Explanatory theories of crime: Eysenck and Psychoanalysis

Explanatory theories of crime: Eysenck and Psychoanalysis

The explanatory theories of crime They try to explain why a person can become a criminal. What internal and external factors can lead her to act that way and what is the role of personality, conflicts and traumas in all of the above.

However, this work is difficult because it is not a simple problem, nor a simple explanation. In fact, the major agreements that exist within this field of study focus on these aspects:

  1. The complexity of the mechanisms and factors that are needed for proper understanding. Many studies point to the need to contemplate a greater number of variables that explain the results obtained more satisfactorily.
  2. The wide variety of its manifestation modes, which can lead to the need for raise different explanatory factors for their various forms of expression.
  3. The methodological difficulties which involves the design and application of the calculation of the effects of the interaction between variables and processes and not only between personal factors and situations that may trigger it, but also with socio-political and cultural ones.
  4. The multidisciplinarity that advises both its study and intervention. Attempts to explain the criminal phenomenon arise from different perspectives. It is often said that theories about crime are probably as old as the crime itself. Among the contributions to his study is the role of philosophy, medicine, biology, law, economics, sociology, anthropology and psychology.

Several explanatory theories of crime and crime have been distinguished. We are going to focus on two, from the perspective of psychology, which have been influential in the past.

Explanatory theories of crime: Psychoanalysis

Aichhorn (1925) was one of the first authors who approached the study of crime, proposing one of the first explanatory theories of crime:

  • He suggested that environmental factors by themselves they couldn't explain it properly
  • He defended the existence of an underlying predisposition, which he called latent crime. This prepared the child psychologically for a life of crime

Other relevant hypotheses derived from psychoanalysis were based on the reality principle

  • Therefore, it is maintained that the offender is unable to postpone immediate gratification (pleasure principle) to long-term gains (reality principle).
  • Concepts such as the sublimation, the inability to control impulsivity and mechanisms for pleasure seeking, unconscious parental permissiveness, etc.

Psychoanalytic theories are interested in highlighting the role of internal processes and conflicts as determinants of behavior.

According to Hollin (1989), it does not mean that such theories ignore or reject the importance of social and environmental factors. Rather, they favor dynamic processes in terms of their role in the development of criminal behavior.

Therefore, The psychoanalytic model incorporates internal unresolved conflicts, lack of emotional stability and childhood events in the search for the explanation of criminal behavior.

Psychoanalytic and psychodynamic theories have received many criticisms, for example:

  • The lack of a scientific method valid in the formulation of theories
  • Vague nature and unstable of many of the core concepts
  • Dependence on the analyst's interpretive skills for the understanding of a given behavior

Explanatory theories of crime: Eysenck

From Eysenck's work it is possible to recognize that personality is important in the genesis and maintenance of antisocial behavior. From a scientific point of view, the most fruitful contributions on the crime personality relationship have started from Eysenck's work.

Eysenck's antisocial behavior theory

Eysenck's antisocial behavior theory It is based on his own theory of Personality. Through psychometric techniques, factor studies and empirical studies initially isolated two personality dimensions: extroversion and neuroticism.

Subsequently and using the same methodology, he isolated a third dimension that he called Psychoticism.

What does each dimension mean?

  • Extroversion: sociability, love of risk, impulsivity, search for stimulation ...
  • Neuroticism: anxiety, emotional instability, worry ...
  • Psychoticism: hostile, asocial, carefree subject ...

Moral conscience

In his book Crime and Personality (1964) exposes his theory about antisocial behavior. In learning socialization behaviors, the child learns to inhibit antinormative responses by establishing moral conscience.

Moral conscience is nothing more than the establishment of a series of conditioned emotional responses to stimuli associated with antisocial behaviors.

It can be explained according to the model of passive avoidance. For example, the case of a child who misbehaves and this event is followed by a punishment that causes pain and fear.

After several repetitions of this sequence, the child learns the existence of a relationship in time between his antisocial behavior and the punishment.

  • Therefore, lantisocial acts will be associated with the aversive state of fear originally produced by punishment
  • In this way, alone produce fear and anxiety
  • The fact of not issuing such acts will be reinforced for the reduction of fear and anxiety.
  • Conditional fears constitute the brake of antisocial behavior.
  • According to Eysenck moral conscience is nothing more than a conditioned reflex that controls a wide range of maladaptive behaviors. In addition, conditioned fear can be learned by observing the administration of punishment to others for their maladaptive behaviors.

The importance of socialization

Eysenck proposes that lack of socialization occurs in individuals who lack the ability to acquire conditioned responses in general. This is due to the combination between a arousal Low cortical and elevated neuroticism.

This would mean that extroverted subjects would present a deficit in the acquisition of the so-called moral conscience. According to the passive avoidance model, extroverts tend to be insensitive to punishment or to establish weak fear conditioned responses.

Summary of Eysenck crime theory

  1. A low cortical activation (arousal) and a greater need for stimulation combined with high autonomous excitability would predispose to antisocial behavior. That is to say, a high extroversion with a high neuroticism, they would be partly responsible for secondary psychopathy or the neurotic offender. One characterized by antisocial behavior, but experiencing guilt.
  2. A high degree of psychoticism related to a genetic predisposition towards psychotic disorders It would be, in part, responsible for secondary psychopathy. They would be criminals characterized by low emotion and without any guilt.
  3. Having the variables extraversion, neuroticism and psychoticism a great genetic load, heredity would play an important role in criminal conduct.
  4. Given the above, the three variables are positively related to antisocial behavior.
  5. In interaction with the aforementioned genetic predispositions, the environment would be of great importance in the unleashing of crime. Therefore, it would have to be acted upon in order to prevent and treat crime.

What do extroversion (E) and psychoticism (P) have in common?

At first subjects with high score in AND Y P are described as impulsive, with attraction to risk and with a strong need for stimulation.

In fact they have subsequently raised that this last characteristic could be important in the relationship between personality and crime.

Zuckerman (1979) introduced the trait "Stimulation Search". Who defined asthe need for new, varied, complex sensations and experiences, as well as the tendency to take risks in order to get those experiences.

Antisocial behavior involves stimulation and risk. It cannot surprise us that in similar circumstances, people with a great need for stimulation have a higher probability of emitting anti-regulatory behaviors.

In fact there are several studies that have found relationship between antisocial behavior and need for stimulation.


  • Aichhorn, A. (2006). Helpless youth (Preface by Sigmund Freud). Barcelona: Gedisa (original 1925 edition).
  • Eysenck, H. J. (1964). Crime and personality Oxford, England: Houghton Mifflin Co.
  • Hollin, C.R. (1989). Psychology and Crime London: Routledge
  • Horvath, P., & Zuckerman, M. (1996). Search for sensations, assessment and risk behavior.Drug addiction magazine9, 26-38.