In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Emotions in Criminal Decision Making

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Resources from Psychology and Behavioral Economics
  • Criminological Theory and Emotions
  • Emotions and Offender Decision Making: Empirical Research

Criminology Emotions in Criminal Decision Making
Jean-Louis van Gelder
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 November 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0208


Exceptions aside, emotional processes have failed to occupy a central position in criminological thought, in spite of the fact that they are intrinsically related to issues of crime and criminal justice. As Suzanne Karstedt forcefully argues, “Emotions pervade penal law and the criminal justice system. Offenders, victims and witnesses bring their emotions to the courtroom, criminal courts deal with crimes of passion, and their decisions can occasion public outrage and anger, or feelings of vengeance among victims. Offenders feel shame and remorse when they have transgressed the laws, and offences provoke feelings of moral disgust. At the same time, victims as well as offenders elicit our compassion and sympathy” (Karstedt 2002, cited under General Overviews). Yet surprisingly little systematic research has attempted to measure emotions or assess their influence on crime and related areas of criminal justice. As far as they have, emotions have featured more prominently in qualitative accounts using narrative or ethnographic approaches, compared with quantitative approaches that focus more on the criminal choice process. In recent years, emotions have also received more scholarly attention from more quantitatively oriented scholars, however, and studies are increasingly starting to address how they influence criminal decision making. Other behavioral and cognitive disciplines with more established research traditions on emotions, such as social psychology, can provide valuable input for criminologists in this context. This article provides an overview of the criminological literature on emotions and criminal decision making, and it also draws from relevant research and theorizing from other disciplines.

General Overviews

In spite of renewed interest and several recent works addressing the role of emotions in the context of criminal conduct and criminal justice, research and theorizing on the influence of emotions in criminology is still in its infancy. General overviews can be found in the handbook chapter Benson and Sams 2012 and the articles de Haan and Loader 2002 and Karstedt 2002. Van Gelder, et al. 2013 provides an overview of the role of emotions as they relate to criminal decision processes specifically. The edited volume Karstedt, et al. 2011 contains a series of chapters on the role of emotions in the experience of justice, violence, conflict resolution, and criminal justice institutions. Van Gelder, et al. 2013 is a collection of empirical chapters and essays that focus specifically on the criminal decision process. Given the paucity of emotion research in criminology and the existence of more established research traditions on the relation between emotions and behavior in other fields, readers with an interest this topic are well advised to (also) consult literature from other disciplines in the behavioral and cognitive sciences, such as social and cognitive psychology, as well as behavioral economics, which have more extensive research traditions examining the influence of emotions on human conduct. These disciplines can provide valuable input for our understanding of crime, and of criminal decision processes specifically.

  • Benson, Michael L., and Tara L. Sams. 2012. Emotions, choice and crime. In The Oxford handbook of criminological theory. Edited by Francis T. Cullen and Pamela Wilcox, 494–510. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    One of the few handbook chapters devoted to the role of emotions in criminal conduct. The authors argue that the rational choice perspective provides an inaccurate account of brain functioning and human behavior, and that making use of insights from neuroscience that reveal the importance of emotions can improve our understanding of criminal behavior.

  • de Haan, Willem, and Ian Loader, eds. 2002. Special issue: On the emotions of crime, punishment and social control. Theoretical Criminology 6.3.

    According to the editors, the aim of this special issue is to “stimulate theoretical debate on the relationship between human emotions and crime, punishment and social control.” The issue contains six contributions from sociologists and criminologists on a variety of topics related to crime and criminal justice.

  • Karstedt, Susanne. 2002. Emotions and criminal justice. Theoretical Criminology 6:299–317.

    DOI: 10.1177/136248060200600304

    This think piece discusses a process of “emotionalization of law” that has taken place in the 1990s. It explores changes in the public sphere and in the pattern of emotional culture in late modern societies that are responsible for the “re-emotionalization of the penal realm,” as well as problems that have emerged in the criminal justice system as a consequence of the “return of emotions.”

  • Karstedt, Susanne, Ian Loader, and Heather Strang. 2011. Emotions, crime and justice. Oxford: Hart.

    This edited volume contains a series of diverse contributions from criminologists and sociologists on the role of emotions with respect to topics such as the experience of justice, violence, conflict resolution, and criminal justice institutions.

  • Van Gelder, Jean-Louis, Henk Elffers, Danielle Reynald, and Daniel S. Nagin. 2013. Affect and cognition in criminal decision making. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

    This edited volume contains a collection of think pieces, overviews, and empirical studies, both qualitative and quantitative, on the relation between affect (including emotions) and crime, and intends to provide an update of Cornish and Clarke’s The Reasoning Criminal (1986), which introduced the rational choice perspective to criminology.

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