History of Criminal Psychology

History of Criminal PsychologyIn the early years of the 20th century, psychologists began to offer psychological perspectives on criminal behavior and to speculate about the causes of crime. Like the police psychology discussed earlier, criminal psychology typically is not considered in the narrow definitions of forensic psychology, primarily because it appears more theoretical than clinical in nature. However, in its youth, criminal psychology was essentially clinical in nature, as the theories often centered on the measurable mental capacities of offenders. Furthermore, forensic psychology devoid of a theoretical base—such as that provided by criminal psychology—is difficult to justify and support.

Psychologists like Goddard had repeatedly found that most juvenile and adult offenders were “mentally deficient,” which led to the conclusion that a primary “cause” of crime and delinquency was intellectual limitation. In large part, this belief reflected the pervasive influence of Darwinism, which contended that humans differ only in degree from their animal brethren (and that some humans are closer to their animal ancestry than others). The “mentally deficient” were considered both intellectually and morally less capable of adapting to modern society. They presumably resorted to more “primitive” ways of meeting their needs, such as crime. These unfortunate conclusions, which did not take into account social conditions, cultural differences, or socialization processes, lent support to unconscionable practices such as lengthy incarceration of the disadvantaged, confused, and powerless.

In the history of psychology, few scholars have ventured to offer comprehensive theories on crime or delinquent behavior. Those who have (e.g., Eysenck, 1964) have often been strongly influenced by Darwinian thinking. Therefore, theoretical orientations focusing on mental deficiency or biological and constitutional dispositions dominated early psychological criminology.

In the early 1960s, a psychological criminology distinct from psychiatric and more extensive than psychometrics began to show signs of life. Hans Toch (1961), who was also making significant contributions to correctional psychology, edited one of the first books on psychological criminology, Legal and Criminal Psychology. Some may argue that Hans Gross published the first criminal psychology book in 1897 (Kriminalpsychologie), the same year in which he was appointed professor in ordinary for criminal law and justice administration at the University of Czernowitz in Austria. One writer has asserted that Gross was the originator of the discipline of criminal psychology (Undeutsch, 1992). However, Gross was a lawyer by training, in practice, and in spirit and eventually became a successful judge. His book details his observations of offenders, witnesses, jurors, and judges but relies very little on psychological research. This is not surprising, of course, because psychology in 1897 was far from being an integrated discipline with a rich body of knowledge. Nevertheless, it is significant that Toch’s book, published more than 60 years later, represents the earliest attempt to integrate, in an interdisciplinary fashion, the empirical research of psychologists relevant to criminal behavior and legal issues.

British psychologist Hans J. Eysenck, in Crime and Personality (1964), formulated the first comprehensive theoretical statement on criminal behavior advanced by a psychologist. Eysenck’s theory focused on the personality characteristics of extraversion and introversion, which he believed could be attributed to both a biological predisposition to seek (extravert) or avoid (introvert) sensation and the learning experiences obtained in one’s social environment. Although Eysenck’s theory was circulated and tested extensively in the late 1960s and 1970s, it has been shifted aside today, replaced by popular developmental approaches. Shortly after Eysenck proposed his theory, Edwin Megargee (1966) put forth his own heuristic statements regarding undercontrolled and overcontrolled personalities and their relationships to violence, a theory that then served as a basis for his classification system referred to earlier. Toch (1969) followed with Violent Men. The relationship between aggression and violence was studied seriously under the leadership of Leonard Berkowitz (1962), Albert Bandura (1973; Bandura & Walters, 1959), and later Robert Baron (1977). Following psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley’s (1941/1964) groundbreaking work on psychopaths, they became subjects of vigorous theory building and research in the hands of Canadian psychologist Robert Hare (1970) and others (e.g., Quay, 1965). Psychopathy continues to be a rich research area on the etiology of criminal behavior to this day.

Return to overview of the History of Forensic Psychology.