Crime and Personality: Personality Theory and Criminality Examined

By Joan A. Reid
2011, Vol. 3 No. 01 | pg. 1/3 |

The search for the criminal personality or super trait has captured both the minds and imaginations of academics and the wider community (Caspi et al., 1994). Partly, this is due to a stubborn aversion to the notion that normal, regular people rape, murder, or molest children (Barlow, 1990). Secondly, there is a desire for simple, straightforward answers (Bartol, 1991).

In spite of this enduring popularity of personality theory, criminologists have hotly disputed the relevance of personality within the study of criminology for several decades (Andrews & Wormith, 1989; Brown, 2006; Caspi et al., 1994; Gibbons, 1989). This paper begins by presenting and describing the different modalities by which personality theory has been applied to criminality. Critical concerns that have been raised about personality theory by criminologists will be reviewed; first, concerns related to key propositions and policy implications will are considered and evaluated; secondly, criticism regarding methodological weaknesses in personality theory research will be reviewed. Recent advances in personality theory research will be detailed in response to those specific methodological concerns, including current research findings regarding the link between personality and antisocial behavior. Finally, personality theory’s future application to the pursuit of knowledge regarding criminals and crime will be explored and avenues for integrated theory and research suggested.

Generally, personality theorists endeavor to put together the puzzle of the human personality. Temperament is the term used for the childhood counterpart to personality (Farrington & Jolliffe, 2004). Facets of personality or temperament, traits, are combined together into super traits or broad dimension of personality. Personality traits are persisting underlying tendencies to act in certain ways in particular situations (Farrington & Jolliffe, 2004). Traits shape the emotional and experiential spheres of life, defining how people perceive their world and predict physical and psychological outcomes (Roberts, 2009). Various structured models of personality exist, each with a set of traits and super traits (Miller & Lynam, 2001).

Personality and crime have been linked in two general ways. First, in “personality-trait psychology” (Akers & Sellers, 2009, p. 74) certain traits or super traits within a structured model of personality may be linked to antisocial behavior (ASB).1 As reviewed by Miller and Lynam (2001), four structured models of personality theory were found to be widely used in criminological research and are considered reliable: the five-factor model (FFM; McCrae & Costa, 1990), the PEN model (Eysenck, 1977), Tellegen’s three-factor model (1985), and Cloninger’s temperament and character model (Cloninger, Dragan, Svraki, & Przybeck, 1993). In Table 1, the traits of these models are listed and defined. Eysenck hypothesized specific associations between the PEN model and ASB, proposing that the typical criminal would possess high levels of all three of his proposed personality dimensions. Cloninger hypothesized a link between ASB and personality dimensions from his model, stating that ASB would be linked to high novelty seeking, low harm avoidance, and low reward dependence (see Table 1).

The second way that personality theorists have linked personality to crime is through “personality-type psychology” (Akers & Sellers, 2009, p. 74) or by asserting that certain deviant, abnormal individuals possess a criminal personality, labeled psychopathic, sociopathic, or antisocial. The complex and twisting history of the term and concept of psychopathy can be traced back to the early 1800s (Feeney, 2003), contributing to its common misuse by both academics and nonacademics.2 Hare (1993, 1996) set forth a psychological schematic of persistent offenders who possess certain dysfunctional interpersonal, affective, and behavioral qualities and make up about one percentage of the population. The distinguishing interpersonal and affective characteristic of psychopaths is the dual possession of absolute self-centeredness, grandiosity, callousness, and lack of remorse or empathy for others coupled with a charismatic, charming, and manipulative superficiality (Hare, 1993). The defining behavioral characteristics of psychopaths are impulsivity, irresponsibility, risk taking, and antisocial behavior (Hare, 1993). Table 2 displays the emotional, interpersonal, and acts of social deviance hypothesized to indicate psychopathy. The term antisocial, not psychopath or sociopath, is now used by the American Psychological Association in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV-TR, 2000). This disorder manifests itself as a persistent disregard for and violation of the rights of others, beginning at an early age and persisting into adulthood. The DSM-IV-TR (2000) outlines the antisocial personality disorder as a broader clinical disorder than psychopathy, a diagnosis that could easily be applied to many who engage in criminal behavior (see Table 2).

Concerns Related to Theoretical Propositions and Policy Implications

Certain personality theorists such as Eysenck (1977) postulated that personality traits stem from biological causes. For example, Eysenck noted that arousal levels are directly associated with the personality trait of extraversion (Eysenck, 1977) and testosterone levels are linked to levels of psychotocism (Eysenck, 1997). The biologically deterministic premise postulated within segments of personality theory sparked an intense debate in criminology (Andrews & Wormith, 1989; Gibbons, 1989), which provides just a glimpse into a chasm in the field of criminology that has been rupturing for decades.

