Are criminals born or made?

An understanding of criminal behaviour has been attempted by psychologists through many different theories. The three theories I will discuss are: the biological theory, the psychological theory and the social theory of crime. Each theory provides a thorough explanation of why people carry out criminal behaviour, however, which theory offers the better explanation? Are criminals born or made?

The biological theory of crime suggests that it is very likely that biological factors play a significant role in criminality due to the fact that criminal behaviour tends to run in families. Adoption studies provide psychologists with the information required in order for them to discover whether criminal behaviour patterns are the result of the child’s genes or their surrounding environment. For example, if a child’s behaviour resembles that of their adoptive parents then this could suggest that criminality is a product of the environment. Mednick et al. (1987) studied the criminal convictions of over 14,000 people who had been adopted and found greater evidence to suggest that biology had more influence over their behaviour. To further support this theory, Bohman (1996) replicated Mednick at al’s study by comparing the percentages of sons with a biological parent with a criminal record to boys with an adoptive parent with a criminal record. Bohman also found that genetic factors were more significant compared to environmental influences.

The psychological theory of crime suggests that negative expectations cause certain individuals to behave towards others in a criminal way because their stereotypes alter their social interactions (self-fulfilling prophecy). This theory was supported by Jahoda’s (1954) study of names. Jahoda studied Ashanti people who give boys ‘soul names’ when they are born which supposedly alters their characters. For example, boys born on a Wednesday are called ‘Kwaku’ and are expected to behave in an aggressive, violent way. Jahoda discovered that 13.5% of boys referred to court had ‘Wednesday’ names, yet they were responsible for 22% of violent crime. This implies that expectations of the boy’s behaviours due to stereotypes caused differential treatment and therefore they fulfilled the expectations caused by their names.

The social theory of crime suggests that learning occurs when an individual (the learner) observes and copies another person (the model). Motivation to reproduce what the learner has observed from the model must be internal or external. Internal motivation may come from identification with the model, or external motivation can be obtained from direct or vicarious reinforcement. Children with criminal parents or who have other surrounding role models are very likely to be internally or externally motivated to copy behaviour, i.e. carry out criminal acts. Evidence to support this theory can be found using correlational data about exposure to media models and criminal acts. Eron et al. (1972) discovered a positive correlation between the violence level in television programmes watched by 7-8 years olds and their level of aggression. This violence was shown to progress (especially within males) as they became older.

In my opinion, all three theories provide a valid approach and each are supported through evidence. I do not believe that one theory provides a significantly better argument than others, therefore, a combination (if possible) of each of the three theories would perhaps provide a more thorough answer to why people participate in criminal behaviour.

Feel free to present your argument/opinion below!

Thank you for reading, Nathalie :] 



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About Nathalie Lauren Joyce

19. First year @ Bangor University. Psychology Blogger.

18 responses to “Are criminals born or made?

  1. Natasha

    Very interesteing in the upside vs the downside to all three components. Another great article if you wish is nature vs nurture. It recalls the storey of a family of two young male twins , one twins genitals become compromised and the parents must question whether to let the child leave as males with no male genitals or females with female genitals. It questions whether gender is born or made and is very argumental and interesting. Would recommend

    ~ Natasha

  2. Keir

    Interesting, well argued case, im using these study and statistics for my Sociology Crime & Deviane exam, thank you!

  3. elijah

    criminals at times not born reason behind this back theories say labelling parents or audience may be a key factor to fuel this…. by eitha giving names or also character unlike expected this may demoralize the character

  4. Mia

    This was very interesting to read. I’m 15 and currently studying my first year of psychology GCSE and it’s good to see other people’s opinions on it. Thanks ! :)

  5. Pingback: In the womb, or just in my room? | Relatively Criminal

  6. As the sister of a criminal brother (rest in peace, Frankie), it was interesting to read your article and the discussion of the different theories on “why”. In his case, I believe it may have been a case of both biology and environment – a combination of his inherent personality, and parenting (plus social network). He began stealing as a child, and went unpunished (we grew up in a dysfunctional home). I often wonder if he could have been led in another direction with proper parenting (or any parenting, he didn’t have much at all).

  7. gay

    fuck this bullshit asshole, bitch.

