Psychology applied to criminal behavior


Criminal psychology is a branch of psychology that focuses on studying the criminal process, explaining it, understanding how and why it has happened, and thus trying to prevent it.

The history of this discipline is very long and the theories and fields of application of it are multiple and varied. Below we will discover more deeply what this complex social science is dedicated to.

What is criminal psychology?

Criminal psychology is a branch of psychology that is oriented to study, understand and explain what is the origin of crime and crime. It also studies the motivations and personality of the offender, in addition to taking advantage of what has been found to prevent and control crime and rehabilitate the offender. Based on all this, the figure of the criminal psychologist stands out in prisons, mental health centers and courts, conducting interviews with those involved in the crime and designing preventive crime programs.

Criminal psychology is an applied social discipline that, relatively recently, has managed to become independent from other nearby branches. Among these branches with which it is related we have legal psychology, forensic psychology, prison psychology and police psychology.

Historical origins

The historical origins of criminal psychology are various, related to other disciplines, especially criminology, sociology, and psychology. In fact, and in relation to the latter, criminal psychology could not have developed as it is today without psychology having developed as a science in general. One of the great milestones of psychology, the creation of tests, has been widely used in criminal psychology as an evaluation of the criminal characteristics of the suspect in a crime.

One of the most important events for criminal psychology is the studies on the memory of Hermann Ebbinghaus. These have been very important when evaluating eyewitnesses, how they remember the criminal event and how to verify its veracity. It is also related to psychology, specifically social, the study of group dynamics, increasing interest in the study of decision-making by individuals involved in a criminal act.

But in addition to the development of psychology itself, criminal psychology also owes its maturity to various historical and social events. Among them is the feminist wave of the sixties and seventies, in addition to a greater sensitivity towards child sexual abuse, a crime that was believed not to have had such a high occurrence.

It was in this context that criminal psychology tried to understand and confront crime, especially sexual and sexist crimes, with the intention of preventing it. With all this, it was intended to develop and implement treatments for abusers, and to study the ability of children to give evidence in court before the traumatic experience lived.

Nor can it be ignored that part of current criminal psychology has part of its roots in pseudoscience. Among them we have the physiognomy, a discipline that considered that the body and the soul are in intimate relationship, causing the deformities of the body to be due to spiritual defects. Along with it we have the phrenology of Franz Joseph Gall, who developed a theory in which each mental function corresponds to a cerebral part, and these can be observed in the skull, in the form of depressions and mounds along the head.

Another of the great contributions that criminal psychology has received has its origin in psychiatry. This discipline, at the time, distinguished between mentally ill individuals from those who were criminals. Although it was argued that criminality had a psychopathological origin, as is the case of the moral madness proposed by James Cowles Prichard, this concept was eventually replaced by that of criminal personality during the 19th century. Thus, it was recognized that criminal conduct occurred due to criminal traits present in the individual's personality.

Theories related to criminal behavior

As we have commented, criminal psychology is understood as the application of psychological knowledge in the understanding and explanation of criminal behavior. Although this definition is clear and unequivocal, there are not a few theories that try to explain the fact that someone commits a criminal act.

From evolutionary psychology, emphasis is placed on how developmental trajectories influence criminal behavior. The focus is on environmental influences, such as coming from a low socioeconomic background.

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