This article analyzes the multidimensional utility of the study of psychology in the criminal justice system. It talks about the evolution of the human mind and the capability of human psychology to develop characteristic patterns of behaviour which make an individual perform various acts, some of which may constitute a crime. It dwells deep into the psychology of some of the most dreaded criminals to understand the psychological conditions under which they function, as well as the social, cultural and economic aspects that play a vital role in shaping the same. It further sheds light on Indian Penal Laws while addressing various ways of improving their enforcement concerning the absence of the consideration of the element of psychology at various stages of the institutionalized condemnation of a crime by the State in the form of justice. This research aims at beginning a constructive discourse in terms of understanding people’s behavioural patterns better to rehabilitate and reassimilate criminals to whatever extent possible, normalization of conversations about mental health and seeking psychological help whenever needed, which will result in early detection as well as prevention of crimes, leading to the transformation of common people into well-aware and law-abiding citizens.


Crime, criminals, criminal act, criminal justice system, law, psychology, mental health


The famous fictional character, Sherlock Holmes said, “Crime is common. Logic is rare. Therefore, it is upon the logic rather than upon the crime that you should dwell.” To understand the actions of every human being living in our society, it is quintessential to understand the driving force behind it, that is, to study the ‘why’ behind an act. The human brain is a marvel in the creation and evolution of multicellular living organisms. It carries information in the form of an electrical impulse at the rate of 268 miles per hour[1], that is, around 430 kilometres per hour. Presuming that the human brain has around 3000 thoughts per hour[2], our electrical impulses cover around 12,90,000 kilometres per hour, which is an astounding figure. Hence, now that we know the lightning speed at which our brains work, the next question that arises is: what are the consequences of the thoughts that occur in our brains? It translates into a response from our body, so, every involuntary and voluntary response or act that a human body performs is a consequence of the neural signal of our brain. Hence, with time, the human mind has evolved and adapted to the ways of human life. Firstly, by human beings being social animals, we have evolved to live in a society that consists of other humans. As society evolved, multidimensional hierarchies and institutions were created based on the social, economic and cultural backgrounds of people. With time, the acts of humans translated into mannerisms, which ended up creating a set of actions and mannerisms unique to every human being that developed as a consequence of their pre-existing living conditions and their adaptability to them. While some behavioural patterns led to human prosperity, others were considered to be an impediment to human development with one of them being the acts of crime.


This paper is descriptive and a qualitative method of analysis has been used to draw conclusions. It is based on the socio-legal methodology of research and relies on primary as well as secondary sources such as research articles, journals, e-news and websites.


Philosophers all across the timeline have attempted to define ‘crime’, as Blackstone says that it is an act that violates public law[3]. As per Stephen, is an act that is forbidden by law and plays with the moral sentiments of the society[4]. John Austin defines law concerning the nature of the proceedings as “a wrong which is pursued by the sovereign or his subordinate”[5]. According to Halsbury, it is an unlawful act against public order, that amounts to an offence and is punishable by law[6]. Hence, it can be concluded that the definition of crime is dynamic and evolves with the evolution of our society. This could be the reason why the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860 does not define ‘crime’, however, it describes an umbrella term ‘offence’ under section 40, as anything punishable under the IPC[7]. The essential elements that constitute a crime are a human being, mens reus (guilty mind), actus reus (guilty act or omission) and injury to another. The Indian law of crimes emphasizes the intention behind doing an act, which is to say that the law focuses on the ‘how’ behind an act, that is, intention, which is the part of our thought process that describes how an act is to be done. Thereafter, when the act is committed, the person committing the act is punished. This approach is retributive; however, it is justified for the law to be objective concerning certain societal aspects as its arbitrariness would lead to societal chaos. However, in order to find a solution to the root cause of the problem, a broader spectrum of approach has to be employed to reduce the frequency of criminal acts.


The trails of any human act can be traced back to the frame of mind in which a person has grown, beginning from birth till the time of the commission of the act. For example, if an individual has been brought up in a dysfunctional family, where every family member is a drug addict, they are most likely to consume drugs during their lifetime, due to normalcy created around drug consumption and its easy accessibility. In such a case, punishing the individual under strict penal law would address the consequence of an issue, not the root cause of the issue at hand. Hence, to bring such a person’s life back to normalcy and rehabilitate them into society, it is important to understand human psychology.

