Criminal psychology

Criminal psychology

Criminal psychology is the study of the wills, thoughts, intentions and reactions of criminals. It is related to the field of criminal anthropology. The study goes deeply into what makes someone commit crime, but also the reactions after the crime, on the run or in court. Criminal psychologists are often called up as witnesses in court cases to help the jury understand the mind of the criminal. Some types of Psychiatry also deal with aspects of criminal behavior.



A major part of Criminal psychology, known as offender profiling, began in the 1940's when the United States Office of Strategic Services asked William L. Langer's son Walter C. Langer, a well renowned psychiatrist, to draw up a profile of Adolf Hitler. After the Second World War British psychologist Lionel Haward while working for the Royal Air Force police, drew up a list of characteristics which high-ranking Nazi war criminals might display, to be able to spot them amongst ordinary captured soldiers and airmen.

In the 1950's, US psychiatrist James A. Brussel drew up what turned to be an uncannily accurate profile of a bomber who had been terrorizing New York.

The fastest development occurred when the FBI opened its training academy, the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), in Quantico, Virginia. It led to the establishment of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime and the violent criminal apprehension program. The idea was to have a system which could pick up links between unsolved major crimes.

In the United Kingdom, Professor David Canter was a pioneer helping to guide police detectives from the mid 1980's to an offender who had carried out a series of serious attacks, but Canter saw the limitations of "offender profiling" - in particular, the subjective, personal opinion of a psychologist. He and a colleague coined the term investigative psychology and began trying to approach the subject from what they saw as a more scientific point of view.


Among the most notable people who criticized how psychology and psychiatry treated crime as an identity is French philosopher Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish. Foucault showed how, since its birth, the prison had been criticized by a reformist movement, which showed that it created a class of professional criminals (recidivists), separated from the popular classes, and often used by the police as informants and to carry out shady acts for the act. In other words, far from stifling criminality, the reformist movement showed that prison created and perpetrated a class of professional criminals. Henceforth, Foucault concluded that the prison's alleged failure (in rehabilitating criminals) was in fact its success, and that it was used as a disciplinary technology to control the population. Foucault also showed that, if the penal system in Early Modern Europe punished the crime in itself, the act itself, the new disciplinary system punished the person, and not the crime. It did not ask: "what did you do?" (as in the classical school of criminology; i.e. Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham), but "who are you?" (as in the Italian school, Cesare Lombroso, etc.) In this frame, the role of criminal anthropology, psychiatry, etc., became evident as a tool used to create the notion of "dangerous persons."

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