Monday, 15 December 2014

Thoughts, Not Environmental Conditions, Cause Criminal Behaviour

Criminals are neither bon that way nor made that way – they chose to be that way, say Kerry Kirkpatrick in this guest post.

For over forty years, clinical psychologist Stanton Samenow has been interviewing criminal offenders for the courts (1, 2, 3). His conclusion is that criminals are not criminals because of their upbringing or environment, or because of what they see on television or in movies.

Criminals are who they are because of the thoughts they hold, and have held, in their minds from an early age.

When many people walk into a crowded room, they think about who they would enjoy talking to. The criminal first checks escape routes, then looks for items to steal or weak targets to intimidate, swindle, or rob (i.e., pick their pockets). Criminals go to great lengths, sometimes using a considerable intelligence, to plan their crimes.
The criminal mind enjoys, or gets a jolt of excitement, as Samenow puts it, by doing what is wrong and getting away with it. “If rape were legalised today,” said one offender, “I wouldn’t rape. But I would do something else.”

The criminal act has to be illegal, otherwise the criminal would not experience the excitement.

When criminals get caught, they blame themselves for being stupid and careless. When interviewed by the courts and Samenow, they either never admit to their wrongdoing or blame their behaviour on external circumstances, such as upbringing or environment. They insist that they are good human beings and find no contradiction in “praying at ten and robbing at noon.”

Some even express disgust at child abusers, then find no difficulty robbing and murdering someone else who, according to their way of thinking, “deserved it.”

Samenow repeatedly insists, and demonstrates with many examples, that criminals are not victims of family abuse or unpleasant surroundings. Criminals come from all walks of life and include the highly educated and intelligent. They all have siblings and other relatives who grow up in the same family cultures and situations and do not turn out the way they did.

What they have in common is lying as a way of life, and it starts young. A child of five or six may lift a friend’s or sibling’s toy and get a thrill out of it. Denying guilt or blaming someone else—and getting away with the theft—provides another thrill and encourages further, more daring behaviour.

People who follow the rules, according to such a young child, or adult thief, are suckers. Their lives are boring. “My life of crime,” thinks the criminal, “is exciting.” It is these thoughts that drive the criminal mind to plan the next “exciting” caper.

imageCriminals do not have friends, because they trust no one; they see other people as targets to manipulate. They do nonetheless gravitate to each other so they can share illegal adventures and plan bigger and bigger payoffs. They have nothing in common with the child or adult who lives a quiet, law-abiding life. Criminals envy the nice things in life, such as a home, car, or expensive computer, but they cannot conceive of working to attain these values. They would just rather take them.

Can criminals change? Not easily. Those who try to settle down in a job to make money for a car or home often succumb to their urges for the excitement of crime. Samenow does describe two success stories of criminals who changed, but they both went through long processes of catching the criminal thoughts midstream, challenging them, and struggling to substitute better ones. The process required is not unlike the will power of recovering alcoholics who must repeatedly check their desires for a drink.

In addition to dispelling the myth of environmental determinism as cause of criminal behaviour, Samenow demonstrates that there is no such thing as a “crime of passion,” the so-called out-of-character crime.

The reason, again, is the thoughts the criminal holds. A sudden and gruesome knifing, Samenow reveals, is not so surprising and out of character when one discovers the hostile thoughts, resentments, and perhaps even fantasies of stabbing or killing the target that the criminal has experienced for many months or years.

Samenow (pp. 6-7) states, “ I have found that thinking errors are causal in every case of criminal conduct. . . .The error is a flaw in the thought process that results in behaviour that injures others. The harm done may be minor or extremely serious” (emphasis in original).

Humans are rational beings, guided by thought, which means thought [or the lack of it] causes behaviour, both good and bad.

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Jerry Kirkpatrick is professor of international business and marketing at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and author of In Defense of Advertising: Arguments from Reason, Ethical Egoism, and Laissez-Faire Capitalism
This post first appeared at his blog.


  1. This is collectivist nonsense really isn't it. All criminals are exactly alike? They don't have friends? No such thing as a crime of passion? Pretty easy to refute most of these points. I don't disagree that criminals are generally bad people who choose to be bad, but none of this proves that.

  2. Jerry's post does not intend to prove anything. It seeks to point you to Samenow's proofs.

  3. Environment & genetics come first, thoughts come a distant second. There is no getting around that.

    Just read some reviews of this online. Apparently there are no peer-reviewed studies cited, just Samenow's own personal anecdotes. Excerpts seem to show a complete ignorance of statistics: Children of parents who have been to jail are six times more likely than their peers to end up in jail themselves. But according to Samenow this kind of correlation is not strong enough!

  4. "Environment & genetics come first, thoughts come a distant second. There is no getting around that." Well, yes there is: environment & genetics are given to us; but our thoughts, or lack thereof, determine the actual choices that we make.

    That two siblings can have exactly the same parents and upbringing but make totally different choices shows this is so, as should our own introspection.

    There's no getting around either.

  5. So there's nature and nurture, and our thoughts come from somewhere else? the spiritual realm? No. Thoughts come from your brain, which is a product of nature & nurture. If your upbringing was different, you were raised by, say the Harawira family you would not think the same.

    Genetics is very complicated and probability plays a huge role. Two siblings don't have identical genes much less identical brains.

  6. @Terry: You haven't even bothered to address the problem for determinism raised by the problem of siblings, let alone even begun to ponder the nature of free will, which is makes our choices choices.

    Philosopher Tibor Machan points out that since the determinist argument utterly ignores free will—the faculty that allows us to make decisions for ourselves—it ignores the very faculty that truly does determine our character .
    While nature and nurture certainly play a part in forming our talents and personality, he argues, what we do with what we’re given is up to us. It’s up to our free will-and the choices we make.
    In his argument, nature and nurture build our *personality*, but using our free will builds our *character,* which is much more important.
    But where does our free will come from? Where does it reside? How does it work? To answer you, we’re going to have to go back to bed. . .

  7. There is no 'problem of siblings'. Like I said they are different people with different brains.

    If you want to know the truth about free will it is ultimately a question for neuroscience, not philosophy. You haven't even approached it objectively, instead trying to argue against what you see as determinism which you would rather not believe in.

    'Philosopher' Tibor Machan hasn't provided any evidence that *personality* and *character* are separate entities at all. Personality/character determine the choices we make. To argue that it's the other way round violates the laws of cause and effect.

    If using free will builds our *character* then it begs the question why someone like Ted Bundy would make such drastically different choices than a normal person.


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