It is often stated that psychology and law stand at loggerheads with each other owing to the approach that is applied to deal with an issue. However, it is to be noted that they are two intersecting lines at intersect at the point of understanding the psychology behind a criminal act, which helps in heading towards an aware society, where the criminal justice system can troubleshoot the origin of guilty intention that led to the commission of a guilty act, so as to treat the root cause of the problem and focus on their rehabilitation and reassimilation into the society, as much as the system currently focusses on reformation. It is necessary because reformation can mend the acts of an individual but their psyche can only be transformed when it is fully understood by the State and its institutions. Therefore, to elaborate on the abovementioned statements, a study on the psychology of criminals that commit a crime against the body of people as well as those who commit a crime against the property of people, such as psychopathic criminals, serial killers and white-collar criminals respectively, have been taken:


Have you ever thought that the person that might be sitting, standing, eating or living next to you could be a potential psychopathic criminal or serial killer? It is an outrageous thought to have, but for what it’s worth, there is a possibility of the same. Robert Hare, a Canadian forensic psychologist, formulated a long-ranging list of personality traits to diagnose psychopathy. The test gives a numerical range around which an individual is diagnosed as psychopathic, which is obtained by the number of personality traits in the test that the individual identifies with. It includes traits like pathological deception and lying, unwillingness to take responsibility, grandiosity etc. However, every psychopath may not be a serial killer and vice versa, even though they tend to overlap. Hence, to understand the psychology of an individual better, one of the ways that scientists employ is the ‘five-factor model’ of human personality, which includes extraversion, openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness and neuroticism[8]. Based on this test, there are high-functioning and low-functioning psychopaths that exist in our society. The former are the ones that aren’t able to conceal their psychopathic personality traits due to low conscientiousness, however, the latter can do so due to high conscientiousness. Hence, high-functioning psychopaths may appear absolutely ‘fit’ on the outside: organized, intelligent, mindful and possessing high social proficiency with other negative personality traits concealed inside. Here is where the distinction between a psychopath and a serial killer arises- high conscientiousness may help a psychopath in negating their negative personality traits, but, in the case of a serial killer, it helps them in furthering their negative personality traits in an organized manner to get away with it, even if it is for a while, which is all the more dangerous as there is a possibility that a person next door, who seems harmless might not be so.

Hence, to understand ‘why’ some people from our society turn out to be psychopathic criminals or serial killers, it is important to know that their personality traits aren’t congenital (by birth) but acquired during their lives. It is to say that the external environment in which they have been brought up plays a decisive role in developing certain unusual personality traits and determines what crimes are they to commit and on whom.


A white-collar crime may be defined as a financial crime that is non-violent and includes (but is not limited to) embezzlement, securities fraud and money laundering. A generic notion that exists about these crimes is that it isn’t as grave as a crime against the body of a person, and this is precisely the reason why white-collar criminals thrive in our society. It is to be noted that as per the social demography of criminals, generally white-collar criminals are quite different from typical criminals in that they are relatively more educated, employed with a stable source of income and quite active members in the socio-cultural setup that they live in. However, they still go ahead to commit a crime. To explain the possible psychological reasons behind it, a ‘Fraud Triangle’ model has been given by the famous criminologist, Donald R. Cressey in his book ‘Other People’s Money: A Study in the Social Psychology of Embezzlement’[9]. It states that 3 main forces lead to a white-collar crime: pressure, opportunity and rationalization. Firstly, in terms of pressure, the probability of the commission of a white-collar crime depends on the strictness and assertiveness of the rules on which an organization operates. In case the work culture permits a deviation from compliant behaviour, it is most likely because they tend to compare the severity of a crime with its repercussions faced by a similar organization that is at par with them. Hence, if a company observes that another company at par could get away after performing a white-collar crime as well as gain profit from it, they might incentivize their employees to deviate towards non-compliant behaviour and instil a perception of ‘collective responsibility’ of everyone who has performed or been a part of the same to minimize the guilt quotient of the employees or suppress their ethical understanding of the act[10]. Secondly, the factor of opportunity plays its role when there are loopholes in the organization such as faulty accounting, poor logistics, weak troubleshooting and a perpetrator being an employee or a person in a position of authority. Thirdly, rationalization implies wrapping an act with a rationale that justifies the act done. When an organization is entirely focused on profit generation, it would likely choose any path to achieve the same and rationalize it by stating the common objective of profit-making in the garb of the justification that other organizations have done the same before or pacifying their acts by stating that their acts don’t directly injure or cause harm to the body of any person. They are good at negating ethical conduct, unwilling to take responsibility and reluctant to admit the commission of the act. They are better at mastering it since the victims of white-collar crimes are usually faceless, unlike other crimes where the individual and victim face each other at some or the other stage of the crime. However, as the externalities shape an individual’s personality, certain personality traits under white-collar criminals are identifiable. Hence, the ‘Fraud Triangle’ model has been extended to a ‘Fraud Diamond’ model. It adds a fourth dimension: capability. It implies that a mixture of prevailing external circumstances and personality traits such as

