Criminals' Self-Image: Decent People

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Criminals' Self-Image: Decent People

Book excerpt

By: Stanton E. Samenow

Date: 1984

Source: Samenow, Stanton E. Inside the Criminal Mind. New York: Crown Business, 1984.

About the Author: Stanton E. Samenow is a clinical psychologist whose private practice specialties are assessment, evaluation, and treatment of youthful and adult criminal offenders. During the 1970s, he was a clinical research psychologist at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he collaborated with Samuel Yochelson to collect data on the personality dynamics of convicted felons. He has published several books on criminal offenders and their underlying personality structures.


Rarely, if ever, do individuals (male convicted felons, as the demographic profile of female convicted felons is somewhat different) who have been convicted of, and incarcerated for, felony offenses readily admit to guilt and offer a straightforward motive for criminal behavior. If there is an admission of guilt, it is generally accompanied by explanations of extenuating circumstances, stories of an abusive or deprivation-filled childhood, or discussion of peer pressure and of "being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

In order for a criminal trail to result in a conviction, there must be proof "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the defendant acted willfully and volitionally (also called actus reus) and with intent to commit the crime (mens rea, or criminal mind). The premise of the insanity defense is that a defendant who was seriously mentally ill at the time of the commission of the crime, to such an extent as not to be able to behave volitionally (as in the case of a severely psychotic individual who is existing in a state of altered reality, under the influence of delusions or hallucinations at the moment of the criminal behavior) might not be held criminally responsible for the act. In such a situation, the defendant would be remanded to a forensic psychiatric institution. This is extremely rare. One notable example of this was John Hinckley, Jr., whose attorneys successfully utilized the insanity defense at his 1982 trial for his attempted assassination of the late American President Ronald Reagan.

In the 1960s, the noted psychologist and personality theorist Hans Eysenck posited that there was a constellation of traits, characteristics, and inherited tendencies that could combine, under certain types of circumstances, to result in the formation of what has been termed a criminal personality. Eysenck quantified personality along several scalar dimensions, having to do with several sets of traits: introversion, extroversion, emotional stability, neuroticism, and psychoticism. The normative personality would be emotionally stable and neither excessively introverted nor extroverted. Eysenck believed that those who were very neurotic, extremely extroverted, and with a high degree of psychoticism (per his personality scales) would be predisposed toward criminality. At the extreme end of the continuum would be what he—and Samenow—termed the psychopathic or sociopathic personality. Individuals with criminal personalities were likely, in Eysenck's theoretical system, to be thrill seekers, to act impulsively, to be predisposed toward violence, to be emotionally unstable, to abuse drugs and alcohol, and to have a difficult time learning and capitulating to societal rules. Sociopaths and psychopaths are incapable of learning or following cultural and societal rules, they are extremely aggressive and impulsive, they are unable to form emotional bonds with other human beings, they do not function well within normal society, and they are incapable of experiencing guilt or remorse. They are at the extreme end of the diagnostic spectrum for antisocial personality, and of antisocial personality disorder.


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Criminal thinking, as conceptualized by Samenow and Yochelson, is an aspect of the criminal personality, which incorporates a constellation of thinking patterns, rational choice-making, and free will. Essentially, Samenow and Yochelson argue that criminals' faulty thinking patterns cause them to make choices to break the law, to hurt, abuse, or kill others, to violate personal and property rights. They assert that criminals behave impulsively, do not envision future consequences for their actions, are irresponsible and self-centered, and tend to have a great deal of difficulty with abstract thought. As a result, they tend to reside on a foreshortened emotional continuum, and experience primarily anger and fear—which drive their actions. Although their theory appears to make sweeping generalizations about the criminal population, it appears to be more accurate for career criminals who have been in trouble since childhood or early adolescence than for those who commit a crime during a moment of extreme fear, rage, or passion or who plot and plan to kill an abusive spouse or partner after many years of being victimized. Yochelson and Samenow drew their theoretical assumptions from the criminal population with which they worked: a group of hard core incarcerated male adolescent and adult felons on a forensic psychiatric unit at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in urban Washington, D.C. They found these men to be resistant to change, to be entrenched in their thinking styles and behavior patterns, and to be unresponsive to traditional rehabilitation efforts. As a result of their research and clinical work with this group, they developed both the notion of criminal thinking and that of corrective thinking as a means of breaking the counterproductive (not necessarily from the viewpoint of the incarcerated felon) behavior patterns.

Corrective thinking is a learning paradigm, based on Samenow's theories, in which incarcerated felons (who meet certain criteria, as defined by the particular prison system's education and classification departments) are put through a specially designed curriculum in which they are repeatedly confronted with evidence of their faulty reasoning processes as well as with the need to take responsibility for past criminal behaviors. One of the primary objectives of the process is to break down and deconstruct ineffective, criminal thinking and behavior patterns and replace them with new, healthy ways of thinking and moving in the world. In the confrontation and responsibility process, Samenow and those who espouse his theory believe that it is possible to teach hard-core criminals to feel empathy (for their victims and for society as a whole), guilt, remorse, and some degree of self-loathing for their criminal behavior and criminal thinking patterns. By so doing, these cognitive behavioral theorists believe that criminals will reject old thinking patterns or replace them with non-criminal thoughts and behaviors. If the process is successful, those individuals who fully participated in the Corrective Thinking program will complete it as transformed individuals who are capable of refraining from committing criminal acts and of contributing positively to society.

Although the data is still being collected in the states and facilities that employ the Corrective Thinking programming, preliminary results strongly suggest that, for those individuals who fully and honestly engage in the coursework and report taking it seriously, rather than using it as a means of attempting to ensure a quicker trip to the parole board, the recidivism (return to prison) rates have declined considerably.



Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation. The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective. Quantico, Virginia: National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, 2000.

Eysenck, Hans J. Crime and Personality. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1964.

Lanier, Mark M., and Stuart Henry. Essential Criminology. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1998.

Samenow, Stanton E. Inside the Criminal Mind. New York, New York: Crown Business, 1984.


Lynam, Donald R. "Early identification of chronic offenders: Who is the fledgling psychopath?." Psychological Bulletin. 120(2) (1996): 209-234.

Web sites "Psyching out crime excuses." 〈〉 (accessed March 07, 2006).

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Criminals' Self-Image: Decent People

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