Criminal Personality Theory



Psychologists Yochelson and Samerow (1976) have applied cognitive theory to criminality.

Criminals are seen as being more prone to ‘faulty thinking’ and this makes them more likely to commit crime.

Their criminal personality theory is based on a long-term study of 240 male offenders, most of who, had been committed to psychiatric hospital.

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Yochelson and Samerow argue that criminals show a range of ‘errors and biases’ in their thinking and decision-making. These include:

Lying; secretiveness; need for power and control; super optimism; failure to understand other’s positions; lack of trust in others; uniqueness (the feeling that they are special) and the victim stance (blaming others and seeing themselves as the victim).

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Kholberg's Theory

Kohlberg argues that our ideas of right and wrong develop through a series of levels and stages throughout childhood to adulthood.

At the ‘pre-conventional’ or ‘pre-moral ‘ level, young children define right and wrong simply in terms of what brings punishments or rewards, whereas by adulthood, our ideas of right and wrong involve and understanding of underlying moral principles and values.

This suggests that criminals’ moral development is stuck at a less mature level than everyone else’s. They are likely to think solely in terms of whether their actions will lead to a reward or punishment, rather than how it might affect others.

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Kholberg's Stages

Preconventional level

Stage one - Avoiding Punishment

Stage two - Seeking Reward

Conventional level

Stage three - 'Good boy' and 'Good girl' attitude

Stage four - Loyalty to Law and Order

Postconventional level

Stage five - Justice and the Spirit of the Law

Stage six - Universal Principles of Ethics

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Some studies show delinquents are more likely to have immature moral development, as the theory predicts

Thornton and Reid (1982) found the theory to be truer for crimes such as theft and robbery (which may involve reasoning) then crimes of violence (which are often impulsive).


The idea that criminals’ thinking patterns are different from normal has led to other research. Fir example, PICTS (the Psychological Inventory of Criminal Thinking Styles) is a questionnaires aimed at revealing whether someone shows criminal thought patterns.

Successful treatments, known as cognitive behavioural therapy, have been developed based on the idea that criminals’ thought processes can be corrected with treatment. 

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Kohlberg focuses on morally thinking rather than moral behaviour. Someone may be perfectly capable of thinking morally while acting immorally.


Yochleson and Samenow did not use a control group of non-criminals to see if ‘normal’ people also make the same thinking errors.

Their sample was unrepresentative: there were no women and most of the men had been found insane and sent to psychiatric hospital. Yet Yoichelson and Samerow claim that all offenders share the same thinking errors as this sample.

There was high sample attrition (drop-out rate). By the end only 30 were left in the study.

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