Criminology | Section 5.3

Fundamentals of Criminology by Adam J. McKee

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Cognitive Theory

When applied to explaining why people commit crimes, cognitive psychology focuses on how people learn to solve social problems.

Piaget (1932) was the first cognitive psychologist to argue that people’s reasoning abilities develop in a predictable, orderly way.  He believed that during the first stage of development (what he called the “sensor-motor stage”), children respond to their social environment in a simple way by focusing their attention on interesting objects and developing motor skills.  By the final stage of development (what he called the “formal operations stage”), children have developed into mature adults who are capable of complex reasoning and abstract thought.


In 1969, Kohlberg applied this concept of moral development to criminal behavior.  According to his work, there are six fundamental stages in moral development.  The most basic type of moral development is avoiding the prohibited behavior out of fear of punishment.  By the time the person reaches the sixth and final stage, universal principles such as justice, concern for others, and a sense of equity motivate behavior.  According to Kohlberg’s research findings, violent youth had stunted moral development when compared to nonviolent youth.  This relationship held even when the social background of participants was controlled statistically.  Simply put, people who have empathy and concern for others are much less likely to commit crimes of violence than those who avoid violence merely because they fear punishment.

This in essence holds that the criminal calculus of the Utilitarians actually does play a role in criminal behavior, but it is the simplest and least dependable behavioral drive when it comes to criminality.  Kohlberg’s research also connected higher levels of moral development to prosocial behaviors such as altruism and generosity.  Such individuals can be counted on to act according to social norms regardless of what formal social controls are in place.  Those with lower levels of moral reasoning will act more in accordance with perceived self-interest, and formal social controls will play a much larger role in predicting their behavior.  They are likely to engage in crime when they calculate that they can “get away with it.”  Society can depend on those with high levels of moral development to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do.

Other researchers from the field of cognitive psychology have considered the role of information processing in criminality.  A large body of research in this field suggests that when people make decisions, they engage in a series of complex thought processes.  The basic model of behavior from this perspective is that a stimulus occurs in the person’s environment; the person then decodes and interprets the stimuli.  They then must search for a proper reaction to the stimuli, and when one is decided upon, the person acts on the decision.   Some researchers in this field have hypothesized that violent behavior may be the result of the individual using information incorrectly to make decisions.  A person with a history of violence, for example, may tend to see others as more aggressive or more dangerous than is appropriate.  This may in turn evoke a violent response with only minimal provocation.

An aggressive person, the theory suggest, would tend toward hypervigilance and suspicion of others.  This in turn would increase the occurrence of violent behavior.  Very few individual self-report violence against another person merely out of spite or rage; while this does happen, the majority of violent individuals explain that their actions were taken in self-defense.  A more rational analysis of the circumstances preceding the act of violence may reveal that the level of threat was grossly exaggerated in the mind of the actor.  It has been further suggested that many violent, predatory criminals fail to realize—because of information processing errors—that their behavior is as harmful as it is to victims.  They simply do not recognize the harm that they are causing.

Modification History

File Created:  08/04/2018

Last Modified:  08/05/2018

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