In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Psychology and Crime

  • Introduction
  • Foundations
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Psychology in Court
  • Risk Assessment
  • Treatment of Offenders

Criminology Psychology and Crime
David Canter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0114


Psychologists have studied many aspects of crime and criminality ever since modern psychology began to emerge in the late 19th century. The founding fathers of psychology taught courses on criminal psychology and considered delinquency at the time they were laying their foundations. Just about every psychological theory has been applied to the consideration of crime or its prosecution, from Freudian psychodynamics to neuropsychology, by way of learning theories and studies of memory. These theories have covered the causes of crime, psychological aspects of criminal investigations, assessment of criminals, court psychology, interventions to reduce offending and help offenders cope with prison, and victimology and the nature of criminal activity, emphasizing behavioral variations between offenses that have the same legal definition. In the last forty years the study of psychological aspects of crime and criminals has also become part of the professional discipline of forensic psychology. Thus, any review of psychology and crime now overlaps with considerations of the professional roles of psychologists in a variety of legal, investigative, correctional, and therapeutic settings. The influence of the legal context and culture as well as the local institutional frameworks, therefore, always needs to be kept in mind when considering publications on psychology and crime. For example, access to offenders in prison for research purposes is currently extremely difficult in the United States but is much easier in developing countries. Consequently, a bias results in what is actually studied depending on where the studies take place. What is considered criminal and how crime is dealt with varies considerably from one jurisdiction to another. These variations carry implications for how readily findings can be generalized or acted on in practice beyond the context in which they were established. Furthermore, many of the considerations of the psychological aspects of crime take place under the umbrella of other disciplines, notably criminology but also socio-legal studies and even jurisprudence. Writings on psychology and crime, consequently, vary in the depth of their scholarship and the validity of their arguments. This qualitative range is further extended by the enormous popular interest in crime, both in fact and in fiction, producing a plethora of opinions on criminals that have little basis in systematic research or even, often, in objective evidence. The purpose of this bibliography is to capture the major psychological publications on crime. Because of the popular interest in this topic, it is of value to refer to some of the early foundations that still haunt public debate before moving on to the rapidly growing range of currently significant research.


Major figures in late 19th century medicine, notably Havelock Ellis (Ellis 1890) and Richard von Krafft-Ebing (von Krafft-Ebing 1998) wrote about criminals as being abnormal in some way, treating criminality as a form of illness or an indication that the offender was less than fully human. They were greatly influenced by Darwinian theories, seeing criminals as some sort of evolutionary throwback to an early stage of human development. This view reached its most extreme form in the writings of Cesare Lombroso, particulary in Lombroso 1911. Such views, embedded in a biological or clinincal explanation of why people become criminals is still a dominant strand in many discussions. It is also still reflected in the fact that psychological studies of crimnals are dominated by examination of bizarre criminal activity, sexual crimes, and homicide. So, although the extremes of Lomborso’s claims, which include reference to physiognomic features that he thought indicated a lower level of human evolution, have long since been discredited, the view that criminals are different from noncriminals still dominates many psychological considerations. A second, rather different strand grew out of a social science tradition that sees criminals as no different from anyone else except for their circumstances. This line of reasoning is most clearly articulated in Sutherland 1924.

  • Ellis, Havelock. 1890. The Criminal. New York: Scribner & Welford.

    Along with von Krafft-Ebing 1998, holds the view of criminality as a form of illness.

  • Lombroso, Cesare. 1911. Crime, its causes and remedies. Translated by Henry P. Horton. London: Little, Brown.

    Originally published in 1899 as Le crime; causes et remédes (Paris: Reinwald).

  • Sutherland, Edwin H. 1924. Criminology. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

    Revised and reprinted many times. In contrast to the clinical psychology emphases, this perspective has tended to focus on more day-to-day crimes such as burglary and delinquency.

  • von Krafft-Ebing, Richard. 1998. Psychopathia sexualis. Translated by Franklin S. Klaf. New York: Arcade.

    A seminal work, originally published in 1886.

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