Crime and Personality: Personality Theory and Criminality Examined

By Joan A. Reid
2011, Vol. 3 No. 01 | pg. 3/4 |
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The personality trait of impulsivity or the FFM dimension of low conscientiousness (see Table 1) is the trait that has been the most consistently liked to ASB (Farrington & Jolliffe, 2004; Farrington, 1992, 2002; White et al., 1994). Advances in brain imaging have allowed researchers to investigate the connection between frontal lobe executive functioning and impulsivity (Moffitt, 1990; Eme, 2008), suggesting that hyperactivity and a poor ability to perceive potential consequences of actions may result in school failure (Farrington, 2002). Although Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) are sociologists by training, they also argued that people differ in an underlying criminal propensity, i.e., low self-control. According to self-control theory, the formation of the stable trait of self-control occurs via the parent-child socialization or the reciprocal bonding process from birth to age eight (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990; Gottfredson, 2007). From these early attachments or social bonds, an individual gains self-control or “the tendency to delay short-term gain for long-term personal and collective interests” (Gottfredson, 2007, p. 537). Gottfredson and Hirschi’s theory has been empirically supported through numerous studies across ages, groups, cultures, crimes, behaviors related to , and time periods (Gottfredson, 2006; Pratt, 2009). A meta-analysis of the theory found a combined effect size from 21 studies of .20, regarded as one of the strongest documented micro-level correlates of crime (Pratt & Cullen, 2000). An exception to the link between low self-control and crime has been noted in white-collar criminals, with findings suggesting that they are high in conscientiousness, but low in integrity (Blickle, Schlegel, Fassbender & Klein, 2006).

Low empathy also has been thoroughly investigated as a predictor of ASB, but empirical evidence relating measures of empathy to ASB is not conclusive or consistent (for reviews, see Jolliffe & Farrington, 2004; Lovett & Sheffield, 2007; Varker, Devilly, Ward, & Beech, 2008). In a review and meta-analysis of 35 studies, low empathy was found to be strongly related to violent offenses, but relatively weak to sex offenses. Yet, when controlling for intelligence and SES, the relationship between low empathy and offending disappeared (Jolliffe & Farrington, 2004). In a review of 17 studies by Lovett and Sheffield (2007), no relationship between low empathy and aggression was found in children, yet a relationship was found with adolescents.

Although the issue of tautology is still remains in the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) due to its behavioral component, psychopathy as measured on the PCL-R has been consistently linked to offending and recidivism (Hemphill, Hare, & Wong, 1998; Porter & Woodworth, 2006; Salekin, Rogers, & Sewell, 1995). Based on a review of psychopathy and crime, Hare (1993) estimated that psychopaths commit more than 50% of all crime, making up a high percentage of violent offenders, law enforcement killers, serial rapists, and wife batterers. This finding is congruent with studies suggesting that a relatively small proportion of offenders account for a large proportion of crimes (Farrington, Ohlin, & Wilson, 1986).

Also supporting Hare’s proposition of the complex clinical condition of psychopathy, numerous studies using data from magnetic resonance imaging of the brains of those classified as psychopaths have revealed significant abnormalities in brain structure (Herba et al., 2007). For example, studies based on both community and offender samples have found reduced connectivity and abnormalities in the amygdala-orbitofrontal cortex network (Yang, Raine, Colletti, Toga, & Narr, 2009) and damage to the prefrontal cortices (Craig et al., 2009). Such defects in brain structure have been shown to result in aggressive behaviors, loss of normal anger and fear responses, decreased inhibition, disruption in decision making, and impairment in processing the emotional and social contexts (Craig et al., 2009; Yang et al., 2009).

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 crime. 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).

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