What is psychodynamic theory in criminology

Those who enter the criminal justice field quickly learn that understanding criminology theories for why people turn to crime is key to reducing crime rates and making society safer. After three decades of research, three major psychological theories of time have emerged: psychodynamic theory, behavioral theory and cognitive theory. 

Learning these criminology theories and how to put them into practice is a component of an online Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice degree program. For many students, understanding why people commit crimes is one of the major reasons they want to enter the criminal justice field. 

What Influences Behavior in Criminals?


The three major criminal theories have emerged after decades of research on the criminal mind. The psychodynamic theory centers on a person’s early childhood experience and how it influences the likelihood for committing crime. Behavioral theory focuses on how perception of the world influences behavior. And cognitive theory focuses on how people manifest their perceptions can lead to a life of crime. 

Psychodynamic Theory 


This theory largely comes to us from the mind of noted psychologist Sigmund Freud. He argued that everyone has instinctual drives (called the “id”) that demand gratification. Moral and ethical codes (called the “superego”) regulate these drives, and adults later develop a rational personality (called the “ego”) that mediates between the id and superego. Based on this idea, criminal behavior is seen primarily as a failure of the superego. 

More generally, psychodynamic theory sees criminal behavior as a conflict between the id, ego and superego. This conflict can lead to people developing problematic behavior and delinquency. The challenge with this theory is it is difficult to test. 

Behavioral Theory


This theory revolves around the idea that human behavior develops through experience. Specifically, behavioral theory focuses on the idea that people develop their behavior based on the reaction their behavior gets from those around them. This is a form of conditioning, where behavior is learned and reinforced by rewards or punishment. 

So, if a person is in the company of those who condone and even reward criminal behavior – especially a figure of authority – then they will continue to engage in that behavior. For example, social learning theorist Albert Bandura maintains individuals are not born with an innate ability to act violently. He instead suggests people learn violent behavior through observing others. Typically, this comes from three sources: family, environmental experiences and the mass media. 

Cognitive Theory 


Cognitive theory focuses on how people perceive the world and how this perception governs their actions, thoughts and emotions. Most cognitive theorists break down the process into three levels of what is called “moral development.”  

  • Pre-conventional level

    . This involves children and how they learn the external consequences of their actions.


  • Conventional level

    . This involves teens and young adults, who begin to base behavior on society’s views and expectations.


  • Post-conventional level

    . In those over the age of 20, the focus is more on judging the moral worth of societal values and rules and how they relate to values of liberty, human welfare and human rights


 In the area of crime, cognitive theorists argue that criminals do not develop moral judgment  beyond a pre-conventional level. 

All three of these criminology theories undergo constant scrutiny and revision, but they provide the foundations upon which current ideas are based. These theories are one of the most interesting aspects of criminology learned by those who enter a criminal justice degree program. 

Sigmund Freud proposed the idea of the unconscious, which formed the basis for his psychodynamic theory. He was one of the most influential (and infamous) psychologists we know today. The main assumption of Freud’s theory was the idea that the personality or psyche has a fixed structure consisting of the ego, the id, and the superego.

What is the basis of psychodynamic theories for offensive behaviour?

Freud believed that most of our everyday actions and behaviours are the product of the unconscious. The unconscious is a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, drives, and memories outside of our conscious awareness. Overall, traumatic experiences can manifest in many different ways. The psychodynamic theory focuses on the unconscious, such as how past memories and traumas still affect you in the present, even if you are not fully aware of them.

The personality is built throughout childhood, and the child goes through psychosexual stages of development. Internal, unconscious psyche conflicts (such as your sexual urges and aggressive feelings) or unconscious defence mechanisms mediate anything that makes you uncomfortable.

The main focus is on the superego in the psychodynamic explanation for offensive behaviour. The superego, often referred to as the morality principle, regulates behaviours based on rewards or punishments. It develops during the phallic stage.

The approach acknowledges the early life experiences and how this has impacted a child’s development through to adulthood. Freud established the idea of the unconscious mind and the three-part personality model, which may give us an insight into why offending behaviours occur, by exploring the moral component.


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sychodynamic theories of personality

What are the key elements of psychodynamic theory? Traumatic memories from early development are repressed in the unconscious mind (hidden from your awareness). However, psychodynamic psychologists suggest that the events are never truly forgotten and can be explored through psychology.