  8. gay


  9. This is an interesting topic that I never investigated on before. And I think your blog is a well-written one with enough evidence supporting. I appreciate that you have very deep explanation on the three theories that I gain much knowledge on this topic. I agree your point that all three theories are acting equally important in criminal behaviour and a combination of these theories would best perform in the experiments about criminology.

    Although there were research indicated that biological factors occupied a larger possibility of criminal behavior than environmental factors did, I think that environmental factors are more important. Let use myself as an example, I am a subjective and self-protective person who is a bit emotional that I cannot control myself whenever happy or angry. However, both of my parents don’t have the characters as I do and my characters are altered since my college time. It is because I was bullied and isoluted by my classmates, which makes me become so self-protective and emotional when I am grown-up now.

    Personally, I think that it depends on the case of the growth of the person to see whether the criminals are born or made.

  10. I agree with your view in that all three theories together give a better understanding of why a person commits a crime. Biology is a key factor due to the influence of genes, hormones, gender, serotonin, evolutionary explanations and brain dysfunctions. For example the study conducted by Raine (1997) found that differences of activity in the amygdala supports theories of violence that suggests aggression is due to unusual emotional responses, such as lack of fear, which may be caused by an abnormal functioning of this area – low levels of activity lead to low levels of remorse. I personally feel that upbringing is a major factor when looking at why people become criminals, but to be more specific disrupted families and learning from other I feel can have a profound effect upon a person and their choice of whether or not to commit crimes. Results from Johnsons (2004) study on New York mothers and ‘problematic’ parenting showed that variables such as education, income and age of the mother were strongly associated with anti-social behaviour of the child. Ultimately, all three factors play a vital role; it very much depends on the person and the situation they find themselves in as anyone can be driven to commit a crime, even if they are the least likely person to do so. Really good blog 

  11. litsasourla

    I think all of those aspects have flaws to them. For example the biological studies were based on adopted families. It could be argued that there are several reasons for the deviant behaviour in adopted children such as the frustration of not having real parents and the neglect they feel from their real parents which may contribute to anger and crime. Some foster experiences are not always pleasant. These experiences may make the children angry. It could also be argued that the stereotype towards foster and adopted children is negative i.e. do bad at school, are more troublesome, etc.The psychological theory is also slightly flawed because although the self-fulfilling prophecy may influence people to commit a crime, not everybody who had been viewed as bad has committed crime. It is possible that people rise above labels and prove people wrong. The General Aggression Model shows that people have a choice in the way they act. This could be influenced by many factors such as upbringing and morals implemented by parents and the community.The same will go for Banduras study in that not everybody mimics what they see. They have do have a choice and it would be deterministic and reductionist to say that only one aspect affects a humans behaviour.
    However Kalat (1998) reported that men with high levels of testosterone showed that highest levels of aggressive behaviour. So there is a chance that it is down to hormones in the body which influence people. But until more valid and reliable studies are done, i believe it is important to view them all as interconnecting approaches which work together to influence a person.

  12. I agree that it is a combination of the three theories stated here that contribute to someone acting in an anti-social manner; I do not think criminal behaviour can be fully explained from a solely biological point of view or solely looking at the environment a child is raised in. I think that the future behaviour of a child is largely dependent on the way they are raised and the actions of their role-models. On the other hand, some people are more likely to engage in anti-social behaviour due to biological factors, regardless of the environment they were brought up in, as shown in the Mednick study. I think this is a very interesting area and found your blog very informative.

    • Masasa j

      I’m satisfied by this well written article to say the least, it is very educative and it becomes illogical to alter or add something between the lines on a well written thing: in zimbabwe we say in shona ”chanaka- chakanaka mukaka haurungwi munyu”

  13. I agree with your point there. Violent or criminal behaviour cannot be down to one of those factors but a mixture of them all. Although, probably the most influencial factors would be the genetics they are born with but also the effect the child’s role models have as it is more common for them to immitate behaviour they observe(e.g Bandura’s study). As life is started with a blank slate (Tabula Rasa) they are likely to be more influenced by a primary care givers behaviour because they are around them the majority of the time. As they grow up they may then be more likely to choose a certain type of group of friends, which could therefore lead them into trouble, violence or criminal behaviour.Overall, I think it is difficult to conclude whether criminals are born or made. Initially, it would depend on the individual and their circumstances, like a predisposition to agressive behaviour in their genetics or the environment they live in and the way they are brought up, because it can vary between each person.

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