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The Psychological Approach To Crime: Why Individual Factors Don't Help In Prevention

personal inclinations to crime

There are three main approaches to understanding crime: The Psychological Approach, The Societal Approach, and the Opportunity Approach. Certain societies commit more crime than others, certain people commit crime while others don’t, and certain times and spaces attract more crime than others. Each approach rightly tackles a different factor. My job as a self defense instructor is to sift through the information to find what individuals can use. This information has to be practical, controllable, and most importantly, effective at improving your safety.

The Opportunity Approach focuses on the physical requirements needed for a crime to occur like a suitable target and a setting where the attacker won’t get caught. Without a target present it is impossible for an attack to occur, and without an opportunity where the attacker won't get caught, it is highly unlikely that one will occur. Therefore we can teach ourselves how to recognize high risk crime settings, and if we can’t avoid them, we can make ourselves a high risk target.

The Opportunity Approach analyzes the "What, Where, and How" of the crime; the Psychological Approach analyzes the "Who".

The Psychological Approach on the other hand (including Behavioural Theory, Biological Theory, and more) attributes a person's criminality to distant personal factors like childhood, genetics, economics, experiences, influences, etc. There are clearly personal factors that lead to a person committing or not committing a crime when the opportunity is presented to them. Precisely,

Every opportunity to commit a crime is an equal opportunity to not commit a crime.

It is not the opportunity that causes crime, but the opportunity is what enables a motivated person to carry out a crime. The thing is, it's far more practical to understand the conditions required for the opportunity than it is to understand the conditions required for a criminal. The study of the personal factors that influence motivation are important for social scientists and academia, but too complex to help individuals assess and avoid danger in the real world. Here's why.

The Four Reasons Psychological Factors Fail To Prevent Crime

1. We still don’t understand what individual factors contribute to criminality with clarity. Even the scientists disagree here, so we don’t have clear data to work with.

Ex. There are people from happy homes and good circumstances who have attacked someone, and there are people from poor upbringings and broken homes that have never attacked someone. Individual factors can hypothetically make someone ‘more likely’ to commit a crime, but none are strong enough to guarantee it.

2. Even if scientists understood it, it would be impossible to teach individuals how to assess people's predisposition to crime on a daily basis. It’s way too complex for quick calculations.

3. This would depend on each individual's skill for character judgement, which is not a stable measure to rely on. Especially where kids are concerned: most abductions are committed by someone the victim already knows and trusts.

Ex. Ted Bundy was a horrific serial killer, but he was continuously described as 'charming', 'handsome', 'sociable', and a 'model student and citizen', by people who knew him. Police said he was so 'normal' that they couldn’t think of him as the 'type of person that could be a vicious killer'. During his trial he charmed his way into many privileges, was allowed to take off his handcuffs, and successfully escaped jail because no one guarded him. Multiple women protested for him and claimed to be in love with him. One became so infatuated with him that she testified on his behalf, and during trial Bundy proposed to her. She remained his wife until his execution, and even had a child with him. Unfortunately our character judgement cannot be relied upon, in part because of #4.

psychology theory in crime
"The Usual Suspects"

4. Violent criminals lie and deceive. They are highly talented at disguise and manipulation, and don’t reveal the information we’d need to figure them out before it’s too late. So even if we understand how to accurately make criminal diagnoses with excellent judgement, we only learn this information about the offender after the crime- if they get caught.

Ex. It was only after Bundy had been caught and studied by criminologists that anyone could recognize individual factors that may have contributed to his murderousness. Even if we understood the psychology- which we don't- violent criminals lie, dupe, and manipulate.

An After-The-Fact Approach to Understanding Motives, Not a Proactive Approach to Preventing Crime

To summarize, people are not capable of assessing criminal dispositions; even scientists disagree on the evidence. Our judgement is handicapped by personal bias and deception on the part of the offender, and we wouldn’t get the information we need to predict criminality until it's too late anyways.

The fact is that studying the person of the crime is an after-the-fact approach for criminologists to piece together motives. It's not an approach that you or I can take to avoid or predict crime.

If I'm being attacked, the attackers motives, justifications, or psycho-social conditions are completely irrelevant to me.

The only information that matters is what I can do to defend myself. If you’re a parent, a potential abductor’s motives are irrelevant. All that matters is helping your child avoid crossing paths with one at the wrong time, and teaching them how to defend themselves to the best of their ability. That’s where the Opportunity Approach comes in. It focuses on elements that individuals can recognize and control proactively.

What does this mean for us?

While it is difficult to teach people how to recognize the characteristics of a criminal, it is easy to teach them to recognize the characteristics of a setting that is conducive to crime. And a setting can't lie. If it's dark it's dark. If it's remote, it's remote. If there's no people around, there's no one around. These observations are not susceptible to deception or flawed judgement. They don't rely on scientific breakthroughs or expert analysis. They are information that is available to each of us before a crime takes place. We just have to learn how to recognize and use it. And that's what good prevention strategies like ours at Girls Who Fight are based on!

To learn our Attack Prevention & Response Curriculum, click here.

To learn more about the Opportunity Approach, click here.

Thanks for reading! If you're interested in self defense and street safety, look around our blog and website, and don't forget to follow our Instagram for great tips.


Author: Gemma Sheehan, Founder of Girls Who Fight Inc.

Gemma is an ex-MMA fighter who started Girls Who Fight Inc to bring the value of martial arts and self defense training to the female audience.


The Girls Who Fight Film By Jennifer Roberts

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