Criminology | Section 5.1


Fundamentals of Criminology

Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.

Scott D. Bransford, Ph.D.


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Psychoanalytic Theory

Like biological theory, psychoanalytic theories search for causes of crime within the makeup of the individual.  As you would expect, psychoanalytic theory, being a psychological theory, focuses on the mind.  Note that this part of psychology is often called psychodynamic theory.  The “father” of this area of psychology was the notorious Sigmund Freud.

Freudian psychoanalysts focus on emotional development problems originating in early childhood.  It is also important to note that Freud believed that the mind had a rational, thinking part that the person is aware of.  According to him, there was also a part of the mind that people are not aware of.  This “unconscious” part of the mind could cause all sorts of problems.

Freud believed that there were three basic parts of the mind:  The id was the unconscious seat of irrational, antisocial, and instinctual impulses which must be controlled and shaped for social adaptation to life in society.  The ego was the check on the Id, which is the conscious and rational part of the mind.  The superego was the conscious and moralizing part of the mind.

Freud had the notion that people went through stages of mental development known as “psychosexual stages of development.”  If these were messed up, the person might have a poor ability to function normally as an adult.  Normally, a child’s emotional maturation goes through developmental stages, each of which is rooted in sexuality:  an oral phase as an infant, an anal phase up to about age three, and a phallic phase up to about age five, a latency phase up to the time of puberty, then finally a mature genital phase of developmental as an adult.

Abnormal development in any of these stages, or any fixations at the infantile or childhood stage, leads to antisocial behavior by adolescence as the individual struggles with unconscious guilt and pathology of this arrested development.

The basic premise of the psychoanalytic approach to crime is that delinquent or criminal behavior is in itself unimportant.  It is only a symptom of the psychic conflict between the id, ego, and superego, arising from abnormal maturation or control of instincts, a poor early relationship with mother or father, and repressed sexuality.

Freud himself wrote very little about crime and delinquency.  Many of his followers, however, have applied his ideas to explaining crime.  Some Freudians explain crime by emphasizing the underdevelopment or disrupted development of the ego or superego, due to the absence of parents or the presence of cruel and unloving parents.  This results in a lack of both empathy (the ability to understand and share the feelings of other people) and self-control.  Whatever the specific mechanism, psychoanalytic explanations rely heavily on irrational and unconscious motivations as the basic forces behind crime.

Psychiatric studies rely heavily on clinical and case studies—the result has been widely varying estimates of the proportions of offenders who have some diagnosable mental disorder or psychiatric problem.

There may be no way to test it directly, because criminal motivations are hidden deep in the unconscious mind of the offender.  Many social scientists consider this inability to empirically falsify psychoanalytic theories as a fatal flaw of such theories.

Modification History

File Created:  08/04/2018

Last Modified:  08/13/2018

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