology: Theories, patterns, and typologies (pp. 128-163). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.