Criticisms against deterministic thought can best be understood within the historical context (Hirschi & Hindelang, 1977; Laub & Sampson, 1991; Rafter, 2006). Criminology is a field full of deep schisms and sharp debates, a sort of “hybrid” discipline (Gibbons, 1989), with even the historical accounts of criminology being disputed (Brown, 2006; Forsythe, 1995; Garland, 1997; Jones, 2008; Rafter, 2004). Yet, it is generally agreed that the foundations for understanding criminal behavior, even the justification for the existence of the discipline of criminology, is rooted in psychobiological perspectives (Brown, 2006; Garland, 1997; Glicksohn, 2002; Jones, 2008). Many of those considered to be the founders of criminology collaborated with psychiatrists focusing on the rehabilitation and medical or psychological treatment of criminal deviance, viewing such behavior as a disease of the mind or intellect rather than holding to the more primitive explanations that attributed crime to manifestations of evil spirits or sinfulness (Hervé, 2007; Jones, 2008; Rafter, 2004).

With the dawning of the ideals of the Enlightenment, interest grew in the notion that just as there are natural laws that act upon the physical world, there may be underlying forces that propel individuals or groups to react in certain ways (Jones, 2008). Two distinct schools of positivism arose during this period, those who assumed that these underlying forces were societal and those who assumed that the forces propelling criminal behavior were individualistic or psychological. One faction of nineteenth century positivists, with researchers such as Guerry and Quetelet, focused primarily on societal forces and emphasized geographical differences in crime rates, especially the effects of urbanization (Jones, 2008; Quetelet, 2003). At the core of this work was the idea that individuals do not have free will to act upon their societal environment, but rather are being acted upon by social forces; “Society prepares crime and the criminal is only the instrument that executes them” (Quetelet, Physique Sociale, quoted in Jones, 2008, p. 8).

However, the name most associated with nineteenth century positivism is Cesare Lombroso. Lombroso considered criminal behavior as indicative of degeneration to a lower level of functioning caused by brain damage or from certain genetic impacts (such as birth defects passed to children born of diseased or alcoholic parents), which impeded natural (Glicksohn, 2002; Jones, 2008). Jones (2008) notes that Lombroso’ antagonists recount his professed allegiance to the use of the scientific method, yet they also detail how he would elaborate wildly, speculating far beyond the bounds of his empirical observations. Occasionally, Lombroso’s work is completely omitted from texts advocating individualistic or psychological approaches to criminal behavior, as Lombroso’s work is seen as an embarrassment and deemed a precursor to the Nazi ideology of the Ayran race (Jones, 2008; Rafter, 2006). Against this blemished backdrop of Nazi ideologies of racial hygiene, labeled biological determinism, sociologically inclined theories flourished within criminology and individualistic explanations for criminality were deserted as taboo and unmentionable (Andrews & Wormith, 1989; Glicksohn, 2002; Hirschi & Hindelang, 1977; Laub & Sampson, 1991).

Concerns about Policy Implications

Within such a historical context, ethical and moral concerns were raised regarding personality theory leading to inequitable or brutish policies (Rafter, 2006). Fears of policy recommendations forcing medical procedures, drug treatment, or excessively restrictive practices were common concerns levied against highly deterministic psychological theories (Bartol & Bartol, 2004; Gibbons, 1986; Jones, 2008). Labeling or stigmatizing persons as psychopaths, sociopaths, or antisocial, raised concerns that such labels might lead to unmerited, harsh sentences, as such individuals would be deemed as incorrigible (Andrews & Wormith, 1989). Conversely, there were concerns that labeling offenders with personality disorders could result in doubts about their culpability for crimes, leading to undue leniency (Bartol & Bartol, 2004).

Personality theorists also were criticized for focusing solely on dysfunctional persons rather than the environments that are producing their dysfunction (Jones, 2008; Tannenbaum, 1938). The fear was that this one-dimensional focus on criminal behavior originating from within the person could lead to the policy recommendations that neglected and dismissed the environmental or social forces that foster crime (Bartol & Bartol, 2004).

Responses to the Criticisms Regarding Determinism and Policy Implications

Even within the initial research centered on personality and crime, such as research conducted by the Gluecks, personality theory was differentiated from biological determinism by concentrating on the interaction of personality with the environment (Andrews & Wormith, 1989; Laub & Sampson, 1991). Eysenck describes his theory as a diathesis-stress model, postulating that a predisposition may be inherited for certain types of mental illness but it is activated by certain environmental stress factors (Eysenck, 2003, p. 91). “There is no predestination about the fact that heredity, mediated through personality, plays some part in predisposing some people to act in an anti-social manner. Environment is equally important . . . . the interaction between the two is perhaps the most crucial factor” (Eysenck, 2003, p. 91). Moffitt (1993, 2006) also recognized continuity of criminal behavior of the persistent offenders3 as neither totally trait driven, nor entirely environmentally sustained. Rather, persistence in ASB is considered the result of a reciprocal process between individual traits and the environmental reactions to those personal traits (Moffitt, 2006).

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