Criminal psychology is a broad label used to identify those perspectives that examine the individual’s psychological make-up and mental processes in an attempt to explain offending behaviour. Criminal psychology contains a wide range of competing and often
contradictory perspectives. Some psychologists trace criminal tendencies back to biological and neurological processes, locating the origins of criminality in physiology. Psychoanalytic theories, in contrast, hold that the human psyche is made up of competing elements, and criminal behaviour can be seen as the manifestation of a failure to balance these elements. Following Freud, psychoanalytic criminologists see individuals as compelled by powerful sexual and destructive drives that need to be repressed, controlled and channelled by the mind. Failure to secure such control will result in aggression and an inability to exercise appropriate restraints over behaviour. Personality theories, as the name suggests, claim that individuals can be classified into distinct ‘personality types’, and that each type can be associated with a range of likely behaviours. It is suggested that, for example, some people may be psychopaths or sociopaths, unable to form attachments with others and unconstrained by feelings of guilt, responsibility or remorse. Through administering personality tests, psychologists hope to be able to identify those individuals whose personalities dispose them towards criminal and violent behaviour. In extreme cases psychologists may identify offenders as mentally ill or insane, suggesting that such persons have lost the ability to reason effectively or to understand the nature and consequences of their actions. Psychological perspectives have been subject to numerous
criticisms, particularly from those criminologists who favour more socially oriented explanations of crime. They argue that criminal psychology tends to extract individuals from the social context they inhabit, thereby ignoring the role that social relations and cultural understandings play in shaping human conduct. Psychology thereby downplays the complexity of meanings and motivations that inform behaviour, instead reducing an individual’s actions to a simple array of inner determinants. More broadly, such theories tend to view criminality and deviance as objective and fixed categories, and in doing so ignore the ways in which our views of normal and abnormal behaviour are culturally dependent and variable. A frequently cited example is that of homosexuality, which was for many years deemed to be a mental illness or mental abnormality, thereby reflecting and
reinforcing wider social prejudices through the application of stigmatising labels.