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5.7: Biological and Psychological Positivism

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    The Criminal Man.[1] Lombroso claimed 1/3 of all offenders were born criminals who were atavistic (evolutionary throwbacks).

    Atavistic features

    The English Convict, Goring claimed there were statistical differences in physical attributes and mental defects. The focus on mental qualities led to a new kind of biological positivism – the Intelligence Era. Alfred Binet, who created the Intelligence Quotient Test, believed intelligence was dynamic and could change. He wanted to identify youths who were not performing well in school. Unfortunately, H.H. Goddard, like many Americans at the time, believed intelligence was innate and static. That is, intelligence was fixed and could not change. Goddard gave IQ tests to sort people and those who scored too low were institutionalized, deported, or sterilized. He was an early advocate to sterilize those who were mentally deficient, especially “morons,” who were just smart enough to blend in with the normal population. In 1927, the United States Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell allowed the use of sterilization.

    [2] However, how we measure intelligence and how we define intelligence are based on our preconceived assumptions of intelligence. For example, is intelligence inherited? Is it related to the dominant culture? Or is it based more on the person’s environment? Each has a least some element of truth.

    [3] Even after giving personality tests to criminals and non-criminals, there does not seem to be any logical relevance to understanding the causes of crime. However, there have been correlations between certain personality traits and criminal behavior. For example, impulsivity, lack of self-control, inability to learn from punishment, and low empathy have all been linked to criminal behaviors.


    1. Lombroso, C. (1876). The criminal man.
    2. Hirschi, T., & Hindelang, M.J. (1977). Intellegence and delinquency: A revisionist review. American Sociological Review, 42, 572-587.
    3. Glueck, S., & Glueck, E. (1950). Unraveling juvenile delinquency. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
    4. Capsi, A., Moffitt, T.E., Silva, P.A., Stouthamer-Loeber, M., Krueger, R.F., & Schmutte, P.S. (1994). Personality and crime: Are some people crime prone? Replications of the personality-crime relationship acrass countries, genders, races, and methods. Criminology, 32(2).

    This page titled 5.7: Biological and Psychological Positivism is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Alison S. Burke, David Carter, Brian Fedorek, Tiffany Morey, Lore Rutz-Burri, & Shanell Sanchez (OpenOregon) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.