What is the psychoanalytic theory of criminology?

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The psychoanalytic theory of criminology refers to application of Freudian psychology to analysis of criminal motives and behavior. Unlike sociological accounts, it does not look at larger scale external issues such as poverty, local culture, and peer pressure, but instead focuses on the specific formative childhood influences on the individual. For this reason, it does not explain why certain groups of people are more or less likely to commit crimes but instead focuses on why, for example, one child in a family might become a criminal and the others not or why one specific family might produce several criminal children while other superficially similar families never get closer to criminality than an occasional parking ticket. 

Freud's 1916 book, Criminality from a Sense of Guilt, argues that a driving motive in certain types of crime is a sense of guilt preceding commission of a crime and that some criminals commit their crimes in order to be punished as a way of dealing with that guilt while others seek to get away with crimes to prove that they do not need to feel haunted by guilt. This sense of guilt is deeply rooted in childhood trauma.

According to some psychoanalytic models, criminals often have a minimally developed ego and thus are unable to resist instant gratification. While our primal id seeks instant gratification, as people develop past childhood we normally develop a second psychological element, the ego which is a pragmatic rational component that guides and directs our impulses according to such things as long term objectives, feasibility, and weighing of consequences. In criminals, the ego (or will power) is unusually weak. 

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The psychoanalytic theory of criminology holds that people commit crimes for psychological reasons.  This theory comes largely from the work of Sigmund Freud.

Freud argues that human nature is inherently antisocial.  People are born with an id that pushes them to essentially act in selfish ways.  However, society and its rules create a superego that tries to suppress the id.  The id can be seen as our bad side telling us to do bad things while our superego tries to persuade us to do the things that are socially acceptable.

Strangely enough, though psychoanalytic theory does not hold that crime is caused by an id that is out of control.  Instead, it holds that there is either something wrong with our superego or with our ego (the part of us that essentially mediates between the id and the superego).  We can commit crimes because our egos simply ignore our superegos.  We can commit crimes because our superegos have been badly trained as we have grown up with bad influences.  Finally, we can commit crimes out of frustration because our superego is too strong and makes us feel very guilty.  We want to be punished and so we do things that will get us punished.

These theories, of course, cannot really be tested.  We cannot tell if we even have an id, an ego, and a superego, let alone how much each one contributes to any criminal actions we might engage in.