Psychological Explanations: Psychodynamic

  • Inadequate Superego Theory
    • Tripartite structure of personality – id, ego, superego
    • Superego formed at the end of the phallic stage when children resolve the Oedipus/Electra complex
    • Superego – morality principle, punishes ego through guilt or rewards with pride
    • Blackburn (1993) – if the superego is somehow deficient then criminal behaviour is inevitable. 3 types of inadequate superego:
  • WEAK SUPEREGO – if same-sex parent is absent during phallic stage, the child cannot internalise a fully formed superego, no opportunity for identification, makes immoral or criminal behaviour more likely
  • DEVIANT SUPEREGO – if the superego the child internalises has immoral or deviant values this leads to offending behaviour, eg: a boy with a criminal father would not associate guilt with criminality
  • OVER-HARSH SUPEREGO – excessively punitive superego means individual is crippled with guilt or anxiety, could unconsciously drive them towards criminal acts in order to satisfy need for punishment


Little Supporting Evidence – very little evidence supporting the idea that children raised without same-sex parents are more prone to criminality or fail to develop a conscience – no basis in evidence means low validity.

Alternative Explanations – children with criminal parents going on to be criminals could be due to genetic or environmental factors rather than formation of a deviant superego. The idea that criminal behaviour reflects an unconscious desire for punishment seems implausible, as most offenders go to great lengths to conceal their crimes which suggests they want to avoid punishment at all costs.

Gender Bias and Implications – Martin Hoffman (1975) – hardly any evidence of gender differences and where there was, girls tended to be more moral than boys – Freud’s theory suggests girls would develop a weaker superego than boys due to not experiencing castration anxiety, they are under less pressure to identify with their mothers so superego must be less fully realised, therefore females should be more prone to criminal behaviour  but this is wrongly assumed shown by male-female ration inmates in prison.

Lacks Scientific Credibility – considered ‘pseudo-scientific’, lack of falsifiability due to abstract concepts which can’t be empirically tested – contribute little to our overall understanding of crime due to its lack of supporting evidence.


  • Maternal Deprivation Theory
    • John Bowlby (1944) – argued that ability to form meaningful relationships as an adult dependant on child forming a warm, continuous relationship with a mother-figure (this bond seen as unique, superior and vital)
    • Failure to establish such a bond -> child will experience a number of damaging and irreversible consequences later in life, such as affectionless psychopathy.
    • Maternally deprived individuals likely to offend and cannot develop close relationships with others.
    • 44 Juvenile Thieves Study
      • Investigated 44 juvenile thieves through interviews with them and their families
      • 14 showed characteristics of affectionless psychopathy; 12 of which experienced prolonged separation from mothers during infancy (particularly first 2 years)
      • Non-criminal control group: only 2 experienced similar maternal deprivation.
Supporting Evidence – Bowlby’s 44 Thieves Study – identifies link between maternal deprivation and criminality/affectionless psychopathy. Weak Evidence – Bowlby’s study accused of researcher bias, interviews participants himself and may have influenced answers; also failed to draw distinction between deprivation and privation, as many thieves had experienced privation, not deprivation – suggests that supporting research may lack validity.

Opposing Research – Hilda Lewis (1954) – analysed data drawn from interviews with 500 young people, found that maternal deprivation a poor predictor of future offending or ability to form future relationships – not necessarily a link between deprivation and delinquency.

Third-Variable – could be more easily explained to due genetic factors or differential association