Criminological psychology is the application of psychological principles to criminal activity, especially criminal behaviour and it’s effect on crime prevention, risk assessment and the criminal justice system.
Whilst outside the scope of this brief overview of the subject, the scope of criminal activity within this country (UK) itself is open for debate. The recorded crime figures collated by the various police authorities across the country remain consistency lower than those assembled by the British Crime Surveys that have been in recent years. The survey, carried out every two years, consists of interviews of victims of crime. For example, in 1996 the official crime figures indicated that there had been 5.1 million crimes whilst the BCS estimated that 19.1 million crimes had occurred in the same time period. (Home Office (1996) Criminal Statistics, London Home Office).
Criminal psychology has, in recent years, certainly been hyped as an all seeing discipline which can solve the vagaries of crime, especially those related to murder with special emphasis on the serial killer. With films such as Silence of the Lambs and the newly released Hannibal, based on books by Thomas Harris, show that perpetrator profiling can be used to indicate how the criminal thinks, their motivation and modus operandi. However, as with most things, it is not quite that simple. Profiling can indeed be a useful tool. But it must be considered in conjunction with the traditional investigative procedures and evidence gathered at the scenes of crimes by other forensic professionals. In the absence of hard physical evidence, profiling can open up new leads of investigation, but it is a tool that can be used in apprehending the offender.
How are criminals made? The investigations, dating back to the early part of the twentieth century with Dugdale (1910- The Jukes, New York. Putnam) through the examinations of the belief that criminals just were criminals because of their family traits, chromosomes and DNA, environmental factors, economics through to the current belief that criminals occur because of biochemical imbalance and neurological defects in the brain. It has been noted through the use of MRI, that serious criminals have different reactions to stimulus that non-criminals. (The Science of crime, ‘Psychopath’, John Purdie, Channel 4 Television Corporation). Whilst the causative factors that lead to criminality will possibly indicate that many, if not all these factors do indeed have a cumulative effect on a person’s vulnerability to become a criminal, it is a fact that criminals exist and that many continue to escape justice.
As indicated by Harrower ‘we all have a genetic inheritance or genetic potential, but in order for that potential to be released there have to be some environmental triggers. It also seems clear that the roots of antisocial behaviour lie in early childhood and that certain events in childhood can increase an individual’s psychological vulnerability. These would include: insecure attachment; a weak sense of self; a dysfunctional family; coercive or indifferent parenting; physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect; the death of a parent; low family income; an acrimonious separation or divorce and low academic achievement.’ (Applying Psychology to Crime, p37, Julie Harrower (1998) Hodder and Stoughton).
The area of criminal psychology that appears to capture the general public's imagination, is the studying of serial killers. It is important to separate the two main types large-number killers – serial and mass.
Mass murderers kill a large number of people in one incident. Examples would include Thomas Hamilton in Dunblane (1996, 18 dead including 16 children, a teacher and Hamilton) and Michael Ryan in Hungerford (1987, 16 dead, including Ryan). It is typical of this type of killer that they make no attempt to hide themselves and will often die by the end of the incident, either by their own hand or by the police.
Serial killers are of a different breed and have existed for hundreds of years. Gilles de Rais killed hundreds of children in the 1400’s and Jack the Ripper killed five prostitutes and was never caught. However, the incidence of such persons within the UK is tiny. Gresswell and Hollin (1994) estimate that there are probably up to four serial killers active at any one time and that between 1982 and 1991, 196 persons were killed by serial killers. (Gresswell, DM and Hollin, CR (1994) Multiple murder: a review, British Journal of Criminology, 34, 1-14).
The research into serial killers and their murders has been extensive and widespread. Holmes and DeBurger have identified four types of serial killer,
Visionary type - they believe that visions or voices guide their actions
Mission-orientated type - they believe that they have to remove a certain group from society
Hedonistic type - includes many types of killer who derive pleasure or gain from the killing
Power/ control-orientated type - enjoy controlling their victims with some sexual satisfaction
(Holmes R. and De Burger J. (1988), Serial Murder, Newbury Park, Sage)
In addition, research undertaken by the Federal Bureau of Investigation has identified two other types of serial killer – organised and disorganised killers.(Ressler, RK, Burgess AW and Douglas J, Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives, Lexington: Lexington Books). The organised killer is considered to be socially competent, intelligent , a planner, generally targets strangers, someone who uses restraints, has sex with their victims and uses a vehicle. Typical characteristics would include living with a partner, follows the crime in the media, plans the killing, the victim’s body is hidden, evidence is often absent, may return to the crime scene and anticipates police questioning.
