What should we continue to appreciate about the work of Cesare Lombroso?

What should we continue to appreciate about the work of Cesare Lombroso?

What should we continue to appreciate about the work of Cesare Lombroso?
What should we continue to appreciate about the work of Cesare Lombroso?

Chapter 3 • The Positive School 33

The issue of a connection between the brain and violence appears to be on much firmer ground than the connection with delinquency in general. The most recent work on the brain and violence/psychopathology uses brain imaging (CAT and MRI scans) techniques to locate both differences in brain structure and electroneural activation among violent and nonviolent indi- viduals. A review of much of that research by Wahlund and Kristiansson (2009) shows that neurological researchers have produced fairly strong documentation of a link between dys- functional portions of the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes and past violence behavior.


Some recent psychological work argues that there may be a “criminal personality,” or a different thinking pattern among criminals. Samuel Yochelson, a psychiatrist, and Stanton Same- now, a clinical psychologist, in a widely publicized study (1976, 1977), reintroduced the case for a criminal personality. After thorough case studies of between 230 and 270 inmates at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the criminally insane in Washington, DC, Yochelson and Samenow pronounced that the causes of crime are not social, economic, or psychological inner con- flicts. Instead, they claimed that all criminals are born with abnormal thinking patterns that affect their ability to make decisions.1 This “criminal personality” seeks excitement, has an inordinately high opinion of self, is exploitative and selfish, manipulates others, is amoral, and so forth. An attack on the criminal’s self-image tends to produce a violent reaction. All in all, Yochelson and Samenow claimed to have found 52 different criminal thinking patterns. The theoretical position that all criminals have different thinking patterns was very popular in federal government circles for a while, and some of the crime policies of the 1980s were based on it.

cognitive theory

The best example of psychologically based cognitive theory is one proposed by Glenn Walters and Thomas White (1989; Wal- ters, 1990). In a 1989 critique, Walters said that criminology had not adequately recognized the role of cognition in the individual. His point is that social and environmental conditions serve to limit individual options rather than determine behavior. If social and environmental factors are a backdrop for choice, then behav- ior can be seen as patterned by these factors while individual rationality determines the form of patterned activity. In short, “life conditions place effected [sic] individuals at increased (or decreased) risk for later criminality” (Walters, 1989, p. v).

Walters and White jointly argue that criminal behavior is the product of faulty, irrational thinking and deny that environ- mental factors determine criminal behavior, except for limiting options. Focusing on career criminals, Walters and White point out that these individuals are characterized in most, if not all, of their interactions by irresponsibility, self-indulgence, interper-

sonal intrusiveness, and social rule breaking. Lifestyle crimi- nals appear to have similar thought patterns to those of early adolescents and, thus, have little conception of responsibility and self-discipline. The arrested development of the cognition process, regardless of whether the source is constitutional or environmental, tends to set these individuals up for failure. This failure applies not only to criminal situations but also to a wide range of common situations, such as school, work, and home.

Locating eight “primitive cognitive characteristics,” Wal- ters and White examined the thinking patterns of lifestyle crimi- nals and found that from an early age these individuals present chronic management problems. Because of their adolescent like motives, lifestyle criminals rationalize their behavior and are pre- occupied with short-term hedonism, which is destructive in the long run. Finally, Walters and White argue that lifestyle criminals direct their behavior toward “losing in dramatic and destructive ways” (1989, p. 8). In consistently choosing self-interested and hedonistic alternatives, criminals perpetuate their behavior.

Other than irrational thinking, psychological cognitive perspectives can also lend insight into rational approaches to criminal decision-making. For instance, Van Gelder (2013) has extended rational theories (see Chapter 13) by attempting to resolve the problem that many criminal behaviors (especially as documented above by Walters and White) have been observed to be lacking in fully-rational decisions. Van Gelder suggests that rationality is “cool cognition” and “hot affect” (i.e., feel- ings), serving in the heat of the moment to alter what may have been a “cool” behavioral choice. Thus, while rational theories seem to have research support when asking subjects what they might do under various circumstances, Van Gelder offers an understanding of how those “cool” decisions might differ from real-time decisions made by those committing criminal acts in an unstable environment.

PerSonality DiMenSionS

Another approach to the personality issue has been generated by Hans Eysenck (1977, 1989, 1996; Eysenck & Gudjonnson, 1990). His theory is that there are three major personality dimen- sions: psychoticism, extraversion, and neuroticism (now popu- larly known as the P-E-N system). Criminality in general is correlated with high degrees of all three, although certain types of crime may be correlated differently. Where age is concerned, the younger offender is more likely to have high levels of extro- version than neuroticism. Older offenders, on the other hand, exhibit higher levels of neuroticism. In all age groups, psychoti- cism is always important. Eysenck documents these relationships across various studies and countries and notes that “antisocial” traits (smoking, legal or illegal drug use) as well as criminality are correlated with these personalities. Finally, he connects these personality traits with the development of a conscience through a learning process called conditioning and a high need for external stimulation. Criminals’ condition poorly and as a result are slow

1 One of the major problems of this study is that Yochelson and Samenow overgeneralized the evidence. While there is little disagreement with the position that the criminally insane have different thinking patterns, Yochelson and Samenow did not perform similar studies on criminals who were not insane. Therefore, they can say nothing about “normal” criminals and certainly nothing about all criminals.

