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Whether you’re interested in law and psychology careers or simply curious about human behavior, you might be wondering: Why do people commit crimes?

Motivations for crime are highly complex, and they’re the subject of much research in the forensic psychology field. For instance, students pursuing their MS in forensic behavioral science spend ample time analyzing crimes in a psychological context. 

But in this guide, we’re zooming in on nine reasons why people commonly commit crimes—and this is just the tip of the forensic psychology iceberg. Understanding these motivations can help prospective behavioral psychologists approach criminal behavior from an informed perspective.

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Psychological Factors Behind Criminal Behavior 

First, let’s delve into four common psychosocial motivators for criminal behavior: cultural and social elements that intersect to inform thoughts and actions.1

1. Socioeconomic Disparities and Crime 

Substantial data correlates low socioeconomic standing—low income, poor financial literacy, or poverty—with a high likelihood of incarceration. One recent study from the Brookings Institution, for example, discovered that those born between 1980 and 1986 and came from families who face socioeconomic challenges were more likely to be pushed to commit crime.2 Further:3

  1. Those who face these socioeconomic implications were 20 times more likely to be pushed to commit crime than those of the same age from high-earning families.
  2. These individuals only found employment after release from prison in 55% of cases—and post-release unemployment has been shown to be more likely to push convicted criminals to commit crime again.

While poverty itself is typically not the root cause of crime, it can lead to other psychosocial, environmental, or psychological conditions that may correlate with the likelihood of committing a crime, such as:

  • Substance abuse – Substance dependence and abuse can be correlated with income; opioid overdoses, for instance, have been shown to be concentrated in lower-income neighborhoods.4
  • Education access – Children from lower-income families may be less likely to graduate high school, attend college, or excel in math or reading.5
  • Mental health challenges – People without access to quality mental health treatment make up a significant portion of incarcerated populations.6

2. Family Dynamics and Criminality 

Family stability can also impact the likelihood of committing a crime. Current studies posit that family dynamics can impact incarceration potential in two key ways:7

  1. Family dynamics in childhood – Decades of data support the correlation between a young adult’s family instability and juvenile delinquency. In other words, those who experience a turbulent and unstable home life are statistically more likely to commit crimes during their youth.
  2. Family formation in adulthood – More recent data suggests that young adults with troubled family histories are more likely to experience disruptions to their own family formation processes (e.g., getting married and having children). And, those who experience their own family turmoil in adulthood are more likely to be pushed to commit crime. 

3. Peer Influence and Criminal Act

Several studies connect peer influence and social networks with the likelihood of committing a crime:8

  1. Children with more “delinquents” (children tried or incarcerated for illegal activity) in their peer groups have a higher likelihood of committing crimes themselves.
  2. There is a wide body of data connecting peer and individual crime among adults. In other words, people with friends who commit criminal activity are more likely to do the same.

While boiling crime motivation down to “peer pressure” is an oversimplification, forensic behavioral psychologists have long recognized group behavior as a potential impetus for crime.

4. Substance Abuse and Criminal Offenses 

While we touched on substance abuse earlier, let’s zoom in on additional data. In 2020, the National Institute on Drug Abuse compiled data from a variety of sources to determine that:9

  1. An estimated 65% of incarcerated people in the US suffer from a substance use disorder
  2. Another 20% of incarcerated people were under the influence at the time of their crime

But, like all of the other corollaries on this list, substance abuse doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s important to understand the context of substance dependence in a greater social context. The following social groups are all at an increased risk for substance use disorder:

  • Displaced or unhoused people10
  • Veterans (especially those who have experienced being unhoused)11
  • People who did not complete high school12

This is just one example of how criminal motivation can be multifaceted and highly dependent upon social context.

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Environmental Triggers of Criminal Behavior 

While psychosocial context can play a key role in crime, so can environmental elements like setting, education access, and unemployment. Let’s dive into each of these to explore their correlations to criminality.

