The Criminal Mind

Criminals usually pay for their misdeeds. But who is really to blame for crime?

The Criminal Mind

Criminals usually pay for their misdeeds. But who is really to blame for crime?

Adrian Raine is a renowned criminologist. He teaches psychology in the University of Pennsylvania and has written four books, all on abnormal psychology and crime. Raine has studied criminals extensively and taught courses on them, and routinely tells students to feign sleep for their own safety if they ever have an intruder.

He also tells another story:

In the summer of 1989, he took a trip to Bodrum, in Turkey. It had been a long day of travel, and it didn’t take long for him to fall sound asleep. Certainly, it helped that Bodrum was a relatively quiet city, with little traffic and honking at night.

Shortly after 3 a.m., he awoke when he heard the window creak. He could just about make out a shadow silhouetted by the streetlight. He panicked.

And, contrary to everything he know about criminals and their behavior, he attacked.

In recent years, the field of criminology has gained some prominence because of the new work being done by several psychologists.

Each of them, and many other psychologists, have studied people who commit crime. They’ve produced theories and explanations for why criminals are criminals. What makes them do bad things? Why do they deviate from normal behavior? And how are they different from us?

Each of them have contributed to our broader understanding of what makes these people tick, and have put together something that resembles a theory of abnormality.

Adrian Raine came away with gash in his throat, and a shaken belief in all the theory he’d been teaching for the last decade. It made the things he studied seem more real, and less like something to be peered at from behind a two-way mirror.

“Until that experience in Bodrum,” he wrote in his book The Anatomy of Violence, “violence had been primarily an academic concern for me.” But this experience “broke through my outer facade of liberal humanitarian values and put me in touch with a deep, primitive sense of retributive justice.”

It made him want revenge, even though he know just what it was that made his attacker into a violent man, and that whatever it was, it wasn’t his fault.

Psychological studies fall into four broad categories, and each of these schools approach the subject of study differently, attempting to understand and explain it at various levels.

Social studies examine the larger context of an action, and generally have to do with the ways in which people interact with one another. They ask the question: what about this situation is causing this response?

Cognitive psychologists focus on the inner workings of a person’s mind. As opposed to social psychologists, who consider the external, cognitive psychologists study the internal. To them, the thoughts, memories, and feelings that prompt specific behavior are important.

Biological or physiological studies look at the brain and body, and use them as a means of deciphering behavior. A behavioral psychologist might look at anything from the proportions of parts of the brain to gene sequences and try to correlate it with a particular phenomenon.

Finally, learning psychologists look at just that: learnings. However, learnings may take a form different than the obvious school learning. Learning can happen by watching others, peers or adults, or by self-discovery, or, of course, by being taught. They try to interpret actions keeping in mind what may have been learnt.

Criminology, too, has been viewed through each of these lenses, and there are interpretations for each of them.

Adrian Raine talks about two main social causes of crime in The Anatomy of Violence.

The first is childhood abuse: such trauma during a child’s formative years can lead to highly antisocial behavior, which has been linked with crime. In a paper published in 2014, Raine states that the “maternal rejection of the child in the first year of life [has] been associated with violent criminal offending…[and] adult violence.”

The second is the current role of crime in a person’s life. In a setting where violence is the norm and access to weapons such as guns or knives might be easy, a person is much more likely to resort to it in any given situation.

The sociologist Joseph Pharrell, best known for his work studying the African-American gang culture in cities like Chicago and Baltimore, adds:

“…in today’s social context of the appropriation of violence by mainstream media and the perpetuation of the idea of its ‘coolness’, we see an increase in the numbers of young people that are accepting of it as reasonable action”,

This shows that even much broader, society-wide cultural phenomena have an impact.

The cognitive portion of criminology is focused more on people who are cognitively deviant; for example, sociopaths and psychopaths. Much of the research goes toward understanding their emotions and thought patterns, and is used to help profile and find criminals.

Criminologist Shirley Lynn Scott says that a lack of empathy lies at the root of many such anti-social behaviors. This produces serial killers and violent criminals that feel nothing — not sadness, guilt, or remorse — for their victims. Their compulsion to kill arises from “a deep-seated anger that may be the result of feelings of inadequacy and, twistedly enough, sexual desire”.

Psychopaths and sociopaths do not seem to really feel — instead, they only imitate what they see others do, making them charming and likeable. As Adrian Raine said, he really enjoyed being with them.

“They control the conversation and manipulate you very convincingly.”

Learning psychologists have two main theories for why someone becomes a criminal, and they are based on two theories of learning: imitation and conditioning.

The former is a result of having violent adult role models as a child or adolescent. As one 1961 study showed, even limited exposure to an aggressive adult model led to displays of both imitative and non-imitative violence in children. Prolonged exposure, like with a parent or neighbor, would have much more detrimental effects.

Taken together with the earlier point about violence in media making it a more acceptable form of expression, this form of learning might be the cause of many criminal activities.

The second theory is a take on the idea of “operant conditioning”. That’s when people learn by punishment and reward.

As everyone knows, criminals tend to start with small offenses, then work their way up as their crimes go unpunished. This reward system is especially apparent in criminals who rob homes or mug people and are left with their loot but never caught.

Last, but certainly not the least, and quite possibly the most, the biological side of criminology has been extensively studied.

Potential influences begin during the mother’s pregnancy: smoking or drinking, even in very small quantities, have been known to produce more aggressive kids because of the way the toxins affect the child’s pre-frontal cortex. Poor nutrition — both on the mother’s part during the pregnancy, and after the birth of the baby — predispose it to antisocial behavior during the pre-teen years.

A low resting heart rate is a common feature of more violent criminals, as well as elite soldiers and combat personnel. Some people think it’s because these people don’t have a fear-response system. A study of forty-one murderers showed less activity in their pre-frontal cortex, or “guardian angel of behavior”, compared to a matched counterpart, in disorganized killers. Raine also found through MRI and CT scans, that psychopaths had amygdalas (fear-processing centres) that were 18% smaller than average.

Many of these finding and theories raise deeper questions, including:

  • If bad brains cause bad behavior, and they are formed during childhood, can we hold the adult responsible for their actions?
  • Biology need not be destiny, but do mentally ill people really have free will?
  • And does this mean that some people have more free will than others?
  • How would the idea of “not being to blame for one’s actions” affect the criminal justice system?
  • And, in light of these new findings, does such a system really make sense anymore?

Criminology has the power to inform, influence, and change our policing and imprisonment systems. Its implications are not only practical, but moral: it raises questions of free will and pre-determination. And, as illustrated by Adrian Raine’s 3 a.m. experience, it shows us the inherent nature of the divide between intellectual and emotional, between knowing and feeling.

Criminology puts forward many questions, and we don’t have answers to all of them yet. But maybe just act of asking, of talking about them, is a start.

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