Inside the Criminal Mind

Understanding the dark side of human conduct

A Criminal's Sentimentality Is Not Empathy

Again, appearance belies reality

"I can change from tears to ice and back again," said a man who had committed many types of crimes, including rape. This was in fact an accurate observation. This individual had a soft spot for animals. He would nurse an injured dog to health. He would become teary eyed during movies that were sad. And he was deeply moved by church services that he attended regularly. Nonetheless, when it came to his intended victims, there was not a shred of empathy.

I recall interviewing a murderer who refused to step on an insect because he "didn't want to kill anything living." Yet, after gunning down a total stranger (who he later learned was a husband and father of two children) during a robbery, he did not experience a moment of remorse.

When I began evaluating and counseling offenders, I was struck by the intensity and sincerity of their sentimentality -- so much so that I believed that the sentimentality could be capitalized upon  as a motivator for change. I thought that it could be utilized to teach empathy. I eventually came to the conclusion that I was dead wrong.  Sentimentality and empathy were totally different!

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The criminal shuts off sentiment just like someone flips off a light switch. Sentiment and savage brutality reside side by side in the same individual. One has no bearing on the other.

Stanton Samenow, Ph.D.,is a clinical psychologist practicing in Alexandria, Virginia and author of Inside the Criminal Mind.

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