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Sample Paper: Law_Assignment_-_Criminal_Justice_-_Trait_Theories.doc


Crimes are acts against the law, which occurs by negligence or activity and constitutes of an offence punishable by law. According to Siegel (2012), criminologists have tried to understanding the causes of crime, or criminal characters, and resulted in development of different theories, which explain why certain individuals are prone to conducting criminal activities. Among the developed theories, explaining the causes of criminal behaviour is the trait theory. A trait is a characteristic pattern of an individual’s behaviour, observable by others or by self. Farrington & Jolliffe (2004) states that traits of a person are the underlying and persisting tendencies causing a person to demonstrate certain behaviours in particular situations.

The trait theory
The trait theory is essential in understanding the criminal mind, as every action is an initiation of the brain. An individual’s sphere of life and emotional experience are shaped by his or her traits and affects the perception of the world, and the psychological and physical outcome of their actions (Siegel, 2012). The trait theory is a composition of the psychological and biological aspects of a human being and asserts that the human mind is to blame for the criminal actions conducted by individuals. According Vito (2012), people with mental problems are more prone to conducting crime. In reference to children, the theory holds that their role models have a large role to play in determining their attitude towards criminal activities.

Foundations of trait theory
The trait theory started in the late 19th century, when scientists started using full observation to analyse natural phenomena other than relying on thought and reason (Vito, 2012). The use of the observation method was inspired by discoveries made by Charles Darwin between 1809 and 1882. The discoveries encouraged scholars that all human activities could be verified using scientific methods including the human behaviour. Auguste Comte applied trait theory to the study of society, and according to him, the society pass through two stages, based on how they understand the world (Pervin, 1994).

According to Auguste Comte, all knowledge is attainable through observation, and not through belief or other forms that are not by direct observation (Farrington, 2002). According to Auguste Comte, babies are born innocent and they obtain their behaviour through observation. According to him, all patterns of human behaviour are derived from the interaction between relationship and events. He summarises that people are neither born saints, nor sinners and are neither good nor bad; they are a product of their psychological and social traits, which are influenced by their environment and upbringing (Vito, 2012).

Auguste Comte positivist model was applied in criminology by J.K. Lavater, who studied the features of criminals faces were associated with their anti-social behaviour. Later phrenologists, such as Johann K. Spurzheim and Franz Joseph studied the bumps and the shape of the skull to determine whether the physical characteristics would relate to the criminal behaviours. According to Siegel (2012), Philippe Pinel’s psychopathic personality stated that the abnormal mind has a linking to criminal behaviours. Later, the work of Sigmund Freud’s on the unconscious gained recognition and psychological basis of human behaviour was established. In 1936, a psychologist named Gordon Allport used the scientific taxonomy principles in studying of character traits. His research is in contrast to the psychoanalytic approach by Sigmund Freud (Farrington, 2002). It builds upon the research conducted by Hans Eysenck and Raymond Cattell and is the foundation of trait theory.

Biosocial Theory
Bio-criminologists believe that human behaviour is not only a composition of the mind and the condition during birth, but the social condition and environment have a major role to play in producing human behaviour. Biochemical factors are the genetically predetermined conditions resulting from individual behaviour and others result from poor dieting (Vito, 2012). Biochemical factors contribute to poor infant development and are associated with criminality.

a. Smoking and drinking
This is associated with prenatal damage and antisocial behaviour of children during adolescence. Exposure to second hand smoke from the parent is a major cause of psychopathology among children, which translates to conduct disorder (Pervin, 1994). Early exposure to alcohol causes problem in the brain development process, and affect individual behaviour.

b. Exposure to chemicals and minerals
There are minerals and chemicals required for growth and development during the early years of life. These minerals include potassium, amino acids, calcium and monoamines among others (Vito, 2012). Research indicates that under supply or over exposure to certain chemicals can result in cognitive problems, memory loss, abnormal sexual activity and depression among other effects, which affect human behaviour.

c. Environmental contaminants
Chemicals used in the environment can have a lasting impact on the life and individual’s behaviour. Some chemicals contain hard copper, Mercury and poisonous gases, which can result to death or poor development in children.

Psychological trait theories
Psychological trait theories originated with Charles Goring, who studied English convicts and found a relationship between crime and physical characteristics. Goring called this relationship the defective intelligence and it included insanity, defective social instincts, feeblemindedness and epilepsy among other traits (Farrington, 2002). According to Charles Goring, criminal behaviour was inherited, and the regulation of reproduction in families with defective children could control the situation. However, Gabriel Tarde, who the modern-day learning theories forerunner believed that people only learn from each other through imitation.

