Personality And Crime Research Paper

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Psychology assumes that behavior arises from the interaction between the individual and the environment. Studies show that behavior is remarkably consistent over time; or, to be more precise, the relative ordering of individuals is remarkably consistent over time (Roberts and Del Vecchio 2000). It is assumed that behavioral consistency depends primarily on the persistence of underlying tendencies to behave in particular ways in particular situations. These tendencies are termed personality traits, such as impulsiveness, excitement seeking, assertiveness, modesty, and dutifulness. Larger personality dimensions such as extraversion refer to clusters of personality traits.



Many constructs assumed to underlie behavior are not included under the heading of personality. This is true, for example, of intelligence and moral reasoning abilities, and of cognitive processes (thinking, reasoning, and decision making). However, the boundaries between personality and all these constructs are not well defined. This review will focus on the topics conventionally included under the heading of personality, and there is not space here to discuss underlying biological processes in any detail.

The main types of offending studied are: burglary, theft, violence, vandalism, fraud, and drug abuse. Since crimes are a subset of antisocial acts, any potential to commit crimes is probably part of a broader potential to commit antisocial acts, but the focus here is on crimes. The focus is also on normal personality, and as far as possible, discussions of related psychiatric conditions such as antisocial personality disorder, psychopathy, and attention deficit–hyperactivity disorder will be avoided. However, the boundary between normal and pathological behavior is not always clear, depending on judgments about how far normal functioning is impaired.

In studying the relationship between personality and crime, it is important to avoid tautological statements and tautological results. Any construct that is presumed to cause crime must measure something different from crime. Thus, it is useful to investigate how far low empathy causes crime but less useful to investigate how far aggressiveness causes violent crime or how far an antisocial personality causes crime. Early research using the psychopathic deviate scale of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory and the socialization scale of the California Psychological Inventory was essentially tautological in showing that antisocial behavior was related to crime.

A bewildering number of personality traits and dimensions have been postulated, measured, and related to offending. In some cases, different terms are probably used to describe the same underlying construct. Only the most important topics can be reviewed here: temperament, impulsiveness, empathy, the Eysenck theory, and the ‘Big Five’ personality dimensions.

1. Temperament

Temperament is basically the childhood equivalent of personality, although there is more emphasis in the temperament literature on constitutional predisposition and genetic and biological factors. The modern study of child temperament began with the New York Longitudinal Study of Chess and Thomas (1984). Children in their first 5 years of life were rated on temperamental dimensions by their parents, and these dimensions were combined into three broad categories of easy, difficult and ‘slow to warm up’ temperament. Having a difficult temperament at age 3– 4 years (frequent irritability, low amenability and adaptability, irregular habits) predicted poor adult psychiatric adjustment at age 17–24.

Remarkably, Bates (1989) found that mothers’ ratings of difficult temperament as early as age 6 months (defined primarily as frequent, intense expressions of negative emotions), predicted mothers’ ratings of child conduct problems between the ages of 3 and 6 years. Similar results were obtained in the Australian Temperament Project, which found that children who were rated as irritable, not amenable, or showing behavior problems at age 4–8 months tended to be rated as aggressive at age 7—8 years (Sanson et al. 1993). However, when information at each age comes from the same source, it is possible that the continuity lies in the rater, rather than the child. Fortunately, other studies (e.g., Guerin et al. 1997) show that difficult temperament in infancy, rated by mothers, also predicts antisocial behavior in childhood rated by teachers.

Because it was not very clear exactly what a ‘difficult’ temperament meant in practice, other researchers have investigated more specific dimensions of temperament. For example, Kagan (1988) and his colleagues in Boston classified children as inhibited (shy or fearful) or uninhibited at age 21 months on the basis of their observed reactions to a strange situation, and found that they remained significantly stable on this classification up to age 7 years. Furthermore, the uninhibited children at age 21 months significantly tended to be identified as aggressive at age 13 years, according to self and parent reports (Schwartz et al. 1996).

The most important results on the link between childhood temperament and later offending have been obtained in the Dunedin longitudinal study in New Zealand, which has followed up over 1000 children from age 3 years and into their 20s (Caspi 2000). Temperament at age 3 years was rated by observing the child’s behavior during a testing session involving cognitive and motor tasks. The most important dimension of temperament was being undercontrolled (restless, impulsive, with poor attention), which predicted aggression, self-reported delinquency, and convictions at age 18–21 years.

