Inside the Criminal Mind

Understanding the dark side of human conduct

"Emotional Maturity" Does Not Explain Criminal Behavior

A term that confuses more than it reveals

I recently saw the play “Never the Sinner” (written in 1988 by John Allen) which is about the notorious 1924 Chicago murder of fourteen year old Bobby Franks by Leopold and Loeb.  These self-styled “uber mensches” were brilliant, good looking and from wealthy families.  They cold-bloodedly slaughtered Bobby, a cousin of Richard Loeb, just to do it – to commit the perfect crime. After killing the boy, they poured acid over his body.

Although smart enough to digest the writings of philosopher Nietzsche, Loeb wasn’t astute enough to avoid dropping at the remote crime scene what turned out to be tell-tale evidence – his eyeglasses. This misstep led to the arrest of these super criminals who had contemplated a variety of other horrific acts.

Among the arguments attorney Clarence Darrow advanced in their defense during the high publicity trial was that these “boys” (ages 18 and 19) lacked “emotional maturity.”  More than eighty years later, we hear mental health professionals and attorneys making similar claims.  If it isn’t a lack of emotional maturity, then it is an insufficiently developed brain that allegedly results in emotional immaturity and thus to the commission of a crime.  This defense maintains that because of these deficits, the youthful perpetrators are impulsive and unmindful of deterrents.

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On the face of it, such considerations are absurd when it comes to explaining criminal behavior. Elementary school children in primary grades develop an understanding of right and wrong.  It takes little “emotional maturity” to comprehend that it is wrong to steal, to assault someone, or to burn down a building.  Children also learn at an early age about the importance of earning trust based on honesty. These are not sophisticated concepts.  It is not currently possible to prove scientifically that criminal conduct has anything to do with “emotional immaturity” or an “undeveloped brain.”  Such vague pseudo-scientific terms offer excuses, are misleading, and explain nothing.

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

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