5. Urban Settings and Crime Rates 

In 1825, two French criminologists published a seminal work in what would become the field of forensics: a study that compared crime rates per capita (i.e., how many crimes were committed per person living in a geographic area) and posited that crime rate increased linearly with population size.13

However, newer approaches have revealed that per capita analyses of crime are misleading. They impose a linear relationship between crime and population when this isn’t always the case, skewing both public and expert perceptions of the urban crime rate. 

While some crimes are linearly associated with population size, new approaches have determined that:

  1. The quantitative relationship between crime and population can vary on a city-by-city basis.
  2.  Some types of crimes, like burglary, are linearly associated with population size, while others, like theft, are not. 

6. Lack of Access to Education and Criminal Engagement 

Numerous studies have observed connections between access to quality education and criminality. Here’s a snapshot of just a few conclusions from recent studies:

  • Children who participate in early childhood education programs are less likely to commit crimes than children without access.14
  • Investments in public schools drastically reduce crime rates. Children who attend well-funded schools are less likely to commit crimes in adulthood.15
  • High school dropouts are five times more likely to be arrested during their lifetimes than their peers who graduated.16

But educational access is about so much more than the availability of public education. The American Psychological Association has compiled a wealth of sources supporting connections between income and education. Lower-income students generally have reduced access to resources and typically advance more slowly than their wealthier peers.17

7. Unemployment and Criminal Choices 

Unemployment generally correlates to a higher likelihood of committing a crime.18 But like education access, unemployment is a nuanced issue. 

For instance, one of the most recent studies of unemployment and criminality found a correlation between unemployment and two distinct types of crime:19

  1. Firearm violence
  2. Homicide

That said, this study was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic when unemployment rates averaged eight points above predicted levels across American cities. In addition, firearm deaths continue to rise each year in the US. So, the correlation between unemployment and gun violence might not imply direct causation.

This is just one example that showcases the nuance and interdisciplinary nature of forensic psychology. Crime experts must assess how multiple elements interact to form conclusions about how psychosocial, environmental, and psychological factors (among others) impact crime.

Psychological Drivers of Criminal Acts 

Finally, let’s dive into psychological factors that can influence criminal motivation—the subject of extensive research in the forensic behavioral science field.

8. Mental Health Disorders and Criminal Behavior 

Mental health disorders and criminal behavior have a highly complex relationship that’s informed by a wide variety of social factors. 

But, there’s an overwhelming correlation between mental health struggles and incarceration. While 21% of adults in the US reported experiencing symptoms of a mental illness in 2020, these symptoms were reported among:20

  • 64% of people incarcerated in county jails
  • 54% of people detained in state prisons
  • 45% of people held in federal penitentiaries 

Experts correlate this connection to numerous potential factors, like:

  • Income – Lower-income people have reduced access to quality mental health care and a higher likelihood of experiencing symptoms of mental health disorders.21 They’re also statistically more likely to be incarcerated.22
  • Mental health illiteracy in the criminal justice system – There have been notable, recent efforts to incorporate mental health literacy into law enforcement training programs, but studies show that these programs have produced mixed results.23
  • Substance use disorders – Mental health disorders and substance use disorders are strongly correlated by extensive data—and people with substance use disorders are likely to be incarcerated at a higher rate than their counterparts. 24,25 

9. Impulse Control and Criminal Impulsivity 

The concept of impulse control has been widely studied across disciplines, including forensic psychology. 

But much of what criminologists know about self-control and crime is framed by a seminal 1990s model that places impulse control at the forefront of criminal motivation.26 Today’s forensic psychologists are challenging this model; they’re digging deeper to unpack physiological, psychological, and psychosocial elements that inform impulse control to contextualize prevailing theories. 

Behavioral forensics is still growing, and today’s prospective forensic psychology graduates have a unique opportunity to contribute new knowledge to a developing field.

School of Forensic Psychology at Alliant: Shaping Future Experts 

Why do people commit crimes? It’s nearly impossible to point to just one cause. With so many factors at play, criminal motivation remains a nuanced and intriguing concept in behavioral forensics, criminology, and other social science fields.

If you’re interested in learning more about criminal motivations, consider pursuing a forensic psychology degree online. The forensic psychology program at Alliant International University offers career preparation, support from industry-leading faculty, and the flexibility of online learning. 