2. Impulsiveness

The most important study of childhood temperament in relation to offending essentially identified impulsiveness as the key dimension, and it is generally true that impulsiveness is the most crucial personality dimension that predicts offending. Unfortunately, there are a bewildering number of constructs referring to a poor ability to control behavior. These include impulsiveness, hyperactivity, restlessness, clumsiness, not considering consequences before acting, a poor ability to plan ahead, short time horizons, low self-control, sensation-seeking, risk-taking, and a poor ability to delay gratification. Virtually all these constructs, measured in different ways, are consistently related to measures of offending (Blackburn 1993, pp. 191–196).

In a longitudinal study of over 400 London males from age 8 years to age 40 years, boys nominated by teachers as lacking in concentration or restless; those nominated by parents, peers, or teachers as the most daring or risk-taking; and those who were the most impulsive on psychomotor tests at age 8–10 years, all tended to become offenders later in life. Later self-report measures of impulsiveness were also related to offending. Daring, poor concentration, and restlessness all predicted both official convictions, and self-reported delinquency, and daring was consistently one of the best independent predictors (Farrington 1992).

The most extensive research on different measures of impulsiveness was carried out in another longitudinal study of males (the Pittsburgh Youth Study) by White et al. (1994). The measures that were most strongly related to self-reported delinquency at ages 10 and 13 were teacher-rated impulsiveness (e.g., ‘acts without thinking’); self-reported impulsivity; self-reported under-control (e.g., ‘unable to delay gratification’); motor restlessness (from videotaped observations), and psychomotor impulsivity. Generally, the verbal behavior rating tests produced stronger relationships with offending than the psychomotor performance tests, suggesting that cognitive impulsiveness (based on thinking processes) was more relevant than behavioral impulsiveness (based on test performance).

There have been many theories put forward to explain the link between impulsiveness and offending. One of the most popular suggests that impulsiveness reflects deficits in the executive functions of the brain, located in the frontal lobes (Moffitt 1990). Persons with these neuropsychological deficits will tend to commit offenses because they have poor control over their behavior, a poor ability to consider the possible consequences of their acts, and a tendency to focus on immediate gratification. There may also be an indirect link between neuropsychological deficits and offending, which is mediated by hyperactivity and inattention in school, and the resulting school failure. In discussing links between executive functions and offending, impulsiveness may be difficult to disentangle from intelligence, although Lynam and Moffitt (1995) argued that they were different constructs. Various biological theories of impulsiveness have also been proposed, focussing on either behavioral activation or behavioral inhibition (e.g., Newman and Wallace 1993).

3. Empathy

There is a widespread belief that low empathy is an important personality trait that is related to offending, on the assumption that people who can appreciate and/or experience a victim’s feelings are less likely to victimize someone. This belief also underlies cognitive– behavioral-skills training programs that aim to increase empathy. However, its empirical basis is not very impressive. There are inconsistent results in this field, and measures of empathy are not well validated or widely accepted. There appears to be no systematic comparison of different empathy measures analogous to the research of White et al. (1994) with impulsiveness, and no longitudinal study relating early measures of empathy to later offending.

A distinction has often been made between cognitive empathy (understanding or appreciating other people’s feelings) and emotional empathy (actually experiencing other people’s feelings). Eisenberg et al. (1998) further distinguished between sympathy (feeling concern for another) and experiencing personal distress. Empathy can be measured in many different ways, including self-completed questionnaires, peer ratings and systematic observation. Unfortunately, results vary according to the method used (Miller and Eisenberg 1988).

The best studies of the 1990s that have related empathy to offending in relatively large samples are by Mak (1991), Kaukiainen et al. (1999) and especially Luengo et al. (1994). In Australia, Mak (1991) found that delinquent females had lower emotional empathy than nondelinquent females, but that there were no significant differences for males. In Finland, Kaukiainen et al. (1999) reported that empathy (cognitive and emotional combined) was negatively correlated with aggression (both measured by peer ratings). In Spain, Luengo et al. (1994) carried out the first project that related cognitive and emotional empathy separately to (self-reported) offending, and found that both were negatively correlated.

Some results obtained in research on psychopathy are relevant. The Psychopathy Checklist includes two correlated factors, the first measuring personality and the second measuring an antisocial life-style (Harpur et al. 1988). The first factor measures a cold, callous personality, lacking empathy, affect, guilt and remorse, and engaging in habitual lying and manipulation. This constellation of personality traits is correlated with conduct problems and delinquency. Further research on it is warranted, especially in prospective longitudinal studies.