The disorganised killer is often socially immature who may know his victims and kills spontaneously. The disorganised killer is often sexually inhibited, harsh childhood discipline, lives alone, knows victim, sloppy crime scene, evidence present but shows no interest in the media and does not change their lifestyle as a result of the killing.
As an additional categorisation of serial killers, mobility can be a significant factor as to the nature of their crimes. Travelling serial killers, who move around to find their victims; local killers, who kill in their region and the home killer may need to be considered.(Hickey, E (1991) 'Serial murders and their victims', Belmont: Wadsworth). Travelling serial killers are often difficult to track due to the separation of police jurisdictions and the lack of pattern recognition.
Most serial killers will fall into a pattern, either of modus operandi, location, victim type, motive, etc. it is often the patterns of their activities that allows the police to track and apprehend the killer.
Where do they come from and what outward signs are there? Serial killers come from everywhere and there are, very often, no signs of the activities that an individual undertakes. Killers are often described as ‘normal’, ‘very chatty’ and ‘a good neighbour’. Indeed, the serial killer Ted Bundy, said
" we are your sons, and we are your husbands, and we grew up in regular families”
Now using MRI and other brain scanning techniques, scientists now believe that treatment is now theoretically possible. The imaging by scientists (Prof. Robert Hare) indicates that psychopaths (including serial killers) have difficulty in processing emotional stimuli. Why this happens is not clear or confirmed. Prof. James Blair (UCL) believes that the amygdala in the brain is the root of the problem as this is where emotional processing and generation is located. Defects in functionality within this structure, i.e. pathology, could lead to psychopathy.
However, any treatments may be years in the future and in the meantime, serial killers will continue to be imprisoned for public safety. In cases in prison, counselling and therapy in Canada has in fact had an adverse effect and that re-offence rates increase.
As a final point, it is worth noting that serial killer are predominantly male, white, within their twenties or thirties, kill within their ethnic group and are middle class.
Rape is a very emotive topic and it is not possible within this discussion to go into detail about the causes, prevalence and consequences.
The variety of types of rape and becoming well known: stranger rape, so called date or associate rape and gang rape. An over-simplification of these types of rapes would be rape be a person unknown; rape by a friend, relative, colleague or husband; and rape by a number of men during one incident. Male rape does occur and can, obviously, be as traumatic as female rape.
The myths that continue to persist about can often screen the truth. Most rapists show no sign of psychopathology; most rapes occur indoor and most victims know their attackers; most rapes are planned and are about humiliation, domination and degradation; and violence is an effective tool against an individual. (Donnelly, L (1991) Ending the torment, Nursing Times, 87, 36-38).
In interviews with 41 convicted rapists with more than ten rapes apiece found that:
85% were white
54% had generally stable employment
71% had been married
78% lived with a partner at the time of the rapes
87% had average or above IQ scores
76% had been sexually abused as children
54% were socio-economically average or above
51% had served in the armed forces
(Hazelwood R, Dietz PE and Warren JL (1995) The criminal sexual sadist, in Hazelwood, R and Burgess, AW (eds) Practical Aspects of Rape Investigation. Boca Raton, CRC Press)
Theories of rape are roughly broken into four camps. The disease model (the rapist suffers from a mental illness and not responsible for their crimes); the biological model (a result of an over developed evolutionary drive to procreate); the psychological model (the suffering of abuse or trauma during childhood leads to differing values being learnt or learn the behaviour from society) and the feminist model (men are encouraged to assert their dominance over women and rape is one of these methods) (Taken from Applying Psychology to Crime, p78, Julie Harrower (1998) Hodder and Stoughton)
Criminal psychology can be applied to many other areas, including family violence, courtroom scenarios (for a wonderful introduction into jury interaction, watch Twelve Angry Men starring Henry Fonda), prison psychology and the treatment of crime.
Below are listed a small selection of texts, in addition to those used, that may be useful in further, detailed study.
Blackburn, R (1993), The psychology of Criminal Conduct: theory, research and practice. Chichester: John Wiley
Bull, R & Carson, D (1995) Handbook of Psychology in Legal Contexts. Chichester: John Wiley
Stevenson, G (1992) the psychology of Criminal Justice, Oxford: Blackwell.
British Journal of Criminology
British journal of Psychology
Journal of Medical Health
Current Psychological Reviews
Journal of Environmental Psychology
Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology
Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology
Written by David Armsworth-Maw, Health and Safety Consultant and freelance author. © 2001
"Crazy People make me feel crazy"in Sara Sidle