Why Do People Commit Crime?

Ever since Cain slew Abel, people have been asking why crime happens. What makes some people prone to criminal acts, while others remain within the bounds of acceptable behavior? Some crimes are so horrifying it’s hard to even imagine what sort of person could perpetrate them. Things like the Holocaust, genocides in Kosovo in the 1990s, Armenians 100 years ago, Cambodians in the 1970s, the Sudan, currently still an issue.

How do we explain these events? Are murderers and rapists simply different from the rest of us, or is each criminal the product of his or her own unique and unfortunate upbringing?

History is rife with examples of people murdering, stealing, raping and otherwise intentionally hurting other people. You don’t need a criminal justice degree to see that crime is ubiquitous in human history. War has persisted throughout history, and that doesn’t seem to be changing. Even on a smaller scale, crime persists on a daily basis, despite advances in society.

People still steal, even in the most highly developed of nations with the most liberal social support systems. People still steal iPads in Sweden, for example, or stab each other with knives or commit hate crimes.

Brief history of criminology

Several famous (and infamous) theories have developed to try and explain why people commit crimes. Each draws from the dominant theories of its era. As a result, most are now outdated by advances in psychology and sociology. Today, we even have formalized study of criminal behavior. The disciplines of psychology and sociology are essential components of a criminal justice degree.

Here are a few theories throughout history that have tried to explain criminal behavior:

  • Demonology.  People who committed crimes were possessed by an evil entity, which could be removed via tortuous methods.
  • Anthropological determinism.  Criminality was thought to be inherited, as were physical characteristics that identified a person as criminal. These traits included jug ears, protruding jaw, baldness and insensitivity to pain.
  • Freudian guilt.Sigmund Freud reasoned that people who felt extraordinary amounts of guilt committed crimes in order to be punished not for the crime, but to be relieved of the guilt they felt.
  • Learned behavior. Another theory is that criminal behavior is learned through rewards that reinforce the bad acts someone commits.
  • Free will. Others believe that people choose crime because they think differently from a very young age.  They are self-centered, angry and fearful.

Some of the earlier theories on crime sound ridiculous to us today, but several of the later theories spark debate and are supported by evidence. It is a fascinating area of study, and anyone who is drawn to it might choose to pursue an online criminal justice degree, where they can explore the matter in depth and put the knowledge to practical use within the criminal justice system.

Learn more about the LSUA BS in Criminal Justice online program.


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