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to develop an effective conscience. The most recent research on his personality system (Bulten, Nijman, & van der Staak, 2009; Ireland & Ireland, 2011) continues to lend support.

learning theory

A final popular psychological approach to criminal behavior is through learning theory, particularly social learning theory. Developed by Albert Bandura (1973), the perspective adds to B. F. Skinner’s earlier version of operant learning theory by includ- ing imitation and modeling of behavior. That is, social learning asserts that we learn by watching others receive rewards and punishments for certain forms of behavior. We then imitate or model those behaviors that are rewarded. This theory has been heavily used in studies of aggression, family violence, and the effect of television in encouraging aggression. There is some evidence that such behavior is indeed learned from others. Criminology picked up social learning theory in the 1960s, and we examine that approach in Chapter 12.

Policy iMPlicationS

Positivist theories, old and new, are full of policy implications. Because of the theoretical emphases on treatment and pathol- ogy, they are often the backbone of social reform programs. They have even been used to argue that people are innately dif- ferent and uncorrectable, thus lending themselves to extreme strategies of social reform, such as Hitler’s genocide programs.

Because the biological versions have not been very popu- lar over much of the past half-century, until recently there have been few biologically-oriented crime policies. Perhaps the clos- est the United States has gotten to these policies in the past several decades is the war on drugs. Not only has drug use been viewed as a major cause of crime by at least two presidential administrations, but the implicit suggestion is that neurochemi- cal compounds (drugs) cause people to behave in ways that they would not normally behave. That is, crime is a product of the effect of drugs on human physiology and neurological sys- tems. Thus, in the fight against crime, there is no need to imple- ment expensive social reform policies; we merely need to eliminate drugs and crime rates will drastically decrease.

On the other hand, modern biosocial criminology has recently been applied to crime prevention policy with several suggestions by Michael Rocque, Brandon Welsh, and Adrian Raine (2012). Using what they refer to as “developmental crime prevention,” they argue that, by targeting risk factors dur- ing child and adolescent developmental periods, propensities toward delinquency might be overcome. Illustrative policies

compatible with this approach include identifying risk factors early and treating them in pre-school and school programs, school nutrition programs, health and nutrition care for preg- nant women, parenting classes, antismoking and antidrug (dur- ing pregnancy) programs, and cognitive therapy programs.

Psychological perspectives have found much more favor with policymakers as a standard approach to criminal behavior. Indeed, they have become a routine part of our criminal justice system. As a matter of course, sentenced individuals are required to attend treatment sessions of various sorts. Offenders on probation receive diagnostic tests to determine what forms of counseling and treatment they need. Such services are now being offered to victims of crimes as well. The newer forms of psychological theories, especially cognitive approaches, have been well received by policymakers. Cognitive theory dwells on the differences in thinking patterns between “normal” and criminal individuals, thus contributing to the assumption that criminal behavior is a result of some thinking failure of the individual. This has been translated into “bad people bring on their own bad behavior and deserve to be punished for their own decisions.” In short, policymakers see punishment as the way to impress on bad individuals that their thinking needs cor- recting; no treatment programs are needed. Psychologists, how- ever, have generally not subscribed to the no-treatment philosophy and have created techniques designed to teach offenders how to think rationally and realistically (see, for example, MacPhail, 1989). Interestingly, the DARE drug pre- vention program originally subscribed to the “just say no” per- spective and after finally admitting that it had no effect, subsequently took up a cognitive thinking skills approach.

Sociological versions of positivist theory have been the cornerstone of many of our crime policies for the past 30 years. We examine most of these under the various sociologically based theories in the coming chapters. An example or two, however, may assist in understanding their utility. Exemplified by the Great Society programs of the 1960s, reforms were insti- tuted to provide greater opportunities to those who were socially disadvantaged. The assumption was that increased opportunities would reduce social strains producing crime. These programs resulted in educational programs such as Proj- ect Head Start and in job training programs such as the Job Corps and Comprehensive Employee Training Act (CETA). More recently, social control theories have led to renewed emphasis on the importance of school and family (especially proper parenting skills) in the fight against crime. The “family values” issue of the 1992 presidential campaign can be seen, in part, as an extension of this perspective.

Questions and Weblinks

Critical Thinking Questions

1. How have the developments of science and the influence of scien- tific thinking changed the way we view crime and criminals?

2. Which disciplines or academic fields do you feel offer the stron- gest explanations of criminal behavior?

3. What should we continue to appreciate about the work of Cesare Lombroso?

4. The work of the early positivists has been criticized as racist, sex- ist, and elitist. Would you agree with that? Why or why not?

Chapter 3 • The Positive School 35

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