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The Psychoanalytic Theories of Crime Causation

The Psychoanalytic
Theories of Crime Causation
By Gerhard Falk
For many years various theories of crime causation have been advanced. Most of these based their assumptions on the view that crime
is a separate form of behavior and that, therefore, special causes of crime
could be found. This attitude is not limited to the study of crime but
extends to the study of social pathology in general.
Recently, however, it has become apparent that causality in sociopathic behavior must be studied in the same light as all behavior and
that an understanding of behavior as such will also yield an understanding of crime.
It is therefore interesting to note that the psychoanalytic theory of
crinie causation does not make the usual distinctions between behavior
as such and criminal action, but explains the latter in the light of the
former. Thus. there is some uniformity in the psychoanalytic theories of
crime and psychoanalytic theories generally.
Psychoanalytic research into criminal behavior is concentrated on
the presumption that socially adjusted. law-abiding citizens share with
criminals the impulses to murder, steal and so on.’ The problems that
must be resolved by the criminal must also be resolved by the noncriminal. However, psychoanalysis tries to explain why most people keep
their antisocial impulses in the unconscious while some will act on these
impulses to their own detriment and that of society.z
To this task psychoanalysis brings the discovery that the roots of
unconscious tendencies which influence our actions go back to the esperience of early childhood.
“Psychoanalysis,” says Westwick,3 “is the first branch of human
knowledge which undertakes to investigate and learn how the individual
functions by probing the deeper motive powers of human action.” In
this definition is summed up the essence of the psychoanalytic approach
to crime. It recognizes that the human personality is not a homogenous
unit but exists as the result of various influences of a social and psychological nature both conscious and unconscious. An application of this
psychoanalytic view to the problems of crime causation involves a con-
sidcration of both psychological and sociological factors which influence
the individual to be either a law-abiding citizen or a criminal.4
Increasingly, psychoanalysts recognize that not all crime is intrnpsychic in origin. There are individuals who commit criminal acts because
they are conforming to the social pressures of their own group which
has different norms from those of the majority. Such crime is caused
then by economic and sociological factors. Thus, it has been demonstrated
that some delinquents or criminals will accept severe punishment rather
than betray their own “in-group.”5 While such criminals do not constitute
the chief problems investigated by psychoanalysts their existence must
nevertheless be recognized in the scope of this discussion in order to
delimit it. This means that an understanding of what crime is must
precede an investigation of criminal behavior.
Society cannot sanction independent ethical mores. Therefore conformity to some moral standard becomes the criterion for all behavior.
This is recognized by most members of a society by the use of law which
protects the right to own property and also protects citizens from a g
gression by their fellows.6
In view of these values children are punished h! their parents if
they do not adhere to these social laws. It is presumed that such punishment will internalize the standards of the communih in the child in so
far as the parent represents the cammunity morals. This leads to the
development of a conscience and helps most people to act in accord
with the accepted social rules, regulations and laws.‘
Now it must be said here that this theory overlooks the important
fact that the moral standards taught by parents to children in our society
differ very often from the behavior of the parents who teach the standards.
Thus, in many instances, the actions and behavior expected of children
by parents are much more stringent than the behavior parents expect
of themselves. Therefore, t.1 iildren who have internalized the standards
set for them by adults will then judge their parents by these standards
and find that the parents do not live by their own morals teachings.8
Instead, “anything goes that is within the law” or “what will get by.”
Consequently many children are confronted by the conflict resulting
from the realization that parents do not live by theiq own moral teachings; teachings which are further endorsed b? church, school an3 communications media. Nevertheless, most peoplt are able to adjust even
to this conflict and steer a middle course between the discrepancies of
ekTectations to which they are subject.
