Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

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| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Criminal Personality Variables

  • Roger S. SousaEmail author
  • Sophia Lóren de Holanda Sousa
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_3205-1



Criminal personality variables are understood as individual aspects that seem to influence involvement in criminal behavior.


Criminal behavior is related to several variables, both environmental and individual. Several researchers point out different elements for the explanation of crime starting from the various theoretical points of view. Criminology has added most of these explanations to a field of study and practice as it constitutes an overlap of several sciences. Among these, psychology has made several contributions, both in theorizing and in intervening in criminal behavior. One of the main elements of study within psychology, more specifically investigations of criminal behavior, is personality.

In the field of psychology, personality is one of the most frequently studied and debated concepts. However, Allport (1955) already argued that personality is a very complex concept to be summed up. In general, for him, facets of personality guide specific behaviors and ideas, representing a more stable tendency to act, feel, and think. Variables of personality have long been used to explain criminal behavior. However, evolutionary psychology has not always assisted in the development of research in this area. However, personality has also been studied from the standpoint of evolutionary psychology, which has developed theories about this (life history theory, environmental heterogeneity in fitness optimal and frequency dependent selection), which is better explained throughout this chapter.

In this topic, the term crime is used as shorthand to refer to behaviors that violate laws and social norms. This choice is due to the complexity of the phenomena discussed here, crime and personality, as among these several forms of relationship are observed, depending on the variables of personality and the type of crime chosen. Throughout the topic we try to avoid too much explanation of specific crimes; the intention here is to introduce the reader to this subject, which may lead them to study in more depth the crime or personality variables that are of interest.

Individual Differences

A major field in psychology, in a general way, is that which researches the differences that any person shows. In many approaches this interest has been present too, and evolutionary psychology is no different. For a long time, the main concern, and consequently the advances, of scientists was to understand, starting from evolution, what might explain many human behaviors. Areas such as sexuality and sexual conflicts, mating strategies, parenting, among many others, have gone through great advances, theoretically and empirically. However, the difference among individuals, and in this context, the personality, had been inadequately explored. More recently, this situation has changed owing to several researchers who have been dedicated to investigating the individual differences (Buss 2009; Del Giudice et al. 2015; Figueredo et al. 2015).

Buss (2009) has already emphasized the importance of investigating individual differences, and he lists four reasons for this. In the first of them he argues that the individual differences have been largely recorded, whether they relate to physical (body type, sleep rhythm, etc.) or psychological (dominance, pleasantness, intelligence, etc.) aspects. In the second reason he claims that most of these differences have hereditary components, besides presenting stability over time. For the third reason he declares that this stability has been revealed as an influencing element in central evolutionary issues, such as survival, mating success, production of offspring, etc. Last, Buss argues that individuals present significant differences between sexes in a feature that already shows differences between sexes. Mating strategies are an example of this. Some individuals may prefer long-term strategies, whereas others would prefer a short-term strategy, and yet others can prefer a mixed mating strategy.

Some of these explanations are presented in a summarized way, to facilitate the understanding of the relationship between personality and crime. The purpose of this topic is not to discuss the different arguments related to individual differences; we refer the reader to the topic “Evolutionary Personality Psychology” of this encyclopedia, Buss (2009) or Figueredo et al. (2015).

One of the main explanatory theories of individual differences is life history theory. According to this theory, we possess limited resources during life, such as time, energy, the ability to strive, obliging us to trade off among life functions, and consequently resulting in various adaptive problems (Figueredo et al. 2015). Thus, relative to reproductive success, choosing to allocate energy to body development is to abandon developing parenting characteristics, or other types of kind investment, as resources are limited and allocating both requires more than can be offered.

The allocation of accessible resources happens according to several variables, such as qualities and defects of the individual, the life expectancy, the amount of energy available. In dealing with questions related to gene transmission, species that have a large life span end up allocating resources in the development of characteristics related to parenting, as is the case with mammals. However, species with a short life span seem to opt for effective strategies in the short term, experience high fertility with a large number of partners, to the detriment of characteristics associated with parenting, as is the case for most insects (Del Giudice et al. 2015).

In a first look, the life history theory can hold in a clear way the differences between species, as the individual intraspecies differences define an individual’s life history orientation. The same way as the distinct environments produced differences among the species, they made differences within the species. If an non-human organism grows in a severe, unpredictable, environment, with a short life span, it is probable that this organism will engage in behaviors that can carry certain risks; furthermore, it will act impulsively and aggressively (Mishra et al. 2017). In the same way, a person who grows up in a social context marked by a short life expectancy can engage in risk behaviors, aimed at satisfying the needs of the moment, giving scope for engagement in criminal behavior (Richardson et al. 2017).

From this point of view, the social context of the individual has an influence on the resources that the person possesses to invest in certain activities and characteristics of the personality. Thus, being poor, single, with low educational achievement increase the chances of engaging in strategies that present more immediate results, which are sometimes impulsive and involve risks. This context can provoke a short life span, considering that one consequence of this is the use of the previously described strategies. The context in which the individual is inserted is also considered to be fundamental for the explanation of individual differences by another approach, the environmental heterogeneity in fitness optima.