Explore our forensic degree programs, apply today, and start pursuing your passion.


  1. “Psychosocial.” American Psychology Association. (n.d.). Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  2. Looney, Adam and Turner, Nicholas. “Work and Opportunity Before and After Incarceration.” The Brookings Institution. March 14, 2018.…. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  3. Looney, Adam and Turner, Nicholas. “Work and Opportunity Before and After Incarceration.” The Brookings Institution. March 14, 2018.…. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  4. Pear, Veronica, et. al. “Urban-Rural Variation in the Socioeconomic Determinants of Opioid Overdose.” The Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence. February 1, 2019. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  5. “Education Access and Quality.” US Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.).…. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  6. Ghiasi, Noman; Azhar, Yusra; Singh, Jasbir. “Psychiatric Illness and Criminality.” National Library of Medicine. March 30, 2023. Accessed August 17, 2023.
  7.  Bosick, Stacey and Fomby, Paula. “Family Instability in Childhood and Criminal Offending during the Transition into Adulthood.” Journal of American Behavioral Science. December 3, 2019. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  8. Kim, Jinho and Fletcher, Jason M. “The Influence of Classmates on Criminal Activity in the United States.” The Journal of Deviant Behavior. January 1, 2019. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  9. “Criminal Justice DrugFacts.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. June 2020. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  10. Yamamoto, Ayae  et. al. “Association between Homelessness and Opioid Overdose and Opioid-related Hospital Admissions/Emergency Department Visits.” Journal of Social Science Medicine. February 15, 2020. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  11. Riggs, Kevin R. et. al. “Prevalence of and Risk Factors Associated With Nonfatal Overdose Among Veterans Who Have Experienced Homelessness.” Journal of Substance Use and Addiction. March 17, 2020. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  12. Tice, Peter; Lipari, Rachel; Van Horn, Struther L. “Substance Use Among 12th Grade Aged Youths, By Dropout Status.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. August 15, 2017.…. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  13. Oliveira, Marcos. “More Crime in Cities? On the Scaling Laws of Crime and the Inadequacy of Per Capita Rankings—A Cross-Country Study.” Crime Science Journal. December 1, 2021.…. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  14. García, Jorge Luis; Heckman, James J.; Ziff, Anna L. “Early Childhood Education and Crime.” Infant Mental Health Journal. January 9, 2020. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  15. Rivkin, Daniel. “Public School Investment Reduces Adult Crime, Study Shows.” The University of Michigan. May 10, 2022.…. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  16. “Early Literacy Connection to Incarceration.” Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation. (n.d.).…. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  17. “Education and Socioeconomic Status.” American Psychological Association. 2017. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  18. Bushway, Shawn. “More Than Half of Unemployed Young Men Have Criminal Records; Findings Suggested New Approach Needed to Aid the Unemployed.” The Rand Corporation. February 18, 2022. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  19. Schleimer, Julia P. et. al. “Unemployment and Crime in US Cities During the Coronavirus Pandemic.” Journal of Urban Health. January 27, 2022. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  20. Taylor, Ebonyque. “Mental Health and Reentry: How Court Services Offender Agency Meets the Challenge of Mental Health Community Supervision.” US Department of Justice. May 2022. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  21. Hodgkinson, Stacey et. al. “Improving Mental Health Access for Low-Income Children and Families in the Primary Care Setting.“ Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. January 2017. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  22. Looney, Adam and Turner, Nicholas. “Work and Opportunity Before and After Incarceration.” The Brookings Institution. March 14, 2018.…. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  23. Rogers, Michael S.; McNiel, Dale E.; Binder, Renée L. “Effectiveness of Police Crisis Intervention Training Programs.” The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. September 2019. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  24. “Substance Use and Co-Occurring Mental Disorders.” National Institutes of Mental Health. March 2023. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  25. “Criminal Justice DrugFacts.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. June 2020. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  26. Burt, Callie. “Self-Control and Crime: Beyond Gottfredson and Hirschi’s Theory.” Annual Review of Criminology. January 2020. Accessed August 17, 2023. 

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