Crime and Personality: Personality Theory and Criminality Examined

By Joan A. Reid
2011, Vol. 3 No. 01 | pg. 3/3 |

Future Directions for Personality Theory and Criminological Research

As mentioned, Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) self-control theory shares strong conceptual links to personality theory (Farrington, 2002; Miller & Lynam, 2001). However, other avenues of integration of personality with criminological theory could also be useful. For example, Agnew’s (1992) General Strain Theory (GST) focuses on personal pressures arising from the environment that align with individual conditioning factors to press a person toward . Life strains by causing, influencing, and interacting with negative emotions, aggressive personality traits, and criminogenic social learning are predicted to result in dysfunctional coping, such as delinquent behaviors (Agnew, 1992, 2001, 2002, 2006). Agnew (1992, 2001) predicted crime is more likely when goal blockage is perceived as unjust and when the gap between goals and achievements is high in magnitude and the resulting “anger and frustration energize the individual for action, lower inhibitions, and create a desire for revenge” (Agnew, Piquero & Cullen, 2009, p. 41). From this brief overview of GST, it is evident that there exists the potential for research regarding the interaction of certain strains with personality traits, such as agreeableness and conscientiousness (see Table 1). Agnew, Brezina, Wright, and Cullen (2002) explored this connection, finding that those high in negative emotionality and low in restraint were more likely to react to strain with delinquency, but not all research has found this moderating relationship (Wareham, 2005). A recent study found that situational emotionality affected the relationship between strain and delinquency rather than trait-based negative emotionality; so further research is warranted (Moon, Morash, McCluskey, & Hwang, 2009).

Routine activity theory (Cohen & Felson, 1979) is classified as a criminal opportunity theory with concepts that emphasize victim risk, specifically risk created by proximity to crime and target suitability. Related to target suitability, behavioral scientists have proposed that socially rejected youth are most likely to be the victims of teasing, bullying, and hazing by their peers (MacNeil, 2002; Vitaro, Boivin, & Tremblay, 2007), with victims of one of these forms of peer abuse often experiencing several (Thompson, Grace, & Cohen, 2001). Some researchers have recently asserted that, for some youth, victimization is a “condition” rather than an event (Finkelhor, Ormrod, Turner, & Hamby, 2005, p. 20; see also Perry, Hodges, & Egan, 2001, Solomon & Heide, 1999). These youth do not experience only one or several separate incidents of victimizations, but endure repeated and multiple victimizations, as if repeat victims comprise their own crime “hot spot” (Menard & Huizinga, 2001; Pease & Laycock, 1996). Commenting on their findings regarding family characteristics that affect vulnerability to violent juvenile victimization, Schreck and Fisher (2004) concluded that there is a possibility that vulnerability to crime is a “time-stable personal trait” predetermined by family socialization (p. 1035). Additionally, in a survey of serial rapists, 69 percent identified vulnerability as the strongest reason to attack a female; youth, helpfulness, easy compliance, those exhibiting “a learned helplessness” were characteristics of vulnerable targets (Stevens, 1998, p. 55). From such research findings, it is evident that there is potential for further investigation into the function of personality traits, even a positive trait such as agreeableness, and their possible interactions with target suitability and victim risk. 4

And lastly, focusing on the dysfunctional individual trait of psychopathy (Hare, 1993), research has yet to fully explore if particular types of crimes may be more conducive to psychopaths by interacting with their interpersonal and behavioral traits. In other words, do certain dysfunctional personality traits draw psychopathic criminals to certain types of offending and facilitate their success? For example, only one study has explored the trait of psychopathy in pimps or sex traffickers, although these offenders demonstrate the “unique set of interpersonal, affective, and lifestyle characteristics (e.g., superficial charm, shallow affect, lack of empathy, manipulativeness, parasitic) typical of psychopathic offenders” (Spidel et al., 2007, p. 163). Babiak and Hare (2007) hypothesized that qualities of psychopaths may facilitate their success in white-collar crime: possessing charm and social manipulation they succeed at job interviews, possessing attributes that are easily mistaken as leadership ability they are quickly promoted, and the changing business environment has led to a need for confident risk takers to implement ruthless personnel changes that fits with the psychopath’s insensitivity, callous disregard for others, and grandiosity. Exploring this interaction could provide beneficial information on likely crime targets or environments that best facilitate or attract psychopaths.

This review of the chronicles of personality theory in criminology, its current status, and future prospects, reveals that criminology has much to gain from personality theory. Past criticisms regarding debatable deterministic predispositions and weak research methodologies have been sufficiently overcome and cutting-edge technologies available to researchers offer new opportunities to investigate the role of individual traits in offending, recidivism, and even victimization toward the goal of reducing crime and its harmful effects. The study of traits may elucidate why certain individual react to life strain by offending, why particular individuals are targets of crime, and why psychopathic offenders choose particular avenues of crime.


