In this paper, I will review the biological and psychological theories of crime using the examples of crime provided in the documentary “When Kids Get Life” as an illustration.
Both biological and psychological theories of crime refer to the framework of positivism, which states that an individual’s criminal behavior is determined by the factors this individual mostly cannot control. In this regard, positivist theories are very different from classical theories, which emphasize the free will of an individual and his/her responsibility for the choices he/she makes.
Biological theories draw on the notion that biology has the determinative influence on one’s criminal behavior. The earliest biological theories tried to connect criminal behavior with one’s outward appearance (facial features, body type, or a form of skull). However, these concepts underwent much criticism in modern times, so their influence today is minimal. The biological theories that are the most widespread now are the ones related to genetics and to the characteristics of the brain. The interest towards genetics in biological theory supposes the hereditary principle of crime. So, children of criminals are thought to be predisposed to become criminals too because of the gens they share with their parents. In less extreme cases, parents’ tendency towards antisocial behavior can be inherited by children. The crimes of Nathan Ybanez, Jacob Ind, and Andy Medina discussed in “When Kids Get Life” can be viewed in this light. Nathan Ybanez was psychologically and sexually abused by his mother, who therefore showed clear signs of antisocial and criminal behavior. He serves life in prison for killing this woman. The case of Jacob Ind is very similar to Nathan Ybanez’. Ind killed his mother, who psychologically and physically abused him, and his stepfather, who physically and sexually abused him. Andy Medina, accused of killing the man whose car he tried to steal together with his two partners in crime, had a father suffering from alcoholism, which can also be considered an antisocial behavior.
The biological theories interested in brain abnormalities are mostly focused on researching frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. Interestingly, scientists found out that constant exposure to stress from the early age (such as abuse, violence, and neglect) can cause changes in these parts of the brain and lead to conduct disorder and other risk factors contributing to criminal behavior. The cases of Nathan Ybanez and Jacob Ind, who were abused by their parents and caregivers since their childhood, can be good illustrations of these concepts. Besides brain development, biological theories are also interested in the influence of various hormones on criminal behavior.
The main psychological theories relevant for criminology include psychodynamic theory, behavioral theory, and cognitive theory. Psychodynamic theory evolved from Sigmund Freud’s work based on the concepts of id (representing instincts), ego (standing for reality), and superego (responsible for morality). According to psychodynamic theory, childhood traumas could lead to problems in development of superego (morality) in a person or to the person’s fixation on id (instincts and instant gratification) increasing the likelihood of criminal behavior. The crimes of Nathan Ybanez and Jacob Ind can illustrate this theory. Behavioral theory states that an individual learns to behave a certain way by mimicking the behavior in his/her family or among his/her peers. In this regard, Nathan Ybanez’ and Jacob Ind’s violence can be considered to be learned from their families’ violent modes of behavior, while Andy Medina could be influenced by the behavior among his peers (his two partners in crime). Cognitive theory states that criminal behavior can be a result of flaws in one’s perception or thinking patterns. For example, prolonged exposure to violent behavior can lead to flawed reasoning. This can be the case with Nathan Ybanez and Jacob Ind.
Both biological and psychological theories provide valuable insights into criminal behavior and offer ways to prevent and diminish criminality. However, neither of the theories is extensive on its own. Although biological theory uses latest achievements of science and medicine, it is still not clear whether the changes in the brain and hormones of an individual lead him/her to criminal behavior or if criminal behavior causes these changes afterwards. Moreover, as a human is a social and psychologically complex being, social and psychological causes cannot be ignored when examining criminal behavior. For the same reason, the information obtained through psychological approach alone is also not enough to determine the causes of criminal behavior. Only together, biological, psychological, and social approaches can lead to well-rounded evaluation of criminal behavior.