Criminology has uncovered a number of factors that can lead someone toward crime.

In 2015 alone, the FBI recorded over one million violent crimes and over eight million property crimes in the United States.* While these numbers are not historically alarming, they do make it clear that crime, in all its forms, is an unfortunate part of our society. But most of us are not criminals. So what drives a small number of us to commit criminal acts?

It’s a question that has plagued humanity since the beginnings of civilization. In modern times, the study of criminology has taken a scientific approach to finding answers. While each person who commits a crime has their own unique reasons and life situation, there are a few overarching factors criminologists believe can contribute to criminal behavior.

Biological Risk Factors

Just like we can’t choose our eye color, we can’t choose the chemical makeup of our brain. This can predispose us to a variety of complications, from clinical depression to epilepsy. Some criminologists believe our biology can also predispose us to criminality. That’s not to say criminals are born that way, just that biological factors—including variances in autonomic arousal, neurobiology, and neuroendocrine functioning—have been shown to increase the likelihood that we might commit criminal acts.

Adverse Childhood Experiences

In the same way that we can’t choose our genetics, we can’t choose how we’re raised as children. Some of us enjoy pleasant, even idyllic, childhoods, while others are less fortunate. Children raised in particularly bad situations are at an increased risk for criminal behavior in both their juvenile and adult years. In fact, research shows that convicted criminals are likely to have experienced four times as many adverse childhood events than non-criminals.

Negative Social Environment

Who we’re around can influence who we are. Just being in a high-crime neighborhood can increase our chances of turning to crime ourselves.§ But being in the presence of criminals is not the only way our environment can affect our behaviors. Research reveals that simply living in poverty increases our likelihood of being incarcerated.** When we’re having trouble making ends meet, we’re under intense stress and more likely to resort to crime.

Substance Abuse

There is no debate that criminal behavior and substance abuse are linked. Eighty percent of the American prison population have abused drugs or alcohol, and nearly 50% are clinically addicted. Additionally, 60% of individuals who are arrested for most crimes test positive for illegal drugs at the time of their arrest.†† Some intoxicants, such as alcohol, lower our inhibitions, while others, such as cocaine, overexcite our nervous system. In all cases, the physiological and psychological changes caused by intoxicants negatively impact our self-control and decision-making. An altered state can lead directly to committing a criminal act. Additionally, those addicted to intoxicants may turn to crime to pay for their habit.

How Can You Learn More About Criminology?

One of the best ways to gain an in-depth understanding of criminology is to earn your BS in Criminal Justice. And one of the best ways to earn this degree is through an online university. Thanks to the benefits of online learning, you can earn your BS in Criminal Justice in a flexible format that works with your busy life. Instead of attending classes on a set schedule at a set location, an online degree program can allow you to better manage your time and avoid conflicts with your job and other responsibilities.

There are a myriad of ways a person can fall into criminal behavior. Earning an online BS in Criminal Justice can help you better understand what influences criminality, and put you on the path to finding a criminal justice job focused on criminal behavior.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an online BS in Criminal Justice program. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.


*Federal Bureau of Investigation, Latest Crime Statistics Released, on the internet at www.fbi.gov/news/stories/latest-crime-statistics-released (2015) and www.fbi.gov/news/stories/latest-crime-stats-released/latest-crime-stats-released (2014).

†L. Wilson and A. Scarpa, Criminal Behavior: The Need for an Integrative Approach That Incorporates Biological Influences, Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, on the internet at http://ccj.sagepub.com/content/28/3/366.short.

‡J. Reavis, J. Looman, K. Franco, and B. Rojas, Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adult Criminality: How Long Must We Live Before We Possess Our Own Lives?, The Permanente Journal, on the internet at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3662280.

§A. Damm and C. Dustmann, Does Growing Up in a High-Crime Neighborhood Affect Youth Criminal Behavior?, The American Economic Review, on the internet at www.ingentaconnect.com/content/aea/aer/2014/00000104/00000006/art00012.

**L. McLaughlin, The Poverty-Crime Connection, Jackson Free Press, on the internet at www.jacksonfreepress.com/news/2011/oct/19/the-poverty-crime-connection.

††The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Alcohol, Drugs and Crime, on the internet at https://ncadd.org/about-addiction/alcohol-drugs-and-crime.

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission, www.hlcommission.org.

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