• Question: Why do people commit crimes

    Asked by TariqM on 9 Nov 2023.
    • Photo: Malwina Niechcial-McKenna

      Malwina Niechcial-McKenna answered on 9 Nov 2023:


      Hello Tariq. Although this is not my area specifically, there will be lots of different reasons why people commit crimes. They will range from things like upbringing or being a risk-taker to, for example, having to steal food from a shop to make sure your kids get fed because you’ve lost your job and have no money. It’s not so straightforward and humans are extremely complex and so different from one another.

    • Photo: Ed Morrison

      Ed Morrison answered on 10 Nov 2023:


      At the level of motives there are generally four reasons:
      1) Personal gain.
      2) Protection of self or others.
      3) Revenge.
      4) Impulsive motives like crimes of passion.

      But we can also try to understand crimes in terms of genes, brain chemistry and so on.

    • Photo: Caroline Wesson

      Caroline Wesson answered on 10 Nov 2023:


      What a fantastic question! There are so many explanations for why people commit crimes and it would be impossible to cover them all. Different types of crime do have different explanations but we do have some ways of explaining crime more generally. From a psychology perspective we tend to focus on explanations at what we call the individual level and the social level.

      Individual level explanations are those such as genetics, hormones and brain injuries. For example a number of regions of the brain have been linked to criminal behaviour but (and this is where we can think about this critically/evaluate this explanation) is this the cause of the criminal behaviour or is it just associated with it? So studies have shown that damage to the orbitofrontal cortex (a part of the brain) appears to be associated with a number of problem behaviours such as alcoholism, drug abuse, and anti-social/criminal behaviours but we can ask, is the anti-social/criminal behaviour due to the alcohol/drug abuse resulting from brain injury rather than directly resulting from brain injury itself?

      Social level explanations are things such as social learning theory – do people learn criminal behaviour from observing others (e.g. friends or family)? There’s quite a lot of evidence to support the idea that criminal activity runs in families but again it’s not that simple. Just because you have a parent or sibling who commits a crime it doesn’t mean you will and there are many factors that can influence this – we tend to see these are risk factors and protective factors. So a risk factor may be having a criminal parent but a protective factor (something that protects you from the influence of the risk factor) may be having a grandparent who looks after you a lot who does not engage in any crime.

      We can also see some crime as being a way of gaining status or seemingly to improve self-esteem, which can sometimes explain some youth offending. For others crime is opportunist and not necessarily something they do frequently. Another interesting idea is the suggestion that crime may be an addiction and studies have shown how joyriding, and trying to stop joyriding, show a lot of similarities to behaviours we see in addiction.

      A bit of a long answer and nowhere near all of the explanations but a snapshot of some ways in which we can think about why people commit crimes.

    • Photo: Elizabeth Newton

      Elizabeth Newton answered on 10 Nov 2023:


      Hi, this is not my area but it will depend on the crime. What is a crime is decided upon by the society we live in. Some times people decide collectively that they don’t think something is a crime so laws get changed. For other crimes it can be for so many reasons. Some people will commit crime due to personal circumstances such as poverty, others it will be for more selfish reasons.

    • Photo: David McGonigle

      David McGonigle answered on 13 Nov 2023:


      Hi Tariq!

      Wow – as some other folks in the zone have said, great question! And as some other folks have said – this isn’t precisely my area of expertise. But, interestingly, the reasons can be considered in several ways; it can often depend on what kind of crime we are discussing.

      I find lots of people are fascinated by the psychology behind the ‘big’ crimes – why do people kill, where do serial killers come from, how can people be made to do terrible things…yet still go home at night and seem to be a perfectly respectable member of society.

      At the other end of the spectrum, there’s ‘petty’ thieving – taking a bar of chocolate, a magazine, or something of relatively low value. Yet most current social systems, across most countries and cultures, will view both as crimes. How do we try to study these different yet linked behaviours?

      Some experiments have tried to link criminal activity to how the brain and nervous system of petty criminals work; the idea of a ‘risk-taking’ personality, which often suggests that if you commit some petty crime, you are more likely to gamble more (and so risk more!) in experiments that use something called the Iowa Gambling Task (you guessed it, you have to bet!).

      With serial killers, the idea of ‘psychopaths’ comes in: Do these peoples’ brains work differently? An American scientist called Kent Kiehl managed to get funding to get a portable MRI scanner (portable in the sense of fitting in the back of an 18-wheeler truck!) and visited various American prisons to examine the brain response of killers who were using the defence that ‘my brain made me do it’.

      As you might have guessed, while Kent did find that their brains, on average, showed lower responses to faces with fear responses, the idea of a ‘psychopathic brain’ is controversial. However, it’s a fact that prisons in the US and the UK are filled with people with psychiatric disorders: perhaps we need to think about better mental health overall for all, and then your question will slowly, hopefully, no longer need to be asked.

      Thanks! Dave

    • Photo: Emma Sullivan

      Emma Sullivan answered on 11 Dec 2023:


      It might be due to a range of environmental and even genetic predisposition factors. Environmental factors might include being in the ‘wrong’ crowd, genetics may include being predisposed to being impulsive for example.

Comments