Major Psychological Theories

November 24, 2016


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The issue of human violence is also a major topic within the academic discipline of psychology. As biosocial theorists do, psychologists focus on how individual characteristics may interact with the social environment to produce a violent event. However, rather than focus on the biological basis of crime, psychologists focus on how mental processes impact individual propensities for violence. Psychologists are often interested in the association between learning, intelligence, and personality and aggressive behaviour. In this section of the report, we briefly review some of the major psychological perspectives that have attempted to explain violent behaviour. These perspectives include the psychodynamic perspective, behavioural theory, cognitive theory and personality theory. We will also explore the possible relationship between mental illness and violence.

The Psychodynamic Perspective

The psychodynamic perspective is largely based on the groundbreaking ideas of Sigmund Freud. A detailed discussion of Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis is beyond the scope of this report. It is sufficient to note that Freud thought that human behaviour, including violent behaviour, was the product of “unconscious” forces operating within a person’s mind. Freud also felt that early childhood experiences had a profound impact on adolescent and adult behaviour. Freud, for example, believed that conflicts that occur at various psychosexual stages of development might impact an individual’s ability to operate normally as an adult (Bartol, 2002). For Freud, aggression was thus a basic (idbased) human impulse that is repressed in well-adjusted people who have experienced a normal childhood. However, if the aggressive impulse is not controlled, or is repressed to an unusual degree, some aggression can “leak out” of the unconscious and a person can engage in random acts of violence. Freud referred to this as “displaced aggression” (see Englander, 2007; Bartol, 2002).

It is interesting to note that Freud himself did not theorize much about crime or violence. The psychoanalyst who is perhaps most closely associated with the study of criminality is August Aichorn. Unlike many of the sociologists of his day, Aichorn felt that exposure to stressful social environments did not automatically produce crime or violence. After all, most people are exposed to extreme stress and do not engage in serious forms of criminality. Aichorn felt that stress only produced crime in those who had a particular mental state known as latent delinquency. Latent delinquency, according to Aichorn, results from inadequate childhood socialization and manifests itself in the need for immediate gratification (impulsivity), a lack of empathy for others, and the inability to feel guilt (Aichorn, 1935).

Since Aichorn’s early work, psychoanalysts have come to view violent criminals as “iddominated” individuals who are unable to control their impulsive, pleasure-seeking drives (Toch, 1979). Often because of childhood neglect or abuse, violence-prone individuals suffer from weak or damaged “egos” that render them unable to deal with stressful circumstances within conventional society. It is also argued that youth with weak egos are immature and easily led into crime and violence by deviant peers (Andrews and Bonta, 1994). In their most extreme form, underdeveloped egos (or superegos) can lead to “psychosis” and the inability to feel sympathy for the victims of crime (see DiNapoli, 2002; Seigel and McCormick, 2006). In sum, psychodynamic theories depict the violent offender as an impulsive, easily frustrated person who is dominated by events or issues that occurred in early childhood.

The most significant criticism of the psychoanalytic perspective is that it is based on information derived from therapists’ subjective interpretations of interviews with a very small number of patients (see Englander, 2007). In other words, the theory has not yet been subject to rigorous scientific verification. Nonetheless, it is important to stress that basic psychodynamic principles have had a major impact on the subsequent development of criminological thought. For example, many other theories of violence have come to stress the importance of the family and early childhood experiences. Similarly, a number of sociological and criminological theories stress that violent criminals are impulsive and lack empathy for others (see the discussion of self-control theory below). Many of these theories are discussed in upcoming sections of this report.

Behavioural Theories

Behaviour theory maintains that all human behaviour – including violent behaviour – is learned through interaction with the social environment. Behaviourists argue that people are not born with a violent disposition. Rather, they learn to think and act violently as a result of their day-to-day experiences (Bandura, 1977). These experiences, proponents of the behaviourist tradition maintain, might include observing friends or family being rewarded for violent behaviour, or even observing the glorification of violence in the media. Studies of family life, for example, show that aggressive children often model the violent behaviours of their parents. Studies have also found that people who live in violent communities learn to model the aggressive behaviour of their neighbours (Bartol, 2002).


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Source: www.children.gov.on.ca

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