• info@euasu.org
  • +16465832920


James O. Finckenauer,
Organized crime expert, author,
distinguished Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University,
former Director of the National Institute of Justice, Washington DC.
Academician of European Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.

This paper will address two aspects of the general topic of the role of mentality in human life and culture.  Approaching this topic from the perspective of criminology — the study of crime and criminals — we will first describe the mentality or the state of mind of the criminal, and how that mindset comes to be shaped.  Second, we will consider in particular the influence of the city, of urban living, on criminal attitudes and behavior.

The Formation of a Criminal Mentality

As with all human behavior, criminal behavior is the product of some combination of nature and nurture.  That is, it is a combination and an interaction between certain characteristics with which an individual is born, e.g., cognitive ability, impulse control, temperament, etc., and the influence over the course of that individual’s development of the external social environment into which a child is born, raised, and ultimately matures.  It should be readily apparent that the interactions between nature and nurture and their effects are extremely variable, and thus any attempt to “explain” something as complex as criminal behavior should be undertaken with caution.  With that in mind, let us begin with the biological roots of criminal behavior — the nature part of the equation.

The Born Criminal

It should be noted that the consideration of biology and crime has long been quite a controversial topic in criminology.  The dominant model for explaining criminal behavior, which we will indeed consider in a bit, has been one that focuses on the social environment, on nurture in all its varieties.  There have, however, been scholars and scientists who have challenged this focus.  One of them is a former colleague of mine at the University of Pennsylvania, Adrian Raine.  Raine argues that the “sole reliance on … social perspectives [to explain crime] is fundamentally flawed” (Raine, 2013: p.8).  Instead, he says, physiological functioning affects thinking, personality and behavior, “including the propensity to break the laws” (p.8).  Referring to what he calls neurocriminology, Raine says that a combination of genetic makeup and brain functioning can (and does) influence whether or not individuals commit crimes.  He does not, however, dismiss external environmental influences on behavior.  Instead, he concludes that “social factors are critical both in interacting with biological forces in causing crime, and in directly producing the biological changes that predispose a person to violence [in particular]” (p.9).

Perhaps the first and clearest example of a criminal mentality seen to have biological roots is that associated with the so-called psychopath.  I use the term so-called because there are considerable differences of opinion about just what constitutes psychopathy, and what its role is with relation to criminal behavior.  There is general agreement, however, that not all criminals are psychopaths, and that not all psychopaths are criminals.  So, what are some of the characteristics associated with psychopathy?  These include being somewhat (or completely) amoral, being impulsive, having few inhibitions, and especially related to being a victimizer, as lacking in empathy.  This last means the criminal does not put himself or herself into the position of the victim.  They do not anticipate the harm, the hurt, that the victim is going to feel when they assault, rob or rape them.  In fact, they may even blame the victim for putting themselves in the position to be victimized.  The absence of empathy and of any of moral feeling, of a guilty conscience, means the psychopathic criminal does not anticipate or experience guilt about victimizing others. Thus, one of the greatest constraints on criminal behavior is absent in these individuals.  But as mentioned above, the absence of empathy does not necessarily lead to criminal behavior.  This characteristic, along with some others generally associated with psychopathy, such as having superficial charm and good verbal skills, means that such individuals can become successful in legitimate fields without resorting to crime.  Some examples that come to mind are sales, marketing, financial advising, public relations, etc., where the ends may be seen as justifying the means. Let me emphasize that I am not, by any means, saying that anyone working in any of these fields must necessarily be a psychopath!

In sum, on the relation between biology and crime — on the role of nature — it is safe to say that there are indeed certain individuals who seem to be born with a set of characteristics and propensities that incline them to criminal behavior.  But whether they actually become criminals depends upon that other major determinant of behavior, namely how they grow and develop in the particular social environment that nurtures them.

The Socialization of the Criminal

The field of criminology is replete with sociological theories of crime.  In fact, criminology is itself a derivative of sociology.  Among the more influential of these various theories are those that propose that criminal behavior is a form of learned behavior.   One of the earliest proponents of this theory was the noted American criminologist, Edwin Sutherland.  Sutherland developed a theory he called Differential Association, which proposed that criminal behavior is learned through association with criminal persons and criminal ideas and attitudes. In other words, persons become criminals because they grow up and live in a criminal environment that supports law breaking.  In his or her association with persons who espouse criminal values, the neophyte criminal learns not only the attitudes and rationalizations that justify criminal behavior, but also the techniques necessary for actually committing crimes.