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1 Often theorists chose to use the term antisocial behavior rather than criminality due to crime being a legal concept, which may change depending on the environment or historical period (Fishbein, 2001).

2 In the nineteenth century, several psychiatrists and physicians in Europe and in the United States began to independently describe a similar condition. Each one labeled the condition differently, naming it madness without delirium, moral derangement, moral insanity, or psychopathy (Hervé, 2007; Glicksohn, 2002; Rafter, 2004). These terms were used to depict a personality disorder or clinically observed syndrome describing emotionally disturbed but intellectually intact persons who engaged in antisocial or violent behaviors. An American psychologist, Partridge, was the first to narrowly define and describe psychopathy as a particular personality disorder rather than a typology of disorders with diverse subtypes (Hervé, 2007). Due to the former confusion surrounding the term psychopath, Partridge replaced the older term with a new term, sociopath, to be identified with his more specific concept (Hervé, 2007). The contemporary concept of psychopathy can be attributed to Hervey Cleckly (1976), a psychiatrist who treated criminal offenders (Hervé, 2007). Today, Robert Hare is leader of the study of psychopathy and he refined Cleckly’s list of traits and definitions and created a measure of psychopathy, the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL) (Hare, 1996). Unlike other instruments used to measure personality, the PCL cannot be self-administered but must be administered by a trained interviewer who asks a series of questions to determine whether a person exhibits the traits of psychopathy.

3 Moffitt (1993) asserts that there are two types of offenders: (1) a larger group of adolescence-limited offenders, with delinquent or antisocial behavior that begins and ends during adolescence and (2) a smaller group of offenders, with antisocial behavior that begins in childhood and continues into adulthood, labeled life-course-persistent offenders.

4 A reluctance to imply that victims may affect their own risk for victimization could obstruct research into understanding such a condition, yet, as Boney-McCoy and Finkelhor (1995) stated, “If research reveals that certain personal characteristics put children at increased risk for victimization, it would be irresponsible for researchers to demur from discussing these findings in the name of not ‘blaming the victim’” (p. 1416).

Table 1. Personality Models and Dimensions

Five-Factor Model


Emotional stability and adjustment versus instability and maladjustment


Sociability and agency

Openness to Experience

Interest and willingness to try or consider new activities, ideas, beliefs; intellectual curiosity


Interpersonal strategies: Agreeableness versus Antagonism


Ability to control impulses, carry out plans and tasks, organizational

skills, follow one’s internal moral code



Egocentricity, interpersonal coldness and disconnectedness, lack of empathy, and impulsiveness


Sociability and agency


Emotional stability and adjustment versus instability and maladjustment


Positive Emotionality

Sociability, tendency to experience positive emotions, assertiveness,

achievement orientation

Negative Emotionality

Tendency to experience negative emotions; one’s ability to

handle stress


Ability to control impulses, avoid potentially dangerous situations, and endorse traditional values and standards


Novelty Seeking

Tendency toward intense exhilaration or excitement in response to novel stimuli

Harm Avoidance

Tendency to respond intensely to aversive stimuli

Reward Dependence

Tendency to respond intensely to signals of reward


Perseverance despite frustration and fatigue


Self-determination and willpower


Tendency to be agreeable versus antagonistic and hostile


Involvement with spirituality

Source: Miller, J. D., & Lynam, D. (2001). Structural models of personality and their relation to antisocial behavior: A meta-analytic review. Criminology, 39, p. 769

Table 2: Psychopathy Verses Antisocial Personality Disorder

Hare Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R)

Emotional/Interpersonal Traits

Glibness/superficial charm

Grandiose sense of self-worth

Need for stimulation/prone to boredom


Lack of remorse of guilt

Shallow affect

Callous/lack of empathy

Lack of realistic, long-term goals

Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

Pathological lying

Social deviance

Many short-term marital relationships

Juvenile delinquency

Criminal versatility

Promiscuous sexual relations

Poor behavioral controls

Parasitic lifestyle

Early behavior problems



Revocation of conditional release

Note: Items scored on a scale of 0-2 by a trained interviewer

(0 = not applicable, 1 = uncertain, 2 = definitely present)

DSM-IV Diagnostic Criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder

A. There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:

  1. Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest
  2. Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure
  3. Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead
  4. Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults
  5. Reckless disregard for safety of self or others
  6. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations
  7. Lack of remorse as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another

B. The individual is at least age 18 years.

C. There is evidence of conduct disorder with onset before age 15 years.

Sources: Robert D. Hare (1993). Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths Among Us. American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed.).

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