Thursday, April 24, 2014

Thoughts, Not Environmental Conditions, Cause Criminal Behavior

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 legalized 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 behavior 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 behavior.

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.

Criminals 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 behavior, 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 behavior that injures others. The harm done may be minor or extremely serious” (emphasis in original).

Humans are rational beings, which means thought causes behavior, both good and bad.


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