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What does a Criminal Behaviorist do?

By Angela Johnson
Updated May 17, 2024
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A criminal behaviorist is a psychologist who studies and works to modify criminal behavior using techniques like behavior modification. An individual in this position investigates the lives of criminals, attempting to determine root causes of their behavior with the intention of working to change the behavior. Oftentimes, criminal behaviorist services are used in the criminal justice system.

Many criminal behaviorists work directly with criminals in a therapy setting. This generally includes working to identify the motivation behind the criminal activity. Techniques to change this behavior, such as behavior modification and conditioning, may also be introduced in these sessions. Behavior modification includes punishing undesired behaviors and rewarding positive behaviors. Conditioning may be used to explain the factors that led to certain criminal behaviors, and may also be used to modify this behavior.

Based on the conditioning theory, a criminal behaviorist typically identifies the conditioning or stimuli that led to the criminal behaviors. Once the conditioning is identified, de-conditioning takes place, which is a period of time when old behaviors are eliminated through therapy. After the old behaviors are eliminated, reconditioning begins. This entails using rewards that motivates the individual to make positive choices. Successfully identifying stimuli that promote positive and eliminate negative behaviors may be a lengthy process that takes years to accomplish.

The criminal justice system may also employ criminal behaviorists as expert witnesses in a trial. Individuals in these positions may also work in prison rehabilitation centers, in private practices with individuals, or with the law enforcement agencies in forensic criminal psychology. In each case, the study of criminal behavior is often used to work towards preventing future crimes.

The school of thought that many criminal behaviorists subscribe to is called behaviorism, and is based on the research of Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner. Through testing and experiments, these men theorized that conditioning was responsible for many human and animal behaviors. Their early research and observations led to the techniques used in criminal behavior modification today. Classical and operant conditioning are two of Pavlov and Skinner's earliest behaviorist theories.

Criminal behaviorist training typically begins with the study of psychology and sociology. Extensive study and research of behaviorism, with a special emphasis on criminal behavior, is generally involved. It is not uncommon for many criminal behaviorists to have degrees in both criminal justice and psychology.

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