The Effect of Personality on the Learning Theory of White Collar Crime
K.B. Melear
Florida State University
Theory in Criminology and Criminal Justice

     It is typical when considering the concept of crime to do so in terms of those deviant acts which are highlighted in  our society:  murder, rape, robbery, assault, and other prominent crimes.  These ideas predominate our notion of criminal activity because they typically receive extensive media coverage and they fit easily into the schemes of our lives--it is easy to think of a robbery or murder, “That could happen to me.”  White collar crime, on the other hand, is often invisible and seldom receives the degree of coverage in the media that a bombing or rape might attract, unless the magnitude of the white collar crime were significant enough to warrant large-scale coverage.  Although we are not as aware of white collar crime as other more egregious deviant acts against society, it is an extremely damaging and costly proposition.  Rosoff, Pontell, and Tillman (1998:  16) estimate its current short-term costs to American society at $250 billion!  This paper will propose a theory which will  couple Sutherland’s theory of differential association with biological/psychological factors in an attempt to explain the reasoning behind why white collar crime is committed and steps which could be taken to prevent it.
      The term “white collar” crime is attributed to Edwin Sutherland, and it was first used in his address to the American Sociological Society in 1939 (Coleman, 1994:  2).  Sutherland (1949:  2) defined white collar crime as “...a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation.”  By today’s standards, white collar crime is similarly defined, but can include a number of different acts which range from embezzlement to insider stock trading and perpetrators from bookkeeper to CEO.  These non-violent acts can have violent repercussions, however.  Brown and Chiang (1993:  39) cite a number of instances in which physical harm has resulted from white collar crime such as deaths from an unlawfully unmaintained dam in West Virginia, and deaths due to faulty motor parts in automobiles which the manufacturer knew were bad.  Clearly, white collar crime has effects which reach far beyond the boardroom.
    What would lead an individual to commit white collar crime?  The classical theory of white collar crime is again attributed to Edwin Sutherland and his theory of differential association (Braithwaite, 1991:  66).  Sutherland’s differential association theory is principally a learning theory which states that crime is a learned phenomena that is brought about through interaction and communication with others in intimate personal groups.  He felt that individuals are exposed to norms and experiences which are conducive to criminal behavior and norms and experiences which are not, and that an excess of “deviant” inputs would result in criminal activity (Sutherland & Cressey, 1970:  75-76).  In other words, people learn about crime though the exposure to the activities and attitudes which normalize criminal behavior and these occurrences are the intervening factor between association and crime (McCarthy, 1996:  135).  Sutherland applied his theory to a number of crimes, including white collar crime.  In White Collar Crime:  The Uncut Version (as cited in McCarthy, 1996:  136) he notes that the criminal “...learns from those the same rank as he...techniques for violating the law...[and] situations in which those techniques may be used.”
    That the emphasis on the commission of crime, particularly white collar crime, is focused on learning from attitudes and experiences is an important point concerning my proposed theory.  In the early 1900’s biological theories of crime were prominent; it was a general notion at that time that crime was caused by mental or physical inferiority or illness.  Sutherland disagreed with this notion and rejected the idea of biological influence on deviant behavior, opting instead to focus on the learning aspects of associations and experiences (Williams & McShane, 1988:  48).  Lilly, Cullen, and Ball (1995:  47) note that “Sutherland was suggesting that the distinction between lawbreakers and the law-abiding lies not in their personal fiber, but in the content of what they have learned.”  I believe there is more involved in the commission of white collar crimes than learning the tricks of the trade.
    To me, the white collar criminal is a breed apart from the criminal norm.  White collar crime is perpetrated in corporate or bureaucratic settings, typically by educated individuals.  That these individuals are exposed to this activity and learn from the actions and attitudes of those around them is certainly true--but is it enough to assume that anyone exposed to such activity will succumb to the desire to take such subversive action?  I find this questionable.  I believe that in order to fully assess the white collar criminal, the factors that were shunned by Sutherland in the formation of his theory, the biological and physiological factors, should be addressed, most particularly the personality of the criminal and any inherent physiological characteristics.
    I propose an extension of Sutherland’s theory which examines the personality and mindset of the white collar criminal in relation to learning through attitudes and experiences.  Due to its focus on corporate or bureaucratic  crime, my theory would be inappropriate to offer explanation and prediction to other crimes typically committed by a different sub-group of individuals.  Those crimes such as such as assault, murder, or rape would not be as well served by my explanation as crimes such as management fraud, forgery, investor fraud, or embezzlement.
    Why, then, are these crimes committed?  In my view, there are two types of people who have potential to commit white collar crime:  those whose personalities are predisposed to deviance from the outset and those whose personalities are unknowingly predisposed, but whose personality is in conflict with the predisposition and will ultimately be neutralized by their surroundings.
    In the first case, the person predisposed to deviance finds himself in circumstances conducive to fraudulent activity and will naturally exhibit little resistance.  A personality programmed with greed, self-serving intent, or aspirations for respect at any cost is an open conduit to its surroundings.  An individual’s associations and interactions with deviant peers will have an easy influence on his or her decision-making processes, and he or she will more quickly find himself learning “deviance” in the form of the proper methods of hiding a profit to evade taxation, embellish his timesheet, or take credit for the work of others.  Learning is uninhibited by personality, and he or she begins to crave this information, as it makes his business life more exciting, easier, or more prominent.  As these activities continue, they eventually become a modus operandi, a norm, until deviant business tactics become a way of life.  Add to this any number of personal life events, such as financial difficulty or depression, and the propensity for deviance increases.
    In the second case, the individual’s personality is neutralized by surroundings.  This may take the form of the individual who has never committed an act of deviance or would never dream of doing so, or the person whose moral fiber is staunchly against such activity, but whose personality, once wounded, succumbs wholly.  This personality type would serve to hinder the learning of deviance; this personality type, however, is also subject to the influence of its surroundings.  If the influences are negative, the individual may find his or her ideas and ethics in conflict with the environment, and this conflict could create a dissonance within the person.  This dissonance could ultimately lead to the breakdown or neutralization of the personality ethics until the individual succumbs to the outside influences, the seduction (Katz, 1988:  5) of the crime, and the cycle continues to normalize the deviant behavior until it becomes a way of life.
    I believe that the addition of personality factors into the learning theory of white collar crimes provides a better explanation for deviant action.  To me, it is necessary to understand the background characteristics in order to assess behavior legitimately, and examining the personality traits of white collar criminals is appropriate to conclude the emotion involved in the crime.  Association and exposure to a deviant sub-culture alone cannot adequately account for the underpinnings of white collar criminal activity--there must be something more, something within the individual that is affected by the environment.  Perhaps an attitude formed in college, a prejudice toward a co-worker, or a desire to be respected, regardless of costs to others could be a determinant in willingness to learn rather than resist deviant behavior.  If it were caused by learning alone, everyone would be susceptible to the negative pressures of the environment they work in.
    Stronger internal controls would serve well to help control these crimes.  To the inherent deviant personality, strong controls would represent a barrier to overcome which may not be worth the time or effort, while to the unknowingly predisposed, strong controls may take effect as a deterrent agent that reinforces the ethic that certain actions are sound while others are not.  Also, increased employee monitoring could serve as a deterrent--personality and other psychological tests as an interviewing tool could reveal those attitudes which conflict with corporate culture, while periodic employee evaluations could help assess an employee’s attitude--an idea of the circumstances of an individuals personal life would aid the monitoring process.  According to Bologna & Lindquist (1995: 7), “Usually, it is less expensive to prevent fraud than to detect it.”
    The role of the criminal justice system is an important part of the struggle against white collar crime.  While the majority of these crimes go unreported (Simpson, Harris, & Mattson, 1993:  122), those which are should be prosecuted to fullest extent of the law.  My theory does not change the role of the police, courts, or Congress in this regard.  The role of corrections, however, includes a treatment element.  Since I hypothesize that white collar criminals are subject to their own internal characteristics in the commission of these crimes, they should undergo extensive evaluation and treatment as a part of the rehabilitation process, rather than simply serve a prison sentence.  In that regard, research would be easily facilitated--populations of arrested white collar criminals could be mentally evaluated and scaled for common personality characteristics and then compared to a representative sample of non-criminals.  A criticism to this approach was made in regard to the work of Earnest Hooton, a biological theorist who worked with body-typing, such that a group of prisoners cannot be considered a valid sample of criminals as prisoners are criminals who have been apprehended, and are thus ineffective at crime (Pfohl, 1994:  108).  In refutation to this idea, I feel that scores on attitude and personality tests would be much more generalizable than physical body measurements, and would therefore represent a valid research technique.  Studies of white collar criminal personalities would undoubtedly yield a set of similar characteristics which could be put to use in the employee screening or monitoring process.
    White collar crime is an invisible foe for the most part, but an understanding of the underlying personality traits of employees and management will aid in understanding white collar crime.  As individuals whose underlying personality characteristics include greed, ego, or personal distress are more susceptible to learning deviant behavior rather than resisting it, screening for these attitudes and ethics will provide a means for identifying problem areas.  With these areas realized, stronger controls and a firm societal stand on white collar crime will serve to control it.