  • Greediness- It stems from the socio-economic status of an individual in the society and their urge to acquire a higher socio-economic position
  •  Narcissistic tendencies- A person is overly self-centred with a false sense of optimism attached to every act
  •  Self-control issues- An individual, if given the opportunity or lesser restrictions, is prone to outrun inhibitions and commit a crime

can lead a person to commit a white-collar crime[11].


India has two laws, namely, the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, which is a substantive law and the Code for Criminal Procedure (CrPC), 1973, which is a procedural law that identifies various kinds of crimes and lays down a procedure for its punishment respectively.

Section 84[12] of the IPC talks about an act done by a person of unsound mind. It says that if an act has been committed by a person and the person, during the time of the commission of the offence, was incapable of knowing the nature of the act or that he was doing something contrary to law, due to unsoundness of mind, the act is not considered to be an offence, but, as per the given laws, psychopathic criminals and serial killers cannot use section 84 as a defence since they are well-acquainted with their actions and have full knowledge of the nature of their acts. Hence, as per the penal law, the provisions for culpable homicide and murder under sections 299[13] and 300[14] of the IPC and their punishment under sections 304[15] and 302[16] of the IPC respectively are applied. However, a question that one needs to ponder upon is that as per law, the criminal act is punished, but why is the reason behind the commission of the criminal act not being addressed? Here is where psychology can play an essential role in treating the cause behind the commission of an offence.

In the case of white-collar criminals, a researcher interviewed 50 executives of giant companies who were convicted of white-collar crimes and published it in The Atlantic, observing that they had negligible remorse for their criminal act, but it was interesting to note that they hardly focussed on the consequences, with one of them saying, “I didn’t realise I would be a felon.”[17]

Hence, it is amply clear from the observations that retributively providing punishment would make the criminal perish from society, not the crime. Therefore, to ensure that the cultivation of such criminals reduces, it is imperative to first, apply specialization in criminal psychology while dealing with criminals when they are convicted and secondly, compartmentalise criminals as per their psychological needs. This will help in solving dual issues- reduction of the criminal justice system to a mere tit-for-tat principle and generalization of every criminal regardless of their difference in psychological needs which might lead to a negative influence on all the jail inmates.


Criminals aren’t born with this label, however, their external environment in the form of the societal conditions that they live in as well as their internal environment, that is, their psychological development, both play a role in developing a characteristic personality that culminates into them acquiring the same. Every human being should be given every opportunity possible to lead a wholesome life and in the case of psychopathic criminals, the criminal justice system can extend its duty to better understand their psychological needs so that they can surpass their criminal tendencies, which would pave the way for greater awareness in the State to identify and treat them. Studies show that punishment does not work in their case as they are detached from their criminal behaviour’s condemnation by society, implying that punishment by law will not act as a deterrent when a psychopath is about to commit a crime. However, a reward-based system where, in return for their good behaviour, they are given certain privileges, has been observed to work the best for them to manage their behavioural patterns better[18]. Hence, they can be identified and kept in special observation and care homes where their specific psychological needs are catered to and they can recognize and address their behavioural pattern better.

