7. Psychological Theories of Crime

7.2 Cognitive & Cognitive-Behavioural Theories of Criminal Behavior

Dr. Jennifer Mervyn and Stacy Ashton, M.A.

Cognitive theories of criminal behaviour look for faults in cognitive processes, mental development, and/or a defective moral compass. Rather than focusing on behaviour as an expression of individual personality or development, cognitive and cognitive-behavioural theories look at the way thoughts and feelings influence human behaviour.

The behavioural component of cognitive-behavioural psychology focuses on how rewards and punishment shape behaviour—a process called . Reinforcement conditions through rewards/relief: positive reinforcement occurs through receiving a positive stimulus, while negative reinforcement is the removal a negative stimulus. Consistent reinforcement should result in an increase in the reinforced behaviour. Punishment is the opposite: positive punishment occurs through receiving a negative stimulus, while negative punishment involves having a positive stimulus taken away. Consistent punishment should result in a decrease in the punished behaviour (See Table 7.7 below).

Table 7.7: Positive and Negative Conditioning
Add Stimulus Remove Stimulus

Likelihood behaviour will repeat

Positive Reinforcement

A stimulus is added to increase a desired behaviour (e.g., a candy) – I am more likely to do this behaviour again.

Negative Reinforcement

A stimulus is removed to increase a desired behaviour (e.g., my parents take away my electronic device at the dinner table so that I eat my dinner) – I am more likely to do this behaviour again.

Less Positive Punishment

A stimulus is added to decrease an undesired behaviour (e.g., spanking) – I am less likely to do this behaviour again.

Negative Punishment

A stimulus is removed to decrease an undesired behaviour (e.g., losing electronic privileges) – I am less likely to do this behaviour again.

Criminal behaviour is more likely to re-occur when crime leads to a positive outcome (e.g., cash, drugs) or removes a current negative stimulus (e.g., the stress of not being able to feed your family). Punishment is meant to reduce criminal behaviour by administering a negative stimulus (e.g., incarceration in an unpleasant space) or removing a positive stimulus (e.g., loss of access to friends and family).

In real life, perfectly consistent reinforcement and punishment is rarely achievable. Intermittent conditioning occurs when the same behaviour has unpredictable results. For example, the behaviour “attempt to rob a corner store” will be repeated many times if experience tells the individual there is a higher chance of a reward than a punishment and that most of the time there is a neutral outcome. Intermittently reinforced behaviour, meaning behaviour that is sometimes but not always rewarded, is the most difficult kind of behaviour to extinguish (Skinner, 1963).

The cognitive aspect of cognitive-behavioural psychology examines how reinforcement and punishment turn into thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes that maintain and justify behaviour. Our thoughts are impacted by witnessing what happens to others as well as our own experiences.

If antisocial/criminal behaviour provides reliable or intermittent rewards and/or relief, a person can develop rationalised antisocial attitudes. Bonta and Andrews (2017) summarise key links between antisocial attitudes and antisocial behaviour. First, offenders rationalise their actions using , which involve minimising the consequences of their actions, denying responsibility for their actions, disparaging or blaming the victim, or claiming their actions were justified (Sykes & Matza, 1957; Ward, 2000). Antisocial attitudes are more likely to be acted upon when individuals are surrounded by others with similar perspectives and with whom they identify. In other words, associating with others that have similar antisocial attitudes makes acting on these attitudes more likely. Finally, there is a rejection of convention. Conventions are the typical values of a particular society, such as valuing work, education, and legal institutions (e.g., the police and the courts).

Many of the principles of cognitive-behavioural psychology have been established through WEIRD research—exclusively drawing research participants from university students from Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic societies (Henrich et al., 2010). As a result, it remains to be seen if findings can be generalised to the wider population and across cultures. Similarly, in Canadian psychological criminology studies, participants are often White offenders , raising doubts about findings’ applicability to female offenders, Indigenous offenders, and other diverse groups (Hart, 2016).

Both individual and cognitive-behavioural approaches assume that pro-social, conventional behaviour is the preferred and rational path forward for people, leading to a successful and law-abiding life. Theorists assign personality traits and values such as adaptive or maladaptive and rational or irrational. The assumption that behaviour that upholds the status quo is adaptive and rational ignores findings indicating that the behaviour of individuals from marginalised groups has significantly different positive and negative conditioning than groups that have easier access to wealth, education, and opportunity. For individuals who have experienced surveillance by police, are threatened and powerless during police encounters, and are significantly more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for minor crimes, negative perceptions of police and the justice system may make the rejection of convention a rational decision (Nordberg et al., 2018). One must keep this in mind when analysing statistics showing the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in our criminal justice system. As Proulx (2014) highlights, Indigenous peoples in Canada have a long history of experiencing increased surveillance, including status cards and the reserve system. Read Watchdog reported on RCMP surveillance of Indigenous-led action in 2017. Mounties never responded for a recent example of increased police surveillance of Indigenous-led activism.


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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Jennifer Mervyn and Stacy Ashton, M.A. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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