According to the idea of the environmental heterogeneity in fitness optima, the environment where the individual lives can favor different levels of certain feature. Some places would endorse particular characteristics of the personality as this level of a characteristic can guarantee more resources, as in the case of a risk-taking personality. By this logic, individuals raised in large cities end up developing personality traits distinct from those residing in small towns, to ensure maximum access to possible resources, in addition to survival.

Several other approaches are made to elucidate the mechanisms that support differences between individuals. Some start from the notion of genetic mutation, others believe that changes in the different levels of a characteristic would be distributed proportionally in the population, being maintained by frequency-dependent selection, among other forms. All of this is part of the same belief that the environment, especially the social environment, is somehow responsible for these differences. This understanding is widely accepted in research on humans and is gradually being explored with non-human organisms (Bridger et al. 2015). In general, what can be perceived is that the development of certain personality traits entails behaviors that may or may not cause harm to oneself or others. In this way, the relationship between personality and crime is palpable.

Crime and Personality

As mentioned before, several theories of criminology use the personality to explain criminal behavior (Akers 2017; Bonta and Andrews 2016; Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990). Since the first studies related to antisocial behavior, it has been possible to verify the strong relationship with the personality. However, the methods used to investigate this relationship have not accounted for the complexity of the phenomenon. Among the methodological weaknesses presented in these studies, the obscure definition can be haighlighted of what would be the personality and validity of the instruments used for the evaluation of this construct. Subsequently, a confusing definition generates unreliable instruments (Brown 2015).

Theories that use the personality as key are prone to error, resulting from the use of large and multidimensional constructs such as “antisocial personality” and “psychopathy” (Brown 2015). Although these are correlates of antisocial behavior, their complexity is not covered by any theories, leaving several elements without explanation of their relation to criminal behavior. On the other hand, some theories indicate clear elements of the personality that would be associated with antisocial behaviors. Faced with this, some of these elements are presented, as we seek to highlight their relationship to crime.

However, before discussing the variables, it is necessary to emphasize that crime is a phenomenon that is presented in different ways and that has an intrinsic relationship with cultural issues. In this way, some crimes are explained by a certain set of variables, whereas another crime is explained by others. The purpose of this topic is to introduce the reader to the relationship between personality and crime, in its widest sense. For a specific type of crime, we recommend reading other topics in this encyclopedia such as “Rape (Evolutionary Forensic Psychology)” and “Assault and Murder.”

Among the various theories of personality, the Big Five model was one of the most widely used in the investigation of the most diverse phenomena, and with criminal behavior this would not be different (Allik and McCrae 2002; Bonta and Andrews 2016). In studies that relate this model to criminal behavior, it is possible to observe a low level of agreeableness and conscientiousness in individuals who have committed some type of crime (Brown 2015; Walters 2018). Other studies also indicate that a high score in neuroticism would also be related to crime; however, this relationship is observed less frequently (Mishra et al. 2017). What can be perceived from the studies that use this model is a certain inconsistency in the results as many investigations explore specific crimes.

As stated, personality seems to influence in some way the type of crime in which an individual engages. This is not a clear and direct relationship as social elements and circumstances are fundamental for someone to commit a crime. However, the Big Five seem to interact with other personality elements, which in turn seem to establish clearer relationships with criminal behavior. In this way, the question “what features of the Big Five would explain more or less of the crime?” is still open, which until today has received different answers. The most correct statement to make about it is that it depends. It depends mainly on two elements, the first one is the type of crime requiring explanation and the second is the context in which this crime occurs.

Despite the disagreements about the relationship of the Big Five with crime, some other personality elements are extensively investigated and rely on several empirical research studies to indicate their relationship. When talking about crime, especially in research investigating opportunities and violent crimes, self-control appears to be one of the main explanatory variables. Since the publication of A General Theory of Crime (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990), low self-control has been at the heart of criminology investigations, as one of the causes of delinquency and crime. The argument is that individuals who have low self-control tend to seek short-term reward, without taking into account the long-term consequences of their behavior. Thus, driven by a search for immediate rewards, individuals engage in criminal behavior.

What draws attention to this explanation is the origin of this low self-control, which according to the authors is the result of socialization, especially that established by parents (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990). Parental monitoring during childhood coupled with effective disciplinary practices has long been the main explanation for low self-control. However, some researchers have begun to present other elements that can be aggregated in this explanation, such as school socialization, peer groups, in addition to neural, biological, and genetic underpinnings (Meldrum et al. 2018). Generally speaking, the search for immediate rewards would lead to a person being impulsive, risk-seeking, physical, self-centered, shortsighted, and having a volatile temper, and as a result, they would end up engaging in criminal behavior.

