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Theories of Crime Causation


Trait Theory

Trait Theory is a “view that criminality is a product of abnormal biological or psychological traits” (Siegel. Pg. 127). Every individual has their own biological makeup and unique psychology. This theory states that people commit crimes because of certain personality traits, or a person’s character. Sociobiology supports this theory because it explains that behavioral traits are shaped by both inherited traits and the environment, biology and genetics affect how social behaviors are learned and perceived, behavior is determined by the need to ensure survival of offspring and replenishment of the gene pool. The biology, environment and ability to learn are mutually interdependent factors. Cesare Lombroso, a father of modern criminology, developed the “born criminal” theory. Lombroso’s theory has roots in the Trait Theory, which states that criminals are throwbacks to a more priumanity, both physically and mentally. Idealistically, we all have set ideas about ourselves due to genetics. At the same time, our experiences determine how we behave in different situations. “Sociobiologists stress how biological and genetic conditions affect the perception and learning of social behaviors, which in turn are linked to existing environmental structures” (Siegel. Pg. 128).

So, which factors determine a person’s personality? Gordon Allport, an American psychologist born in 1967, focused on the study of personality and personality psychology. “He contributed to the formation of Values Scales and rejected both a psychoanalytic approach to personality, which he thought often went too deep, and a behavioral approach, which he thought often did not go deep enough” (Wikipedia). Allport’s emphasis was on everyone’s uniqueness, and the importance of the present context, as opposed to past history, for understanding personality. He recognized that there are four thousand personality traits which he split into three categories; Cardinal, Central and Secondary. Cardinal explains the individual’s trait as a whole. An example of Cardinal is to label a person as narcissistic. Serial killers usually possess the Central trait of being narcissistic. Central traits are what describes a person’s immediate characteristics, such as quiet, silly and boring. Serial killers often lack empathy, while possessing the ability to easily manipulate others. Secondary are how a person behaves in certain situations. For example, if a person become angry whenever they are in traffic, then the Secondary label would describe the person as having “road rage.”  Two Secondary traits that most serial killers possess are their charm and/or their ability to intimidate others. Another method is called the Big Five Model. The Big Five Model is a “five broad personality traits described by the theory are extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism” (Cherry).

Rational Choice Theory

Rational choice theory is a “view that crime is a function of a decision-making process in which the potential offender weighs the potential costs and benefits of an illegal act” (Siegel. Pg. 94). The basic principles of Rational Choice Theory are that every individual is rational. This means everybody think in a logical way. Also, every individual has interests. Different people have different interests and the interests of a person define their utilities. Individuals have the ability to make choices. The choices people make are influenced by their interests and utilities. So, why do we make choices? We make choices in a rational way to increase our utilities. However, this does not mean we have full control over the results of our choices. Every day, we interact with other people and each person makes decisions based on the choices we, they and others have made before them.

“Rational Choice Theory was pioneered by sociologist George Homas, who in 1961 laid the basic framework for exchange theory, which he grounded in assumptions drawn from behavioral psychology” (Crossman). George Homas also stated that if the person made a specific choice in a specific situation and was rewarded for it, then the person is more likely to make the same choice again in similar situation. For example, if a person cheats on a test in school and is not caught, but got 100%, this person is likely to cheat again on future tests in school. In contrast, if this person was caught and was expelled with no rewards, they would likely not cheat again.

Rational Choice Theory and Trait Theory are both very important when considering why a person commits a crime and why that person ever got involved in criminal activity in the first place.


Cherry, Kendra. (2016). The Big Five Personality Traits. Retrieved from: https://www.verywell.com/the-big-five-personality-dimensions-2795422

Crossman, Ashley. (2016). An Overview: Rational Choice Theory Under Sociological Theory. Retrieved from: http://sociology.about.com/od/Sociological-Theory/a/Rational-Choice-Theory.htm

Siegel, Larry J. (2015). Criminology: The Core. Cengage Learning. Boston, MA

Wikipedia. (2016). Gordon Allport. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Allport





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