Sigmund Freud stressed that the first five years of life are crucial to the formation of the adult personality. The Id must be controlled so that the child can satisfy social demands. The development process is a process with five stages, generally referred to as the psychosexual stage model:



oral stage Birth to 1 year

The focus at this stage is the experience of pleasure perceived through the month.


anal stage 1 to 3 years

This is an essential period for ego development. For example, this is the stage by which the child becomes aware of reality outside the home. It’s when the child starts leaving the nappies and going to the toilet. It is the phase that a child becomes aware of societal rules, for example, going to the toilet. The focus at this stage is the anus.


phallic stage 3 to 6 years

The superego develops during this stage. During this stage, the child goes through the Oedipus and Electra complex. It is an important moment for overcoming unconscious desires directed to the mother for boys, father for girls, identifying with their father to boys or mother to girls. The focus at this stage is the genitals.

In the

latent stage 6 years to puberty

The sexual energy drive from the previous stage becomes latent, so the child can focus on the world around them. The focus of this stage is hidden.

The genital stagePuberty +This is the final stage, and it culminates with the psychosexual energy taking place in the genitals, to be directed towards the formation of adult relationships. The focus of this stage is on forming romantic relationships.

These stages are the driving force in child development. The driving force is vital when expressing our sexual energy or libido. Freud believed that living is about being in between tension and pleasure, linking it to unresolved adult conflicts which co-relate with fixations.

What are the psychodynamic personality structures?

The structure of personality is divided into three parts as follows:

The id

The id operates in the most primitive parts of our personality and is also related to the unconscious mind. It contains the libido or the biological energy reproductive instincts created.

If a person is hungry, the id is demanding, and when it wants to eat, for example, it wants it now!

The id relies on the pleasure principle and demands immediate gratification regardless of the circumstances.

The ego

The ego mediates between the impulsive demands of the Id and the reality of the external world.

For example, it may delay gratifying the id until it is more appropriate to satisfy its demands.

It must also compromise between the impulsive needs of the Id and the moralistic demands of the superego.

The superego

The superego is driven by the values and morals of a society that are learned from childhood from parents and others. It is characterised by the ‘inner voice’ that lets us know when we have crossed the line, behaving in a way that conflicts with our true self.

The conscience is the internalisation of societal rules. It determines which behaviours are allowed and causes feelings of guilt when rules are broken.

Psychodynamic theory: criminology

The psychodynamic explanations for crime tend to focus on the superego because it is the part that reflects morality, and is also seen as the morality principle. The superego develops during the phallic stage when the child goes through the Oedipus or the Electra complex.

“One might compare the relation of the ego to the id with that between a rider and his horse. The horse provides the locomotor energy, and the rider has the prerogative of determining the goal and of guiding the movements of his powerful mount towards it. But all too often in the relations between the ego and the id, we find a picture of the less ideal situation in which the rider is obliged to guide his horse in the direction in which it itself wants to go.”

– Sigmund Freud1

According to Freud, the sense of morality is developed through the internalisation of the same-sex parent. When a child develops a sense of right or wrong, they will learn it from their father or father figure and the girl from their mother or the mother figure. The child resolves the respective gender complexes during this stage by identifying with the same-sex parent and imitating them.

The explanations for crime revolve around the superego (Blackburn, 1993)

According to Blackburn, there are three different explanations for how the superego can lead you to criminal behaviour, based on the superego explanations that suggest that the superego is underdeveloped.

Weak superego

This happens due to the absence of a mother or father figure during the child’s phallic stage. If the same-sex parent is not around when the child internalises morality, it can become an issue.

Those with a weak superego may lack identity and be unable to make decisions on right or wrong, unable to internalise what is right or wrong and why.

Deviant superego

The internalisation of deviant values is absorbed from the mother or father figure. If the same-sex parent is present, and they are a criminal or have violent attitudes or anything considered deviant according to the social culture, these ideas will be passed on to the child, who will internalise a superego with immoral values.

Over-harsh superego

Satisfying the superego’s desire and need for punishment, the over-harsh superego causes crippling guilt for those involved, and criminal behaviours are enacted to receive punishment. If your superego is over-harsh, it is more likely to have unkind attitudes and overcritical parents.

So you are more likely to second guess, and devalue yourself, and be overly self-critical. It is also likely to be excessively punitive and create crippling guilt for behaviour, whether it’s worthy or not. In the case of behaviour that is deserving of guilt, someone with an overly punitive ego may feel even more guilt.