Another personality element linked to criminal behavior is sensation-seeking, which is defined as “the seeking of varied, novel, complex, and intense sensations and experiences, and the willingness to take physical, social, legal, and financial risks for the sake of such experience” (Zuckerman 1994, p. 27). Most studies that investigate sensation-seeking adopt adolescents as participants, because until the beginning of adulthood various structures, neurological and cognitive, are still in formation (Shulman et al. 2015). Individuals with a high sensation seeking may engage in criminal behavior more easily when compared to those who have low sensation seeking. However, this relationship is not established in a simple way; it involves other elements of the personality, among them, impulsiveness.

Like sensation-seeking, low control of impulsivity is related to risk-taking behavior, such as the use of drugs, gambling, online gaming addiction, reckless driving, extreme sports. From risky behavior to criminal behavior there is a space that many texts do not address in which the complex relationship between personality and crime is present. Having a great desire for sensation-seeking and low control of impulse can explain the an individual’s taste for extreme sports, but cannot alone explain why an individual performs an armed robbery (Mishra et al. 2017).

As present earlier, the linear explanation of crime only through personality variables tends to fail, precisely because it fails to account for the complex interplay among them. At this point, especially for the two variables presented above, sensation-seeking and impulsivity, evolutionary theory offers an explanation for engagement in criminal behavior. Again the search for resources and reproductive success seem to be the keys to understanding these two phenomena. Theories of sexual selection argue that males engaging in risky behavior indicate that they are able to provide resources and protection. Thus, to achieve a higher social position, and consequently increase the chances of reproductive success beyond resources, males would be involved in risk behaviors, and even in criminal behavior, such as homicide and robbery (Shulman et al. 2015).

This hypothesis accounts for other characteristics of the sensation-seeking, such as the fact that men tend to present a higher level of desire for this than women and the fact that it decreases in early adulthood (Zuckerman 1994; Shulman et al. 2015). In the first case, the literature indicates that a great desire for sensation-seeking in women, and consequently engaging in risk behaviors, causes a decrease in reproductive success; thus, there are no evolutionary advantages in this. In the second case, one of the possible explanations revolves around the stabilization of social status, as this seems to be experience-sensitive. In this hypothesis, some of the elements mentioned in the literature can be anchored, being protective of criminal behavior, such as marriage, children and formal employment, as the situation now requires the individual to have a less impulsive and safer behavior pattern to guarantee security and the level of resources.

In addition to these variables, some personality disorders are used as correlates of crime, such as antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) and psychopathy (Bonta and Andrews 2016). Criminology seeks to investigate the relationship between criminal behavior and possible psychopathological conditions that can increase the risk of engaging in criminal behavior. Just as in the cases of people without disorders who commit crimes, cases in which the individuals have some diagnosis of psychological disorders are complex and have multiple causes. However, depending on the disorder, it is possible to verify the incidence of certain crimes. In the case of ASPD, it is possible to observe a greater frequency of violent crimes, such as aggression and homicide (Shepherd et al. 2018). This disorder is one of the most frequently investigated because of its prevalence in the prison population of several countries (Newbury-Helps et al. 2017).

In general, the pattern of behavior of individuals with this disorder tends to violate the rights and social norms, and this characteristic emerges in childhood with continuation in adult life (Black 2015). In addition, characteristics such as great impulsiveness, lack of security, the tendency to lie, among others, make up the ASPD framework, these being risk factors for engaging in risk behavior (APA 2013; Newbury-Helps et al. 2017). These same characteristics can be observed in another disorder, psychopathy. However, it is important to highlight that this presents other criteria for diagnosis, such as shallow affect, callousness, and an absence of empathy (DeLisi 2018; Hare 2003). Most psychopathic offenders satisfy the ASPD criteria; however, the opposite is not true (Black 2015; Shepherd et al. 2018). The relationship between mental disorder and criminal behavior is established in such a way that various diagnostic tools are used as indicators of risk of recurrence (Bonta and Andrews 2016). One of the main instruments is the Psychopathy Checklist–Revised, developed by Hare (2003) and used in several countries for predicting crimes (Gardner et al. 2018).


Criminology has already been associated with studying ways to explain criminal behavior. It has often been focused on social and contextual issues that could explain certain actions; however, the study of variables related to personality that could be connected has not been neglected. Personality, in turn, presents several explanatory theories of psychoanalytic, psychometric, and evolutionary biases.

In this sense, psychology contributes greatly to the advancement of studies of criminal behavior, and it is dedicated to exploring individual characteristics that can lead to crime. As discussed throughout the text, there are several aspects of personality that may be associated with engaging in crime, such as impulsiveness and sensation-seeking. In this sense, evolutionary psychologists argue that the resources and evolutionary success may be found in the explanatory basis for cheating behaviors, for example. However, it is prudent to consider that, despite personality and crime characteristics, criminal behavior is emitted because of a complex combination of elements, involving, among other things, individual, social, and cultural aspects.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Roger S. Sousa
    • 1
    Email author
  • Sophia Lóren de Holanda Sousa
    • 1
  1. 1.Federal University of CearáFortalezaBrazil

Section editors and affiliations

  • Valerie G. Starratt
    • 1
  1. 1.Nova Southeastern UniversityFort LauderdaleUSA