Tuesday, 12 May 2015

TURNING TO CRIME - Cognition: How do our internal mental processes influence the likelihood of criminal behaviour


Yochelson and Samenow propose that criminals offend because it's an attribute of their personality. They believe that they have over forty distinct thinking errors that distinguish them from non-offenders, characterised by fear and a distorted self-image. They denied that criminals act impulsively, and proposed that they made rational decisions, but that these were biased by the criminal thinking patterns which resulted in their crimes. They also emphasised that personality develops over a lifetime, but that parent-child interaction was an important influential factor on criminality.

Yochelson and Samenow:

Participants: 255 male offenders judged NOT GUILTY BY REASON OF INSANITY who were residing in a psychiatric hospital in the US

Method: Offenders were interviewed using a Freudian therapeutic style interview e.g. thorough questioning about childhood, dreams, personal issues etc. This continued over several years.

Results: Though attrition (drop out rate) was high, Yochelson and Samenow concluded that criminals did display erroneous thought patterns which could explain their criminal behaviour. 52 errors in thinking were found.

Firstly, a need for power and control where they are constantly dissatisfied.

The second included denial of responsibility,lacking empathy and poor decision making

The final error identified was optimistic fantasies of criminal acts and wanting to live a life of excitement, at any cost.

It was concluded that the offenders in the study act rationally, but their distorted self-image and thinking errors cause distortions in judgement and criminal behaviour. This therefore leads to poor decision making - crime.

Conclusions: Although these errors are not unique to criminals, it is thought that they are displayed more by criminals. However, as there was no control group it is impossible to say that non-criminals are different to criminals. In addition, by discovering such errors in thinking in criminals, it is possible to try and improve their behaviour by correcting these errors in thinking.


One theory of why some people turn to crime emphasizes the role of moral development. Kohlberg devised a stage theory of moral development, based on the Piaget's work. It outlined that there are three levels to moral development, each containing two stages.
The first level is pre-conventional morality, this happens in childhood. Morals are driven by reward, punishment and self-interest.
The second level is conventional, this is where most people fall into; their morals are driven by society, law and conformity.
Finally, post-conventional level is seen as potentially an ideal that many do not reach, consisting of universal laws which replace actual laws. Some have argued that criminals offend due to only being in stage 1 or 2 and thus driven by self-interest, and avoiding being punished. Therefore, criminals have immature morals


Social cognition refers to how we think about others around us, and a key part of this is attribution theory. Cognitive psychologists believe that we attribute our own behaviour to the situation, but others' behaviour is due to their personality, particularly when they are negative or undesirable.

For example, if we are in a bad mood, we may blame someone else, or the weather, but if someone else is in a bad mood, we assume they are hostile or are generally grouchy.

Hostile Attribution theory might explain criminal behaviour in terms of criminals incorrectly attributing more hostile behaviours to the individuals, and thus they feel like they can justify being anti-social and committing offences because they feel victimized or an outcast.

Both of these theories could be linked and explained with the following study. THAT'S RIGHT! I'm such an amazing teacher that I'm helping you to learn less! 

Palmer and Hollin:

Aim: Palmer and Hollin aimed to investigate the relationships between moral reasoning, attribution theory and other cognitive processes amongst young male offenders and non-offenders.

Sample: 97 young convicted male offenders and 77 young non-offenders, all from the Midlands area.

Method: Data was collected psychometric tests.

The socio-moral reflection measure tested moral reasoning by asking questions such as to the importance of promises, which gave the participants a level and stage of moral reasoning according to Kohlberg’s theory.

Participants were also given scenarios where they were to attribute intent to others' behaviour i.e. link this to social cognition theory.

The other psychometric tests assessed perceptions of parenting including rejection and self reported delinquency (minor crimes) this involved a check list of 46 offences.

Results: One of the key findings was that offenders were more likely to have less mature moral reasoning. This therefore shows that they have a selfish and simplistic view of the world and how they effect others around them.

They also found that many of perceived to have parental rejection :( Poor things!

In addition, criminals were often found to make more incorrect attributions of hostility. This means that criminals tend to have an erroneous way of judging social behaviours. Therefore they have poor social cognition. The researchers argued that parental rejection and incorrect attributions were to be significant predictors for the delinquency rates reported.

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