It should be obvious that the role of peers and of peer pressure is quite important, in fact critical, in this process.  All human beings, almost without exception, want to belong to and be accepted by other human beings.  This is because we are in essence social animals.  In order to be accepted by those individuals and groups that are most important to us, we shape our own behavior and attitudes to fit theirs.  If the individuals and groups in certain neighborhoods that happen to have the most status, also happen to be criminal gangs and be members of criminal gangs, for example, then it is probable that differential association and the learning of criminal behavior is going to occur.           

One such example of how this process works is that offered by sociologist Elijah Anderson in what he calls the “code of the streets” (See Anderson, 1999).  This code, says Anderson, operates in certain neighborhoods where long standing structural decay has spawned a kind of subculture that stands in opposition to conventional mostly law-abiding values.  Persons growing up and living in these neighborhoods and in this subculture may reject conventional values and behavioral norms, and replace them with the code of the street.  Why do they seemingly make this choice?  Because at least in part they suffer the social isolation characteristic of dilapidated neighborhoods, and the limitation of opportunities to achieve status through conventional means, such as through jobs and education. This idea is very similar to Richard Cloward’s and Lloyd Ohlin’s theory of delinquency and opportunity (Cloward & Ohlin, 1960), wherein they pointed out that faced with an absence of legitimate opportunities in the neighborhoods in which they were growing up, young people are led and maybe even forced into taking advantage of the illegitimate opportunities that are available, thus turning to criminal behavior.

For another perspective on how social learning may affect mentality in a way that influences the potential for criminal behavior, one can look to the field of legal socialization (See Finckenauer, 1990, 2018).  In what is, in a sense, the opposite of learning criminal behavior, legal socialization, which encompasses moral and legal development, is learning law-abidingness, respect for the rule of law, and a sense of obligation to obey the law.  To put it most simply, people learn to not engage in criminal behavior simply because it is wrong.  Children and young people learn right from wrong in a process that rewards and reinforces doing right, and disapproves of and sanctions doing wrong.

The effect of the social environment on this learning, and an instance of Anderson’s code of the street perhaps coming into play, is with what is called procedural justice (See Tyler, 2006).  Procedural justice refers to the nature of the interactions that people have with various authority figures in growing up and in their daily lives.  In the case of children, their first authority figures are their parents, then teachers — then later on maybe police officers and judges.  What becomes critical to their legal socialization is how these interactions with authority figures play out.  Is the nature of any interaction that may occur around some alleged misbehavior perceived to be fair by the person accused?  By fair is usually meant having the opportunity to explain, to be heard, to “have their day in court” so to speak.  Even in instances when the accused is ultimately determined to be guilty of whatever transgression is alleged, if the procedure is judged by that miscreant to have been fair and just, then they are much more willing to accept the verdict and to have their general commitment to law-abidingness reinforced. Of course, the opposite is also true.  If the procedure is seen to have been unfair and unjust, then there is less incentive to feel an obligation to obey the law, and therefore an increased likelihood of criminal behavior as peer pressure and the code of the street come into play.

Within the interplay of nature and nurture, an argument has been made that there is still choice operating – that is that individuals (irrespective of their biological makeups and social environments) make conscious choices to engage (or not) in criminal behavior. Indeed, there is what is called the rational choice theory of crime (See e.g., Cornish & Clarke, 2014).  Briefly, this theory proposes that criminals are rational actors who, in contemplating committing a crime, take account of the degree of risk involved, the potential reward, and the degree of effort required.  In so doing, they are said to be making a rational choice.  Without denying that there is a degree of choice involved with criminal behavior, as indeed there is with all behavior, other scholars have pointed to factors that go beyond risk, reward and effort in making this choice.  These can include feelings of guilt and shame, of some moral reservations about harm and wrongfulness, and even of being subjected to some degree of provocation.  And it is these sorts of factors that may be considered to be mitigating factors in any individual’s degree of culpability for a particular crime.   So, is there choice involved in criminal behavior?  Yes!  But is it totally unfettered choice?  No!  Rational choice is actually bounded and limited by any number of factors, including those present in the socio-economic environment. As another former colleague is reputed to have said: “People make choices, but they cannot choose the choices open to them.”

City Life and Criminal Behavior

One way to classify the environments in which all of us grow up and live, is to sort them into urban, suburban and rural types.  In addition to the obvious differences in population size and density across these types, there are a number of cultural, economic and social differences that account for differential effects on human behavior, including criminal behavior.  Here we will look briefly at some of the contrasting characteristics of urban versus suburban and rural living that seem to account for cities being the most criminogenic of the three types.  The latter point is reflected in the fact that by just about every statistical measure of crime and criminal victimization, there are higher rates in cities than in suburban and rural areas.  What accounts for that?

