Inside the Criminal Mind

Understanding the dark side of human conduct

The Myth of the Out of Character Crime: Part 2

People do not "snap" and behave out of character

An often provided explanation for out of character behavior is that a person “snapped” because of a sudden unanticipated stressful or traumatic event.  Being fired from a job, incurring a devastating financial reversal, suffering an unexpected termination of a love relationship, and experiencing the trauma of war are the types of situations that are said to trigger out of character crimes.  Or, it is claimed, that a person “snapped” because, over time, his psychological defenses were battered to a point that he couldn’t take it any longer.

Nearly everyone experiences unanticipated, stressful events.  Human beings adopt an attitude toward adversity that is consistent with their character.  Critical is not what happens to a person, but how he chooses to cope with whatever life hands out.  Consider the impact upon an employee receiving without any warning a job termination notice.  Suddenly, he is not able to support his family.  There are many possible reactions to such a devastating, unexpected event.  A person may become so depressed and psychologically immobilized that he secludes himself at home and does nothing to improve his situation.  Another person fantasizes “getting even” but takes no action.  A third person returns to the job site and angrily confronts his former supervisor at gunpoint. And a fourth individual immediately starts locating leads for a new job.  The individual responds in a manner consistent with how he has reacted to other major stresses. A person who has dealt with past setbacks by seeking to improve his situation will not endanger others or himself by engaging in a violent confrontation.

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We have seen this principle demonstrated repeatedly as we read reports of catastrophic events in the news.  During major natural disasters, looters and predators have taken advantage of the chaos that ensued. Most people did not. The reactions of people afflicted by such tragedies are in keeping with their personality.  A responsible person does not maraud through abandoned streets stealing whatever he can grab.

Even those who appear remarkably stalwart may waver, despair, and become discouraged and resentful.  Nonetheless, their overall attitude is to respond to adversity as a challenge and renew their determination to cope.  They show amazing resilience and may inspire others.

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

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