“A great range of quite different types of personality under certain
social situations drift around a criminal career. On the other hand,
there are certain personalities for whom criminal acts are so deep
e~notionalneed. that they inclrilge in it (lither under good or bad
The psychoanalytic approach may be summarized then by underscoring the emphasis on the unconscious motivations of the deviator, the
ainorality of the “Id”. the motivation of underlying emotional forces and
the incapacity of some individuals to centrol their impulses and transform
them into socially acceptable patterns.10
In contrast to sociologists who often seek the cause of crime in the
environment, psychoanalysts, without denying the environmental aspects
of crime, have shown that emotional development is equally responsible.
The best example was provided by Heuly in his “New Light on Delinquency” which showed so conclusively how sibs from the same environment had differential responses to the pitfall of delinquency.
In view of the personalkg problems involved in criminal actions,
psychoanalysis has occupied itself with the questions: “What is the best
treatment of the individual criminal to make him an inoffensive member
of society?” and “Are general crime-restricting measures which might
direct criminality possilde?“11
To answer these (pestions a cwiisideration of the psychoanalytic view
as to origin of behavior per se is in order. Such a cansideration will reveal
that behavior tendencies which either make a person suitable for community life or turn him against society are acquired during the indivdual’s
early developmental life period, i.e. his childhood, and that the original
drives possess no qualifications guaranteeing either social or antisocial
behavior.** As far as the small child is concerned no such problem as
social behavior exists. He is only guided by the pleasure principle; namely, to gratify immediately every need and to avoid pain. This adult, on the
other hand. .;hould learn to endure teniporar! clissatisfaction and to postpone certain gratifications in order to securt’ important satisfactions at a
later timr.13 This does not mean that adiilt life is onc- oi Spartan abstinence. hut rather that social behavior represents a balanw bc*tween
gratifications and reniiiiciations.
Now this balance is often thrown out of line and may then induce
an individual to criminality. If, for instance, a man renounces his personal freedom by accepting a task of great difficulty in anticipation of
g ~ n i n gsome satisfaction and the expected gratification is not forthcoming, frustration results. Such frustration may be one of many causes of a
general hostility toward society and aggression against it. If such frustration induces the super-ego to free the ego of its control because an in-
justice has been perpetrated apiinst it, than the ego may feel j~istified,’~
to commit aggression aguinst society. Even when no frustrating agent
is present the individual thus wronged or thwarted will create some object
for the purpose of relieving his aggressive tendencies. This need varies of
murse with the tolerance which thwarted indivicluals have to frustrating
situations. However, such frustrating situations are often displaced upon
a person or group representing a whole constellation of ideas that evoke
hostility.15 In any event, the anticipated but withheld reward is considered an injustice by the individual and thus justifies the ego to commit aggression against society.16
At this point it may well be asked why we do not have many more
criminals than we do have, since disappointments are more the rule
than the exception in life. Psychoanalysis answers this by explaining the
variety of factors important in character formation. These factors are of
prime importance in determining the attitude which an individual takes
toward a variety of life situations and are therefore also co-determinants of
either social or criminal behavior.” Several of these factors have been described by Alexander and Healy and others and cover approximately fivc:
areas of influence upon a child‘s life. These are first, the congenital factors,
i.e. both hereditary and inborn inflaenrt~s;second, early acquired reaction tendencies; third, family influences: fourth. influcnces of the broader
social environment: fifth, general ideological trends in a given civilization.’* Even the earliest childhood expeuriences. such as nritritional and
excretory handling, toilet training and nursing, are all of value. These all
take place in the family, the earliest social unit to which adjustment must
be made.
