Study Notes

Historical Approach to Offending Behaviour


Last updated 22 Mar 2021

The debate surrounding offending behaviour and its origins has been going on for some time. In the past, researchers will have typically looked for biological explanations as little was known about the impact of the environment on social and moral development.

The first researcher to take this view was Lombroso in the 1870s. His view was that there were physical features which offenders had, which indicated they were less developed in an evolutionary sense than non-offenders. Essentially, Lombroso combined his ideas with Darwin’s theory of evolution to imply that offenders were more primitive and therefore not completely responsible for their criminal actions. Lombroso referred to the physical features identified in criminals as “atavistic”, where the term atavism refers to a primitive ancestor.

Key Study: Lombroso (1876)

Aim: To identify distinguishing physical features among criminals, which set them apart as offenders based on biological principles.

Method: Lombroso examined the features and measurements of nearly 4,000 criminals, as well as the skulls of 400 dead criminals.

Results: Some common findings from Lombroso’s investigation included:

  • sloping brow (which according to Lombroso, indicated low intelligence levels)
  • pronounced jaw
  • high cheekbones
  • large ears
  • extra nipples, toes and fingers

Conclusion: Lombroso concluded that these characteristics indicated that such people were more primitive in an evolutionary sense. He went on to say that such individuals were therefore not responsible for their actions as they could not be blamed for their innate, inherited physiology.


A criticism of Lombroso’s research is that he did not use a control group in his research; therefore, although he found physical trends amongst his substantial group of offenders, he was not comparing them to a group of ‘normal’ controls. Therefore, it may be more likely that these physical features are coincidental and can be found amongst any people group of that size. Indeed, Goring (1913) attempted to replicate Lombroso’s findings by comparing a large group of offenders with a control group of non-criminals and found no significant differences between the two groups.An alternative way of looking at Lombroso’s findings is to consider the interaction of genetics and the environment, in that people with features described as atavistic, may be more likely to lean towards criminal behaviour due to the way that they are treated. Kaplan’s (1980) “self-derogation” theory argues that if individuals experience persistently poor interactions with others (in this case due to the way they look), they will develop lower self-esteem and increased frustration with others, making them more likely to commit criminal behaviour. This is known as an interactionist approach to understanding the causes of behaviour in that it argues there is an interaction between the biological aspects of the offender’s appearance and the way that such individuals might be treated, leading thereby to offending behaviour.

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