Criminology | Section 5.4


Fundamentals of Criminology

Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.

Scott D. Bransford, Ph.D.


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Psychopathology and Crime

Recall that the DSM defines the names of mental illnesses, and the DSM changes quite a lot from edition to edition.  The terms psychopathy, sociopathy, and anti-social personality disorder have been used at different times and in different contexts to describe a fundamental personality defect characterized by very low levels of empathy, and a near absence of empathy when others are harmed.  People suffering from this are often characterized as have been described as egocentric, manipulative, cold-hearted, and incapable of feeling anxiety or remorse over their violent actions.  There is convincing evidence that psychopaths can rationalize their behavior, minimizing their culpability in their own minds.  In other words, psychopaths will nearly always believe that their anti-social acts are both reasonable and justified.

Given this psychological profile, it is no wonder that psychopaths are more prone to violent behavior than others are.  Interestingly, researchers have found that the well-documented aging out effect does not apply to psychopaths.  They simply persist in their criminal activity.  There are estimates that suggest that the number of U.S. inmates that are psychopathic approaches 30%.  Other estimates place the number closer to 10%, suggesting that there is little agreement in the literature as to the actual number, and what the implications of those numbers are.  It also suggests that while psychopathy is related to criminality, it is not a “magic bullet” theory that can explain the majority of crime.  There seems to be a significant difference between incarcerated populations and populations characterized as “chronic offenders.”  Regardless, we know that not all criminals are psychopaths, and we know that not all psychopaths become violent.

Edens and his associates (2007) performed a meta-analysis of the research regarding psychopathy and recidivism in juvenile populations.  The findings were rather intuitive; juvenile offenders diagnosed with psychopathy or ant-social personality disorder were highly likely to continue their violent criminality into adulthood.  Interestingly, the association between psychopathy and recidivism was found to be strong generally and with violence, but the association between psychopathy and sexual recidivism.

There has been much consideration in the literature as to what causes the development of psychopathic personalities.  Many childhood factors have been suggested, including the presence of unstable parents, parental rejection, lack of nurturing during early childhood, and inconsistent discipline.  Some research suggests that there is a relationship between the very early traumatic loss of a person, such as a mother, that the child has bonded strongly with and the later onset of psychopathy.

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File Created:  08/04/2018

Last Modified:  08/13/2018

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