Now society selects for its anti-social behavior those whose previow
character makes them susceptible to it. In the United States this takes
place through cultural standards and values. “The glorification of the
rugged individual cvmbined with the mechanizing and leveling tendencies which tend to repress the individual, create a setting for criminality which is an outlet and opportunity to express masculinity.”~gThus
it is indicated that occasionally there may be some men who are sexually
impotent until they commit a dangerous crime, such as a holdup, which
allows them to assert their masculinity.20
When social factors and ideas are very powerfd, individuals are
most likely to yield and respond to them. This means that our emotional
outlets are in part determined by opportunity. Thus, most criminals are
poor, because the rich have other outlets for their neuroses, and can pay
for them. However, if an individual, by reason of character tendencies, is
especially predisposed to crime he may become criminal even under the
most favorable social circumstances.21
Psychoanalysts base their crime causation theories not only on those
external factors just described, but also consider what Freud called “The
Unconscious.”z This refers to his finding that although many desires
have been pushed out of the conscious personality and are ostracized
therefrom through social rules and regulations, they remain in the unconscious, a state which does not impose any limitations. There they remain, loaded with energy and kept in check only by the super-eg0.2~
This situation may be compared to the proverbial powder-keg. It
only takes some unfortunate incident, some strain or shock and the unconscious desires will break through the system of repression like water
breaks a dam. As Freud puts it: “There is in every individual a craving
for aggression. This aggression is however, internalized, that is, directed
against the ego whence it came.”24 Civilization confronted with the
problem of aggression, attempts to obtain mastery over it by setting tip
institutions to guard and watch it. An internalization of such vigilance is
the super-ego which in most persons acts as a weight causing normal
balance between aggression and repression. There are however those
whose super-ego has become extraordinarily strong so that it will permit
no aggression at all. Such an overwhelming super-ego will prevent the
aggressive tendencies from finding any satisfaction in the external world
and may then cause a degree of moral and psychological self-destmction.= This self-destructive tendency however, entails serious threat to
the individual against which he must protect himself, so that it will
become necessary to destroy other things and other peoplc to guard
against the suicidal tendency.26
Psychoanalysis concerns itself with the personality on three different
levels or strata: the id, containing all the potential drives of the instinctual life concerned only with the simple pleasure-pain principle constituting the “Unconscious“; 27 further, the predominantly conscious ego and,
finally, the superego checking and repressing the free instincts so that
the id becomes incapable of bringing its motives into consciousness. Harmony among these strata is of course necessary to balance the personality.
In some instances, and during unusual conflict situations, this balance
may be upset. If this occurs the ego is relieved of the supervision of the
superego until such time as the crisis is resolved. Such is the course of
events in the normal personality. There are nevertheless those abnormal
personalities amongst whom the ego has received little or no attachment
or support from the superego so that they will react either neurotically
or criminally in situations which would not bcl cnougll of a stimulus for
“normal” people but arc’ sufficiently strong to cause a personality upset
among those whose superego is weak.= Such personality upsets can cause
either neurotic or criminal behavior. Thus, criminality may be an extension of neurotic behavior and, where this is so, cannot be prevented
by intimidation and punishment.29 If the basic ciiuse of criminality and
neurosis is the same then psychoanalysis must supply an answer to the
question of the differential outcome of the same cause. Psychoanalysts
believe that both neurosis and crime are the outcome of infantile
tendencies. The difference however, lies in the fact that in the case of
the neurotic the super-ego has deflected the expression of unconscious
tendencies which it could not do in the case of the criminal.30 Another
approach is the view that the criminal shows enough overt aggression
to be locked up while the neurotic turns the aggression against himself
and locks himself up.31 Thus, in the neurotic the super-ego which was
not strong enough to completely subdue the unconscious desires was at
least in a position to deflect the wish fidfillment into the channel of
symbolic gratification. The criminal could not do this. He was not content with symbolic wish fulfillment such as day dreaming and therefore
his needs drove him to aggression against
The similarities between the neurotic and the criminal are therefore that both have a conflict, their actions have symbolic meaning, they exhibit an irrational emotional attitude and they function at either a fixated or regressed developmental level.=
We have seen that the faulty superego may promote conflict situations. The neurotic expresses such conflicts either in the physical or
hysterical symptoms such as vomiting, asthma, cramps, lameness, hlindness, depression, or in psychotic symptoms such as anxieties, repressions,
depressions, self accusations, phobias, compulsion neurosis and manic
depressive conditions.3‘
The two alternatives. that is, neurosis or criminality, combine sometimes and result in persons who are both neurotic and criminalistic; this
makes for the neurotic criminal. Such individual believes that exceptions
must be made for him and finds it difficult to achieve a normal equilibrium when this is not forthcoming. He rhay have a “neurotic character”
showing no subjective symptoms but only activity symptoms frequently
of a criminalistic nature. In addition there is the neurotic who commits
crime in order to suffer for a forbidden desire, since crime is not criticized
by his superego as much as the desire which provoked it.% Such neurotics
suffer from an overwhelming guilt derived from early life experiences.