In the case of white-collar crimes, it can be observed that reporters, journalists as well as whistleblowers inside the organization play an essential role in the identification of such crimes since society tends to focus more on ‘typical’ crimes such as murder, robbery, theft etc. hence white-collar criminals find it easier to escape the wrath of the law. Various ways can be employed to prevent such crimes. Firstly, the corporate culture should strive to regularize compliant behaviour with zero tolerance towards any behaviour that deviates from it. Secondly, there should be various sensitization programs organized by organizations to reiterate work ethics and the importance of ethical behaviour and thirdly, they should be made aware of the existing penal laws in the country as soon as they enter or become a part of an organization so that they know the consequences of any criminal act. People who are convicted of white-collar crimes should be given counselling sessions where they are told the importance of living a life under lawfulness and reducing the aspect of greediness, as well as tell them that committing a white-collar crime does not mean that it physically harms no one. It can very well do so and more. Thereafter, there should be their gradual rehabilitation into society so that they can restart their lives as law-abiding citizens of the State.

Extending the relevance of psychology in this field, there should be an increased number of institutions that specialize in building criminal psychologists that act as a connecting link between a criminal and the State’s machinery so that the State can serve its citizens better and can provide psychotherapy to all kinds of criminals. A specialized field of criminal psychologists, apart from clinical psychologists can be introduced in the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017.

There should be sensitization programs organized at the locality, school, college and professional levels for individuals as well as their parents with regards to the pre-existing laws as well as certain behavioural patterns that they can identify to stay safe or seek professional help.

Last but never least, the destigmatization of mental health issues and availability of counsellors at every institution, organization and machinery in the State, be it governmental or private can help in fostering an environment where people can ask for help in case they observe any peculiarities in their mental health condition.


Prachi Narayan
Faculty of Law:- Delhi University

[1] Northwestern Medicine, https://www.nm.org/healthbeat/healthy-tips/11-fun-facts-about-your-brain (last visited July 9, 2023)

[2] Discover, https://www.discovermagazine.com/mind/the-70-000-thoughts-per-day-myth (last visited July 9, 2023)

[3] The Indian Law, https://theindianlaw.in/crime-meaning-theories-fundamental-elements/#:~:text=According%20to%20Stephen-%20%E2%80%9CCrime%20is,of%20the%20society%20at%20large. (last visited July 9, 2023)

[4] The Indian Law, https://theindianlaw.in/crime-meaning-theories-fundamental-elements/#:~:text=According%20to%20Stephen%2D%20%E2%80%9CCrime%20is,of%20the%20society%20at%20large. (last visited July 9, 2023)

[5] The Legal Quotient, https://thelegalquotient.com/criminal-laws/indian-penal-code/crime/974/#:~:text=Crime%20as%20a%20Procedural%20Wrong,wrong%20(private%20wrong)%E2%80%9D. (last visited July 9, 2023)

[6] The Indian Law, https://theindianlaw.in/crime-meaning-theories-fundamental-elements/#:~:text=According%20to%20Stephen%2D%20%E2%80%9CCrime%20is,of%20the%20society%20at%20large. (last visited July 9, 2023)

[7] The Indian Penal Code, 1860, § 40, No. 45, Acts of Parliament, 1860 (India)

[8] PsychCentral, https://psychcentral.com/quizzes/big-5-personality-test (last visited July 10,2023)

[9] Van Akkeren, J., Fraud Triangle: Cressey’s Fraud Triangle and Alternative Fraud Theories 1-4 (Springer 2018)

[10] Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, Doing a Madoff: The Psychology of White-collar Criminals , 55 , SSRN , 1 , 4-5 (2021)

[11] Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries , Doing a Madoff: The Psychology of White-collar Criminals , 55 , SSRN , 1 , 8-10 (2021)

[12] The Indian Penal Code, 1860, § 84, No. 45, Acts of Parliament, 1860 (India)

[13] The Indian Penal Code, 1860, § 299, No. 45, Acts of Parliament, 1860 (India)

[14] The Indian Penal Code, 1860, § 300, No. 45, Acts of Parliament, 1860 (India)

[15] The Indian Penal Code, 1860, § 304, No. 45, Acts of Parliament, 1860 (India)

[16] The Indian Penal Code, 1860, § 302, No. 45, Acts of Parliament, 1860 (India)

[17] Eugene Soltes, The Psychology of White-Collar Criminals, The Atlantic (July 11,2023, 9;59 PM), The Psychology of White-Collar Criminals – The Atlantic

[18] Scott A. Bonn, Inside the Mind of the Criminal Psychopath, Psychology Today ( July 12, 2023, 11:45 AM), Inside the Mind of the Criminal Psychopath | Psychology Today