Having a negative and harsh internal voice can often drive people to try to escape that inner voice by using techniques that may be seen as immoral, such as alcoholism, drug use and impulsive, risky behaviour. People with an over-harsh superego may also turn to criminal acts because they are trying to satisfy their superego need for punishment.

Psychodynamic theories examples: offending behaviour

Any conflict between these three forces or an imbalance between them could cause delinquent and deviant behaviour in a person. An approach called psychoanalytic criminology is drawn from Freudian psychoanalysis, which uses a method to study crimes and criminal behaviour.

The psychodynamic theory of crime relies on ideas of the id, ego, and superego. Freud believed these forces exist in all humans, that the id represents our most basic desires and impulses, the superego represents morality, and that the ego was the understanding of societal norms.

We are going to explain the case of a serial killer, Ted Bundy, who had a traumatic childhood, and malfunctions during his development that may have led him to become a notorious serial killer.

Psychodynamic Theories and the Moral Component, image reading fbi most wanted fugitives, StudySmarterFig. 2 Ted Bundy was on the FBI’s most wanted list,

Ted Bundy confessed to committing at least 30 homicides of females between 1974 and 1978. This number prosecuted him, but the police believe the number of victims to be higher than that. Psychodynamic psychologists believe he could have had an issue with mistrust at an early age and that this kind of disorder starts in childhood when the child develops trust or mistrust towards their father or mother figure.

Ted grew up thinking that his grandparents were his parents. It might have been difficult for him to process all of that during such early stages of life. Ted’s grandparents were also very aggressive with him and his brothers. Psychodynamic theorists claim that when a child is subjected to violent family or parental conflicts, it can create developmental disorders.

Ted has mentioned the grandparents in a few interviews and has spoken well about them, especially his grandfather who has been a character with who he identified. However, other family members have told the attorneys that Samuel Cowell, the grandfather, was a tyrannical bully who despised blacks, Italians, Catholics and jews, beat his wife and family dog, and would not respect even the neighbour’s pets.

With this information in mind, it could be that Ted’s environment played a significant role in his antisocial behaviours, affecting his superego development.

How does Bowlby’s psychodynamic theory support the case?

Bowlby has also contributed to the psychodynamic approaches with the maternal deprivation hypothesis. He claimed that infants deprived of a mother figure during the first early years of life will suffer severe and even permanent consequences, as it is a critical attachment period.

The consequences of a lack of attachment may vary from mental abnormalities, delinquency, affectionless psychopathology, depression and even dwarfism. This is covered in his 44 thieves study.

Evaluation of psychodynamic approach: unconscious motives behind criminal behaviour

Freud’s theory on the Oedipus and Electra complex has been heavily criticised. Freud argued that females were less moral than males. He would justify it by explaining the mechanisms of Oedipus and Electra complexes which says that boys fear the castration by the father for their immoral transgressive thoughts, and girls fear only losing maternal love.

However, males typically commit more crimes than females do, which Freud would consider immoral. Still, family influence is undeniably a factor in criminality, and individuals with delinquent families are more likely to turn to crime. Overall, the theory is heavily gender-biased.

The theory can also only provide an argument for correlation, not causation. If we are to take Blackburn’s theory, for example, there is no evidence suggesting that a same-sex parent’s absence would cause a child to commit more crime. In addition, there are rules to be followed so you will acquire good behaviour, but if these rules are broken, you are going to be punished for it normally. The idea of the over-harsh superego and the wish to be punished does not stand up to scrutiny.

Psychodynamic Theories and The Moral Component – Key takeaways

  • The main focus is on the superego in the psychodynamic explanation for offensive behaviour and the moral component.
  • The superego, often referred to as the morality principle, regulates behaviours based on rewards or punishments.
  • According to Blackburn, there are three different explanations for how the superego can lead you to criminal behaviour: a weak superego, a deviant superego, and an over-harsh superego.

  • The explanation is that psychodynamic theory focuses on the influence of early life experiences and their impact on your development.
  • People with an over-harsh superego may turn to criminal acts because they try to satisfy their superego’s need for punishment.


  1. Freud, S. (1932/1990). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. WW Norton.
  2. Fig. 2 – Fbi most wanted fugitives-2 ( by Ventdorage ( is licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (

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