     Bologna, G.J., & Lindquist, R.J.  (1995).  Fraud auditing and forensic accounting.  New York:  John Wiley & Sons.

     Braithwaite, J.  (1997).  Poverty, power, white-collar crime and the paradoxes of criminological theory.  In M. McShane, & F.P. Williams III (Eds.), Criminal justice, criminological theory (pp. 66-84).  New York:  Garland Publishing.
    Brown, S.E., & Chiang, C.  (1993).  Defining corporate crime:  A critique of traditional parameters.  In M.E. Blankenship (Ed.), Understanding corporate criminality (pp. 29-55).  New York:  Garland Publishing.
    Coleman, J.W.  (1994).  The criminal elite:  The sociology of white collar crime (3rd ed.).  New York:  St. Martin’s Press.
    Katz, J.  (1988).  Seductions of crime.  New York:  Basic Books.
    Lilly, J.R., Cullen, F.T., & Ball, R.A.  (1995).  Criminological theory:  Context and consequences (2nd ed.).  Thousand Oaks, CA:  SAGE Publications.
    McCarthy, B.  (1996).  The attitudes and actions of others:  Tutelage and Sutherland’s theory of differential association.  British Journal of Criminology, 36,(1), 135-147.
    Pfohl, S.J.  (1994).  Images of deviance and social control:  A sociological history (2nd. ed.).  New York:  McGraw-Hill.
    Rosoff, S.M., Pontell, H.N., & Tillman, R.  (1998).  Profit without honor.  New Jersey:  Prentice Hall.
    Simpson, S.S., Harris, A.R, & Mattson, B.A.  (1993).  Measuring corporate crime.  In M.E. Blankenship (Ed.), Understanding corporate criminality (pp. 115-140).  New York:  Garland Publishing.
    Sutherland, E.H.  (1949).  White Collar Crime.  New York:  Dryden Press.
    Sutherland, E.H., & Cressey, D.R.  (1970).  Criminology (8th ed.).  Philadelphia:  Lippincott.
    Williams, F.P., & McShane, M.D.  (1988).  Criminological Theory.  New Jersey:  Prentice Hall.