This guilt becomes an overwhelming force in their personality so that
they commit misdeeds of all kinds in order to secure punishment and
assuage this inner tension.% Unconsciously they may even manage their
iiiisdeetls so cliimsily as to be caught and then, as criminals in prison,
hear their punishment with escessive tranquility. They acquire a great
“peace of mind” once they have been apprehended and they have no
criticism to make of justice. Because neurotic criminals seek punishment,
psychoanalysts oppose their punishment. In their case, punishment is not
a preventive force but an unconscious desire.37 To carry this theory to
its ultimate conclusions an example will show that the sense of guilt
precedes the transgression and is directly responsible for the criminal
Thus, the sense of guilt was present prior to the transgression, arising
not from the action biit from the giilt. Thus such neurotic criminals may
justifiably be termed “criminals from a sense of guilt.’’
Considering all the above causes, psychoanalysis recognizes scvcrd
main groups of criminals. These are, the vast majority of cases in which
crime is an outcome of mechanisms parallel to neurosis and the perversive types who have not been able to bring certain infantile tendencies
under the restricting influence ot society to i~ point at which they can
find satisfaction in an accepted way.38 Then thew are those whose uncontrolled aggression urges break through the restricting pon i’r of the
superego to accomplish an immediate end regardless of the ultimate
loss to the ego and the total personality. Finally we have “the neurotic
characters” who, driven by their impulses, punish themselves.3Q The
feeling to punish oneself, which does not lead to crime directly, is a
masochistic drive which frequently leads to s~iicicle.~~
Masochism, according to psychoanalysts theory, stems from a great wish to remain dependent. a wish denied to adults. This denial leads to consequent resentment
against a social order which thwarts such satisfaction.41
There is then some criminality resulting from an overwhelming hate
tleveloped in childhood which the individual can only express by intimidation of his own conscience to such an extent that he may unconsciously fail to carry through his aggressions and deliberately allow himself to
be captured and punished.**
It is belicved by psychoanalysts in this connection, that the Oedipus
complex gives rise to a murder urge which is a special form of pathological attachment of the child to the parent of the opposite sex. Further,
there is evidence that the sadistic murder wish alternates and is even held
in check by the masochistic tendenc~.~3
To those so afflicted, watching
others suffer is itself a masochistic act and is only equalled by the pleasure
of self pity and remorse in the individual himself. In fact, it seems that
murc1c.r is in itself a masochistic act since most of the victims of such murderers are people whom that attacker 1ovc.s and with whom he identifies
himself.44 Thus, by projecting his own shortcomings upon those persons
with whom he frequently comes in contact, it becomes possible to achieve
both a masochistic end and also to anticipate punishment. Therefore, in
psychoanalytic terms, the murder wish is a desire to either get rid of a
rival for the affection of the parent of the opposite sex or to achieve self
punishment and martyrdom by killing the love object.45 It is this type of
criminal who has been termed “anti-social.” He is mainly characterized
by his unconscious need for punishment. He makes a good reform prospect as he is capable of transference and his prison record is generally
very good. They are like “good hospital patients who do not rebel at
chronic illness, long hospital sojourn and even repeated operations.46
Such submissive behavior to institutional rules is due to masochistic remorse feelings which help the anti-social criminal on the road to reform.