Psychological trait theories and characteristics
Since the work of Gabriel Tarde and Goring, mental professionals like psychologists and psychiatrists have been highly involved in the formulating of the criminology theory. Their encounter with people associated with criminal behaviour has enabled them to develop different psychological theories (Bond, 1994).

Psychodynamic Theory
Sigmund Freud, a Viennese psychiatrist, developed the psychodynamic theory which is also known as psychoanalytic theory. He believed that human being’s interpersonal relationships and interactions are determined by the residues of childhood experiences carried from the past. This theory is mainly based on the existence of interactions between conscious and the unconscious experience and focuses on the impact of childhood experiences in individual development and interactions (Farrington, 2002). According to this theory, human being consists of three structures:

The id – this is the mind of an individual at birth, which is assumed to be primitive. This is a representation of the unconsciousness, which seeks instant gratification and has less concern for the needs, or the rights of others.
The ego – This develops in early age when children realise that their demands cannot be instantly fulfilled. It is a mechanism of compensation for id’s demands and helps the individual to act within the acceptable social conventions.
The superego – This is the normal individual personality aspect, which passes judgement on behaviour. It develops as incorporation of personality, community, parent and other significant factors.

Attachment theory
John Bowlby developed the attachment theory, which states that people form emotional attachments with others, and these attachments have lasting psychological implications. According to Siegel (2012), children develop attachment to their family during the process of growing up. According to Bowlby, failure to develop this kind of attachment can result in to development of psychological problems. People who do not develop attachments normally have a problem with trusting others and develop (ADHD) Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (Lovett & Sheffield, 2007).

Behavioural theory
This theory maintains that human beings develop from experiences as opposed to unconscious personality. According to Farrington (2002), this theory states that people’s behaviours change; based on the reaction they receive from the community. This theory views criminal activities as violence behaviour, which is a reaction to life situations and not a psychological or an abnormal response. Social learning theory is a branch of behavioural theory, which is most relevant to criminology. Social learning theorists argue that individuals are not born with the ability to be violent, but learn violence through their daily life encounters

Public policy implications of trait theory
For a long period, psychological view of criminality has been essential in prevention of criminal activities perpetration (Siegel, 2012). The implementation of the primary prevention programs has been of great benefit as it helps in managing psychological conditions before they mature to crimes. Secondary prevention programs have also been beneficial as they offer to counsel individuals that are at risk of committing a crime. In case the crime has already happened, the state policies provides for a chance to issue orders such as the restraining orders, or probation orders that aim at preventing further law violation.

The trait theory is composed of biological and psychological compositions of human being. The theory has offered a different approach on the reasons as to why individuals are involved in criminal activities. People with psychological problems are more prone to performing criminal activities, while the environment and life experiences can also influence others. Children involved in criminal acts learn them from their interaction with the society and their role models. According to the trait theory, children are born innocent; they learn their behaviour through interaction with the society and observation of others (Pervin, 1994). Trait theory has been of essential use in the department of criminology. The theory has proved importance in identifying the causes of criminal activities and helps determine how to rehabilitate the perpetrators.


Bond, M. (1994). Trait Theory and Cross-Cultural Studies of Person Perception. Psychological Inquiry, 5(2), 114.
Farrington D. P., & Jolliffe, D. (2004). Personality and crime. In N. J. Smelser, & P. B. Balters (Eds.), International encyclopedia of the social & behavioral sciences (pp. 11260-11264). Amsterdam: Elsvier Publications.
Farrington, D. P. (2002). Crime causation: Psychological theories. In J. Dessler (Ed.), Encyclopedia of crime and justice, vol. 1 (2nd ed., pp. 315-324). New York: Macmillan.
Lovett, B. J., & Sheffield, R. A. (2007). Affective empathy deficits in aggressive children and adolescents: A critical review. Clinical Psychology Review, 27, 1-13.
Pervin, L. A. (1994). Further Reflections on Current Trait Theory. Psychological Inquiry, 5(2), 169.
Siegel, L. (2012). Criminology : theories, patterns, and typologies. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
Vito, G. (2012). Criminology : theory, research, and policy. Sudbury, Mass: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
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