Inside the Criminal Mind

Understanding the dark side of human conduct

The Myth of the "Out of Character" Crime: Part 1

You cannot be other than what you are!

From time to time, accounts burst into the news of regular, everyday people who unexpectedly do hideous things.  They commit crimes that shock their communities and stun even individuals who know them extremely well.  Parents, spouses, relatives, friends, neighbors, work colleagues, and others who have close, even intimate, relationships with these people are at a loss to understand what has happened.  When they learn of the crime while watching the evening news or reading the morning newspaper, their first thought is that the person they know could not possibly be the perpetrator because it is totally “out of character.”

The theme of my next several blogs is that people always respond in character.  It is impossible for a person to do otherwise.  You cannot be other than who you are.  The “out of character” crime can be understood only by figuring out what the character of the alleged perpetrator truly is.

It takes a very long time to know the many dimensions of an individual’s personality well enough to assess accurately what is “in character.”  What a person presents publicly often differs radically from what he is like privately.  The brilliant and compassionate doctor who has taken care of us for years might not be so admirable if we lived with him.

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Behavior is the direct result of the way a person thinks.  As I have written in this blog before, behind criminal conduct in every case are “thinking errors.”  Thinking provides clues to the personality of the individual.  The “error” is a flaw in a person’s thought process that usually results in behavior that injures or, at the very least, inconveniences others.  The more extensive the pattern of an error in thinking, the greater the injury.  We all make thinking errors on occasion. My task is to discern whether there is a pattern of thinking errors and how it plays out in the life of the person being evaluated. 

I can spot errors in thinking as an offender discusses almost any aspect of life.  Identifying errors in thinking is essential to developing an understanding of what is “in character.”  In subsequent blogs, I shall focus on people who have been criminally charged.  Some of these individuals appear to be ordinary individuals who have committed extraordinary crimes.  I shall discuss why it is virtually impossible for a person to commit an “out of character” crime.

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

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