He may be contrasted with the asocial criminal who is narcissistic and
whose super-ego is just as weak, hut who cannot have the remorse feelings because he is self centered and has an excessive love of the ego.47
Fsychoanalysts recognize that criminality may stem from a diseased
psyche and, become chronic, recurring with frequency in the same
individual. Other criminality is occasionaI and is generally committed by
healthy persons. A “chronic” criminal is considered one who is afflicted
either by physical or mental disease or whose functions are impaired by
toxic or organic-physical pathological processes. These include alcoholics,
imbeciles, psychotics and drug addicts. They are almost never in full
control of their mental and psychological faculties and are therefore
subject to impulsive, uncontrolled behavior which may result in criminal
Criminals suffering psychic diseases may well be of the neuroticcompulsive kind. Such criminals are basically conditioned by unconscious
motives. The conscious part of their personality can therefore assume no
attitude toward these motives, so that the ego is led toward the execution of criminal acts.
Emotional security has long been recognized as one of the most
potent human wants, leading to a variety of clubs, organizations, institutions and being the prime cause of matrimony.49This need for emotional
security is at first supplied by the parents but in the normal adult changes
iiito self rcliancc and the wish for independence. Many persons however
are lacking such self reliance and are afraid of the consequent social disapproval, especially if their surroundings require and demand a show of
courage and strength. Such persons may engage in crimes involving acts
of bravery so as to give themselves the feeling of courage which they
m . 5 0
If crimes are the result of power seeking, through the theft of money
and property. then this motive may be the attempt of the criminal to compensate for a feeling of inferiority to others. Believing himself incapable
of success in a regular activity involving competition he commits crimes
of special daring either with reference to society in general or with reference to a particular person with whom there exists frequent face to face
contact. An extreme case resulting in murder is related by Ale~ander.5~
IIere the criminal tried to rid himself of the domination of another person
and thereby remove his inferiority feeling and reestablish his mental
It has been indicated that the psychoanalytic theory of crime causation recognizes the following major etiological factors:
1. The Oedipus conflict resulting in a sense of guilt
2. Masochistic tendencies and projection
3. Criminal social values
4. Physical and mental deficiency
3. Insecurity and feelings of inferiority
The major problem in the psychoanalytic theory of crime causation
appears to be the dilemma arising from their "guilt-crime" hypothesis.
The implication here is that punishment is useless because it is sought.
Therefore, psychoanalysts would be lenient. However, from the view
of society, would this not mean more and more crime against society in
order to draw and face punishment? It seems that leniency may be the
wrong policy altogether.
The psychoanalytic views cannot be tested empirically. They cannot
be proved nor disproved since the variables cannot be measured and
the relationships between the symbols of psychoanalytic interpretation
and the emotions they represent cannot be understood by laymen.
In addition, psychoanalysis seems sometimes tautological. Circular
reasoning is used. If a sex conflict is found, it proves the theory. If not,
then hidden resistance is the cause and that also proves the theory. Any
criticism is called an emotional conflict so that no valid critique can
ever be accepted.
1. Friedlander, Kate. The Psycho-unlytical Approuch to Ju~enileDelinquency.
International Universities Press, 1949.pp. 7-8.
2. Ibid. p. 8
3. Westwick, Atwell. “Criminology and Psychoanalysis.” The Psychounalytic
Q u a r t d y . Vol. IX, No. 1. January 1940.
4. Alexander, Franz and Healy, William. Roots of Crime. Kno f.
5. Eissler, Ruth, Editor. The Psychoonnlytic Study of the C h ’ d . 1935, Ch. 10
The International Universities Press. 1950. D. 329.
1933. p. 35
6. Lorand, Sandor. Psychoanulysis T ~ h y Covici-Friede,
7. Ihid. p. 352
8. Betteiheim, Bruno. “Delinquency and Mornlity,” in The Psychoanalytic Study
of the Child. op.cit. p. 329330.
9. Alexander and Healy, Roots of Crime, op.cit. Ch. 10.
10. Wolfgang, Marvin E. “The Contributions of Freud to Our Understanding
of Delinquency” E d u c a t h l Outlook,Vol. 31, No. 1. Nov. 1956,p. 14.
11. Kann, Robert, “Criminology and Aggression,” Psychoanalytic Review, Vol.
28, March 1941, 48.