First, cities are much more heterogenous in character.  They are more likely to have people from different cultures and backgrounds coming to live together.  And because of differing values and norms of behavior, there are more likely to be cultural clashes as a result.  Rural areas and so-called farm country, in contrast, are much more likely to be populated by people who share the same values and norms; they are much more homogeneous.   Because of their smaller and more homogeneous populations, persons who live in rural areas are more likely to know one another, and perhaps even be related.  On a personal note, I grew up in a small town in a neighborhood in which most people were related to one another.  Persons living among friends, neighbors, and relatives are much less likely to be victimizing one another.  That does not mean that there is no crime, but it does mean there is much less crime.  It should be noted, however, that in the case of certain specific crimes, they seem to occur at roughly the same rates irrespective of the geographical setting – domestic violence is one such example.  But in general, in cities, potential criminals are much more likely to find strangers to victimize.  With strangers there is anonymity, and reflecting back on a point made earlier, there is less likely to be empathy with such possible victims.

A second factor to be considered is that people who grow up in rural areas often choose to migrate to the city because they are seeking greater opportunities.  It is true that in cities there are more educational, social and employment possibilities – in most cases, much more – than in rural areas.  It is also true that there are more criminal opportunities as well.  As a theory of criminal behavior known as routine activities theory suggests, where there are more motivated offenders, more available targets for victimization, and a lesser presence of capable guardians, there is greater likelihood of crime – and cities reflect all of these characteristics.

Because of the crowding that often characterizes cities, there is greater stress and tension.  This means that in public settings where strangers are crowded together and stressed out, and where people may feel their personal space is being violated, disagreements can break out, and these can result in violence. Examples of this include such, what would otherwise be relatively mundane acts, as being cut-off while driving one’s car on the highway, or even in an argument over a parking space for one’s car.  In these instances, the pressures of urban living create a certain mentality that can then be the basis for violence.

The greater stress and tension can have a negative impact on family life as well.  One of the repercussions of a breakdown of the family is to make children, especially older children, more receptive to joining outside groups – especially groups of peers.  Such groups may include juvenile gangs, which offer young adolescents an acceptance and a sense of belonging that they are not getting from their family.  Unfortunately, it is just such juvenile gangs that may have as one of their principal activities engaging in criminal activity.  This is thus another aspect of city living that accounts for there being more crime.

A final factor to be considered in accounting for higher crime rates in cities is the drug problem.  Again, clearly there are drugs and drug problems in suburban and rural areas.  But in the cities, just as with other aspects of city life, there are more drugs, a greater variety of drugs, and more opportunities to use drugs with anonymity.  Drug trafficking is more lucrative in the city simply because there are many more customers.  Drugs are related to crime in at least three ways – selling is a crime, using in most instances is a crime, and drug use can be a precipitator of other crimes such as robbery and theft.  In sum, drugs are another major factor in crime in the city.

To conclude – what I have attempted to demonstrate here is that what can be regarded as the criminal mentality or mindset is the product of a number of forces.  Some of those derive from the biological makeup of an individual, and others derive from the social environment, the family background, the peer groups, and so on, with which any individual becomes associated over their lifetime.  And of particular note is the specific influence of city living in each of these areas.  But finally, it should be said that none of these forces, individually or collectively, predict with 100 percent accuracy who will and will not become a criminal.  This last is testament to the unique, and in many ways wondrous, nature of human beings!



Anderson, E. (1999) Code of the Street:  Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co.

Cloward, R. A. and L. E. Ohlin (1960) Delinquency and Opportunity: A Theory of Delinquent Gangs.  Glencoe, Il: The Free Press.

Cornish, D. and R. V. Clarke (2014) The Reasoning Criminal: Rational Choice Perspectives on Offending.  London, UK:  Routledge.

Finckenauer, J. O. (1990) “Legal Socialization Theory:  A Precursor to Comparative Research in the Soviet Union,” Advances in Criminological Theory, Vol. 2.

Finckenauer, J. O. (2018) Russian Youth:  Law, Deviance, and the Pursuit of Freedom.  New York, NY:  Routledge.

Raine, A.  (2013) The Anatomy of Violence:  The Biological Roots of Crime.  New York, NY: Pantheon.

Tyler, T. R. (2006) Why People Obey the Law (2nd Ed.) New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.