Theories on how People become Criminals

Deviant behavior is of interest to social scientists because it represents a departure from the norm. Humans, as animals, behave with similarity; however, this is only true in generalities and there are many factors which direct the thoughts and behaviors of the individual. For the most part, there are normal patterns of behavior, shaped by socialization and culture. The average person follows these patterns and participates in society. If they deviate from the norm, they do so in small ways, with less important matters, or in a way that is indiscernible and with little social impact.  The more extreme cases of deviance often result in the person committing the act being labeled as a criminal.

Scientific research has yet to reveal a universal reason why people become criminals. It is likely that this will never happen. There are as many reasons why crime is committed as there are criminal actors. Every person has their own motivation and responsibility for their choices. While some choices and life experiences do limit future choices and opportunities, most people retain the ability to discern between right and wrong and make appropriate choices. In considering how people become criminals, there are several theories to consider which address factors such as nature, environment, and social influence.

Formerly, theorists believed there were biological differences in people who committed crime. Phrenology was the study of head shape and bumps in the skull, and some thought that differences in the brain caused these physical protrusions and were associated with criminal behavior. William Sheldon suggested that body types were indicative of propensity for criminal behavior. The theory was that some people were destined to a life of crime because of biological reasons. While biology absolutely plays a role in shaping a person’s personality and behavior, the theory that some people are biologically destined to criminal behavior is very shortsighted and ignores many other contributing factors. A biological cause of criminal behavior is not likely to be found.

Theories that focus on the socialization process, which is the communication of culture and norms from one person to another, typically parent to child, are more believable. Social learning theory was developed by Albert Bandura and addresses how people learn behavior by seeing it modeled by others. In this way, criminal behavior would be the result of a person witnessing criminal behavior and deciding to do the same thing. The strength of this theory is that much of human behavior is learned, which we see with school, sports, and religion. A weakness in this theory is that one would expect an individual who sees the negative consequences associated with crime would learn that the behavior is not beneficial in the long run and would avoid it.

Edwin Sutherland theorized that deviant behavior is the result of the people an individual associates with, known as differential association. Similar to the social learning theory, the theory that a person acts how their friends act is based on social influence. When with friends, people tend to behave how the group behaves, sometimes even when the activity is something they wouldn’t do on their own. Another way to look at this is to consider that a person whose friends spend their time at a bowling alley isn’t as likely to commit crime as a person whose friends are constantly burglarizing homes and mugging pedestrians.

These theories focus more on the individual, whether spurred by biology or social influence. An interesting theory which looks at society rather than the individual for how a person becomes a criminal is Howard Becker’s labeling theory. Becker suggests that it isn’t a deviant act that creates a criminal, but rather the label of criminal bestowed after a crime is committed. The difference between the man who burglarizes a house once, is never caught, and decides to never do the act again, and a man who commits the same act, is caught and labeled a criminal, and then repeats the behavior is the interference by society. The label of criminal is how a person becomes a criminal, not the act. Though this theory also has its weakness, and depends heavily on the definition of criminal, it is important to consider because it places responsibility on society as well as the person. If the individual doesn’t do the act which results in the label, they won’t receive the label. If society doesn’t stigmatize the individual with the label, the person won’t live up to the expectation. This follows the assumption that social influence leads a person to live up to the role they are given by society.  

Combining the various aspects of socialization as a contributor to deviance, Philip Zimbardo compares apples and barrels to people and society. There may be bad apples, but perhaps the quality of the barrel they are stored in makes them go rot. Is this the fault of the apple or the barrel? If it is the fault of the barrel, could the barrel maker have done anything differently to improve the barrel’s ability to keep the fruit fresh? The barrel makers of society are the parents, teachers, religious leaders, politicians, and anyone with influence in the public scope. In this approach, the responsibility for how a person becomes a criminal falls on the shoulders of all who shape society.

Research studies will likely never find a one size fits all answer to the question of how a person becomes a criminal. People differ in biology and personality drastically from one person to the next. Socialization process and culture may result in general similarities between people regarding social behavior and norms, but individuals remain individual. With all of the biological, environmental, and social influences notwithstanding, most people have the ability to discern between right and wrong and make choices, accepting responsibility for the consequences. There are enough examples of people given less opportunity and greater challenges in life than many others who are able to live in accordance with principles of peace and justice, while others who seemingly have better environments turn to abusive actions and criminal behavior. Essentially, people become criminals when they choose to behave in ways that deviate from the norm, no matter what their reasoning may be.