Psychoanalysis And Criminology: Understanding The Psychology Of Crime


The discipline of psychoanalysis has long been instrumental to criminologists in understanding the psychology of crime. Psychoanalysis, a subset of psychiatry, emerged from the work of Sigmund Freud in the early part of the twentieth century, and has been hugely influential on the theory and practice of criminology. Central to a psychological analysis of criminal behaviour is the idea that the latter emerges as a direct result of the personality, and in particular as a symptom of a misaligned personality.

At the heart of the theory of psychoanalysis is the concept that human action and thought is largely controlled by the unconscious. Freud postulated that personality is comprised of three parts; id, ego and super ego, which operate in a state of constant conflict with one another.

The Ego

The ego is the only conscious part of the personality, and is dominated by the reality principle; in other words, it is naturally oriented towards the real environment in which it functions. It mediates the needs of the id and superego in an attempt to conform with the social boundaries and norms with which the individual has been reared.

The ID

The id contains all of our urges and impulses. Like a child, the id responds to the pleasure principle and little else, displaying a generalised sexual energy that drives everything from our basest survival instincts to our responsive pleasure in aesthetic form.

The Superego

In opposition to the id stands the superego, embodying all of our harshest self-criticisms and prohibitions. An oft-repeated cliche about Freudian theory goes along the lines of ‘everything is the fault of your mother’ and this stems from the idea that the superego develops as a direct result of one’s first deep emotional attachment, which is almost always a mother or maternal figurehead. When a parent offers or withhold praise and affection, a child internalises the conditions (real or imagined) under which they earn love, and carries those through to their adult self as superego in the form of harsh self-imposed codes of conduct.

Under this model, criminal behaviour occurs where the id reacts to the repressive qualities of the super-ego by acting out inappropriately. There are a number of forms of this acting-out; criminologists believe that the most common explanation for criminal behaviour specifically is the idea of displacement.

Displacement occurs where both the id and super-ego are very strong, and ego is weak, meaning that the person settles for a substitute to their actual desire. A strong desire to gratify urges and an equally strong repressive influence that prevents this being pursued in a socially healthy way leads to anti-social behaviour that does little to satiate the underlying want. Where id and super-ego exist in a state of constant heightened conflict, emotional disturbance inevitably follows and brings with it anti-social behaviours such as aggression.

An alternative theory, put forward by neo-Freudians, is that criminal behaviour is linked to an overdeveloped id and underdeveloped super-ego, meaning that desires are pursued without thought for social boundaries or prescription.

Central to both theories, however, is the idea that criminal behaviour is a result of psychological damage and can, therefore, potentially be healed. Through use of psychoanalysis, the patient is encouraged to experience ‘transference’, whereby they re-enact or re-live their early, formative childhood experiences with their therapist and work through the messages offered to them in their childhood and subliminated, in order to bolster the ego and allow appropriate mediation of the id and super-ego. If proper therapy is not made available, the patient will in all likelihood enact a version of the same relationship with proximate others, repeating and reinforcing maladaptive behavioural patterns.

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By Nick Davison

This post was written by Nick Davison, Nick writes about Lacanian and Freudian Psychoanalytical theory on Lacanians In Praxis.


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