4. The Eysenck Theory

Before 1990, the best-known research on personality and crime was probably that inspired by Eysenck’s theory and personality questionnaires (Eysenck 1996). He viewed offending as natural and even rational, on the assumption that human beings were hedonistic, sought pleasure, and avoided pain. He assumed that delinquent acts, such as theft, violence, and vandalism were essentially pleasurable or beneficial to the offender. In order to explain why everyone was not a criminal, Eysenck suggested that the hedonistic tendency to commit crimes was opposed by the conscience, which was viewed as a fear response built up from childhood in a conditioning process.

On the Eysenck theory, the people who commit offenses are those who have not built up strong consciences, mainly because they have inherently poor conditionability. Poor conditionability is linked to Eysenck’s three dimensions of personality, Extraversion (E), Neuroticism (N), and Psychoticism (P). People who are high on E build up conditioned responses less well, because they have low levels of cortical arousal. People who are high on N also condition less well, because their high resting level of anxiety interferes with their conditioning. Also, since N acts as a drive, reinforcing existing behavioral tendencies, neurotic extraverts should be particularly criminal. Eysenck also predicted that people who are high on P would tend to be offenders, because the traits included in his definition of psychoticism (emotional coldness, low empathy, high hostility, and inhumanity) were typical of criminals. However, the meaning of the P scale is unclear, and it might perhaps be more accurately labeled as psychopathy. Zuckerman (1989) suggested that it should be termed ‘impulsive unsocialized sensation-seeking.’

A review of studies relating Eysenck’s personality dimensions to official and self-reported offending concluded that high N (but not E) was related to official offending, while high E (but not N) was related to self-reported offending (Farrington et al. 1982). High P was related to both, but this could have been a tautological result, since many of the items on the P scale are connected with antisocial behavior, or were selected in light of their ability to discriminate between prisoners and nonprisoners. In the prospective longitudinal study of London boys, those high on both E and N tended to be juvenile self-reported offenders, adult official offenders and adult self-reported offenders, but not juvenile official offenders. These relationships held independently of other criminogenic risk factors, such as low family income, low intelligence, and poor parental child-rearing behavior. However, when individual items of the personality questionnaire were studied, it was clear that the significant relationships were caused by the items measuring impulsiveness (e.g., doing things quickly without stopping to think). Hence, it seems likely that research inspired by the Eysenck theory essentially confirms the link between impulsiveness and offending.

5. The ‘Big Five’

Since 1990, the most widely accepted personality system has been the ‘Big Five’ or five-factor model (McCrae and Costa 1997). This suggests that there are five key dimensions of personality: Neuroticism (N), Extraversion (E), Openness (O), Agreeableness (A) and Conscientiousness (C). Openness means originality and openness to new ideas, Agreeableness includes nurturance and altruism, and Conscientiousness includes planning and the will to achieve. Openness and Conscientiousness seem related to intelligence, or at least to social or emotional intelligence. These dimensions are measured using a personality inventory called the NEO-PI. Controversially, McCrae et al. (2000) argued that these personality dimensions are biologically based tendencies that follow intrinsic developmental pathways independently of environmental influences.

Because of its newness, the ‘Big Five’ personality model has rarely been related to offending. In Canada, Hart and Hare (1994) found that psychopathy was most strongly (negatively) correlated with Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. Similarly, in an Australian study Heaven (1996) showed that Agreeableness and Conscientiousness were most strongly (negatively) correlated with self-reported delinquency. Much the same results were obtained in the Pittsburgh Youth Study when the five dimensions were measured using mothers’ ratings (John et al. 1994). It seems likely, therefore, that this pattern of results is replicable.

6. Future Directions

More research is needed on the theoretical linkages between personality constructs and offending and on their biological bases. Prospective longitudinal studies are especially needed in which personality traits are measured early in life and related to later offending, to investigate the relative importance of biological, individual, family, peer, and school influences on personality and crime. Different studies should be compared to investigate how far results are replicable across genders, races, and cultures (Caspi et al. 1994).

A key issue that has rarely been addressed is the relationship between personality dimensions and different types of offenders. It might be expected, for example, that violent offenders would be more impulsive than non-violent offenders. It would be useful to use personality traits to define types of people and hence move from a variable-based to a person-based approach (Krueger et al. 1994).

The main policy implication of research on personality and crime is the use of cognitive–behavioral skills training techniques to try to counteract high impulsivity and low empathy. Research on childhood temperament suggests that potential offenders can be identified early in life and that efforts should be made to change children with uninhibited and uncontrolled temperaments. Research on personality and crime should also be useful in matching types of people to types of interventions. It seems likely that different personality types would interact differently with different criminological risk factors, and hence that interventions should be tailored to personalities. This is the new frontier.


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