Chapter 7: Psychological/Trait Theories of Crime


James Q. Wilson and Richard J. Herrnstein—



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James Q. Wilson and Richard J. Herrnstein—Crime and Human Nature

  • Reviewed a considerable number of criminological studies that examined the influence of genetic and familial factors on criminal behavior.

  • Never explicitly “named” their theory, but Jack Gibbs has suggested that they used the label Operant-Utilitarian Theory of Criminality since they often use concepts associated with operant psychology.

  • They attempted to explain street crime by demonstrating how human nature develops and evolves from the interaction of three factors.

    • Social Environment

      • While broad societal values have often been neglected as explanations, they maintained that the shift in American culture from valuing restraint and discipline to the recent narcissistic “me first” orientation has a strong influence on the individual level and has contributed to the increasing crime rate during the previous two decades.

    • Family Relationships

      • Parents who are uncaring, inconsistent in the treatment of their children, or unskilled in dispensing rewards and punishments contribute to their children’s criminal behavior. Further, a child from a broken home, or a single parent household, is not necessarily an influential factor; rather, it is the parent’s failure to teach the child consequences of his or her actions.

    • Biological Makeup

  • They contended that at any time, a person can choose between committing a crime and not committing a crime.

    • The consequences of committing a crime consist of rewards and punishments.

    • Constitutional factors, such as intelligence and impulsivity, can influence an individual’s ability to judge future and immediate rewards and punishments.

    • Thus, “aggressive and impulsive males with low intelligence are at a greater risk for committing crimes than are young males who have developed ‘the bite of conscience,’ which reflects higher cognitive and intellectual development.”

  • In reference to intelligence, Wilson and Herrnstein argued that social scientists have maintained that individuals identified as offenders have an average IQ of 92 which is about 8 points below the population average.

    • Further, they contend that a law IQ may result in offenders’ inability to think past “short-term” situations or they have difficulty understanding society’s rules as well as the consequences of their actions.

  • Criticisms

    • They failed to empirically test their terms such as “ration of rewards.”

    • Another concern was the focus on street and predatory crimes such as murder, robbery, and burglary.

      • They did not include other offenses such as white-collar crimes.




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