Understanding Criminal Behavior: Exploring Theories in Criminal Justice

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Many people want to know the reason(s) why people do what they do, especially when it comes to criminal behavior and even more so for really horrendous crimes. Explaining why someone did what they did is not always an easy assignment. There are many theories on why someone participates in criminal activity. Typically, only one theory cannot be applied to every crime, crime category, or criminal because we understand that every person, antecedent conditions, and criminal acts are unique situations. In many cases, multiple theories may be applied to a criminal or criminal act/behavior. This essay will discuss four of many theories used in the criminal justice field in an attempt to explain behavior, specifically criminal behavior: Attribution Theory, Biological Theory, Cognitive Theory, and Differential Association Theory.

Attribution Theory

This theory “Focuses on how people explain others’ intentions.” (Greene et al., 2019, p. 30) It relates a person’s motive to their behavior and the cause and effect of the situation. Example: Someone behaving rudely, is this because they are reacting to external stimuli or internal characteristics? There are two types of attribution: Situational and Dispositional. Dispositional is based on a characteristic or trait that is internal rather than external. Situational is an external factor to their behavior. (researcher, 2016) Dispositional Attribution – The person is rude because the person has a rude personality. Situational Attribution – The person was rude because they were insulted by another rude person. Typically, people are quick to apply an external factor to their personal situation but then apply the dispositional attribution to others.

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Biological Theory

This theory has an emphasis on a person’s mental health, genetics, biological makeup, and or DNA. This theory relies on the idea “that something physical is the cause of the mental illness” (Miller, 2019), which leads to the behavior a person displays or partakes in. Biological influences comprise such things as genetic stimuli, gender, hormone levels, nutrition, and brain chemistry. Mental health plays a major role in one’s behavior, actions, and choices. One’s mental health will determine if a person is capable of making informed decisions about their behavior. The longer a person with a mental illness goes without treatment, their behavior is at risk of becoming unstable and possibly criminal.

Cognitive Theory

This theory is used as a way to comprehend what motivates human behavior. The intentions, consequences of the act, and social pressures are considered by the perpetrator. (Kessler, 2013, pp. 865-867) Using this theory, a person would or would not commit a crime because of their reasoning on how others may view them after committing the act, as well as the possible consequences. Many law-abiding citizens do not commit crimes because they reason the actions are not worth it. Some people commit crimes without any reason at all. We would not apply this theory to a person’s behavior who did not display some sort of consideration for the person, property, or law. This theory is important to criminal behavior and motives by allowing the investigators to apply the right charge to the right crime. In criminal justice, there are different charges for killing someone depending upon the degree to which it was planned and what the motive was.

Differential Association Theory

This theory “formulates the process as one whereby criminal behavior is learned in association with those who have criminal attitudes and values, as compared to associations with those who have noncriminal attitudes and values.” (Jeffery, 1995, p. 294) The learning theory implies that the behavior is connected to the long-term environment of the person, known as classical conditioning. This is a very obvious reason why some people are prone to criminal activity over others. If a young person is raised in an atmosphere where the law is not respected, where the law is outright disregarded, and where there is teaching on how to break the law, then it is not likely this person would be able to fit into a law-abiding society.


Many theories have been established in an effort to label behavior characteristics in hopes of understanding, anticipating, and changing criminal behavior. Trying to understand a person’s motives for their behavior can be complex. There are many offenders, if asked, who would not be able to tell you exactly why they did what they did. There are things in our own lives, noncriminal, of course, that we may not be able to explain the root reasons why we do or don’t do certain things. It is important to understand these theories when working within the criminal justice system. Part of the role of the criminal justice system is to prevent and deter criminal activity. These theories can provide insight into what type of prevention and intervention programs can be created to help the community.


  1. Greene, E., Heilbrun, K., & Wrightsman, L. S. (2019). Wrightsman’s Psychology and the Legal System (9th ed.). Boston, MA, USA: Cengage. Retrieved from https://purdueuniversityglobal.vitalsource.com/#/books/9781337672412/cfi/24!/4/2@100:0.00
  2. iResearchNet. (2016, January 18). Attribution theory in social psychology. Retrieved January 20, 2020, from https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/social-psychology-theories/attribution-theory/
  3. Jeffery, C. R. (1995). Criminal behavior and learning theory. Contemporary Masters in Criminology56(3), 175–186. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4757-9829-6_11
  4. Kessler, E. H. (2013). Encyclopedia of management theory (Vol. 2). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
  5. Miller, K. (2019, August 28). What are Mental Health Theories? (Incl. List). Retrieved January 18, 2020, from: https://positivepsychology.com/mental-health-theories/. 

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Understanding Criminal Behavior: Exploring Theories in Criminal Justice. (2023, Aug 27). Retrieved from https://edusson.com/examples/understanding-criminal-behavior-exploring-theories-in-criminal-justice

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