12. Westwict, op.cit.
13. Healy, op.cit. Ch. 10.
14. Alexander, Franz and Staub. Hugo; Der Verbrecher and Seine Richter,
International Psycholanalytic Publishers, 1929, p. 60.
15. Dollard, John, etd. Frustmtion und Aggression, Yale University Press, 1950,
p. 134.
16. Alexander and Staub, o p . ~ tp.
. 61.
17. Alexander and Healy, op.cit. p. 10.
18. Alexander and Healy, opcit. p. 10.
19. Ihid. p, 13.
20. Schmideberg, Melitta, “The Treatment of Criminals” The Psychounulytiu
Rmiew, Vol. 36,1949.p. 403.
21. Alexander and Healy, 0 p . d .
22. Freud, Sigmund, “Angst und Triebleben” in Neua Vorlesungen, The Institute
of Psychoanalysis, 1929, .98.
24. Freud, Sigmunx Civilization und Its Discontents. J. Cape and H. Smith,
New York, 1930. p. 105.
25. mz. .no.
26. Freucf Neue V o r h n g m , op.cit. p. 202.
27. IbrcI. p. 204.
28. Babey, Jose B. “Psychoanalysis and Crime,” The Journul of Criniinul Psychoputhobgy, Vol. 19. April, 1943. P. 639.
29. Zilboorg, Gregory “Psychoanalysis and Criminology” in Encycbpcdiu of
c r i m i m b g y by Branham, Vernon and Kutsch, Samuel; Philosophical Library, 1949.
p. 398.
30. Alexander and Healy, op.cit. Ch. 10.
31. Abrahamsen, David “Psychiatric Aspec*s of Delinquency,” The Journcrl of
Educational Sociology, Vol. 24. Sept., 1950. No. 1, p. 40.
32. Lorand, op.cit. p. 43
33. Abrahamsen, op.cit. p. 43
34. Alexander and Staub, op.cit. p. 61
35. Ibid. p. 67
3(j. \\‘ciss. &l\v;rrtl
d English, 0.Spurgrion,
Siiuiitlcrs, 1944.1). 570.
Ales;in&-r ;tncl Stad), op.cit. 1). 68.
Alesiindcr, Fraiiz “The Criminal, the Judgc and the Public,” The PsychfjRwiccr;. Vol. 19, April-May, 1932. p. 419.
Menninger, Karl, Mun Aguinst Hiniself. Harcourt, Briiw, 19338. 1). 201.
Lorand, opcit. p. 361.
Menninger, op.cit. 1). 103.
lbitl. p. 204.
Ibiil. 11. 208.
Huebsch, Daniel. Tlie llfurtlcr Coniplm. Privatcly l’riritcd, Clcvclond, 1927.
11. 91.
45. IllKl. p. 94.
46. Weiss ant1 English, op.cit. 11. 578.
47. S;infortl. R. Nevitt, “A Study of Three Types id (~riiniii;iIs,” Y‘/w ]ourttcrl o/
Criininul Psychoputltolugy, 1943, pp. 57-68.
48. 1I)Kl. 1). 68.
49. Alexander uric1 I-iealy, up.&. p. 194.
50. lhid. p. 195.
51. Alesunder, Frsinz, “A DoLII~I~
Muri1t.r (itniiiiittw I 15) ;I Nint.tc*c-ii Ycur Old
Boy,” The PsychvunuIytic Reoicll;, Vol. 24, 1937. 1). I I3
Cerhartl Falk is thr. iiuthor of numcrons pildiciitioii\ in Criminolo~!.
Social Psychology ;ind Etlucution. M e is pest--Prc*\iclcvlt i j f thr Wcstcm Nc*w
York Sociologicd Association, Prcsident-c4ect of tliv Cn 1111 l’\\vhothcriipy Ahwciaition of Western New l’ork aiid teaches sociolop . i t ilie Stutc Criiivinity
College at Buffalo, N. Y.