The Human Equation

Serial killers, self-reliance, and everything in between

How to Think Like a Criminal

The mindset of murder and mayhem

Convicted serial killer Michael McGray, who recently acquired another life sentence for strangling his 33-year-old cell mate to death, takes no responsibility for his latest crime.  In fact, he sees himself as the victim.  The real perpetrator, according to Mr. McGrary, is the Canadian federal prison system who should never have transferred him out of a higher-security prison.  After all, he insists, “I’m a sociopath. I’m a serial killer.”

Sixty-one-year-old John Thompson says he’s a victim too – of a 7-year-old’s sexual prowess.  Mr. Thompson, convicted of sexual assault of a minor, is now threatening to sue the young girl because she “flirted with him” and then pushed him down and forced her tongue in his mouth.

What Are They Thinking?

We’ve long recognized that erroneous thinking accompanies many psychiatric disorders – consider the catastrophic thinking (I know she’s late to lunch because she died in a car wreck) that can accompany anxiety or the irrational beliefs (I will never feel better; my life is over) that often co-exists with depression.  We’re now realizing that there are also thoughts and beliefs that play a role in initiating and sustaining criminal behavior.

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In fact, psychological research is showing us that certain kinds of cognitions are linked to higher rates of violence, impulsivity, psychopathy and criminal justice system involvement. These are the kinds of thoughts that drive criminal justice case managers and probation officers crazy, because they indicate a pattern of dysfunctional thinking that can only lead to destructive behavior. Some of the most common include a sense of entitlement (rules don’t apply to me), failure to accept responsibility, short-sightedness (failure to learn from the past or plan for the future), insensitivity to the potential impact of one’s behavior, and a negative attitude toward authority.

Here’s some of the one’s I’ve heard:  “I deserve all the good things in life.”  “It’s a waste of time to feel bad about other people’s problems.”  “Life is too short and unpredictable to waste time planning for the future."  “If you show weakness, other people will try to take advantage of you.” “Hey, if she’s that gullible, she deserves whatever treatment she gets.” And, of course, the all-too-popular, “She asked for it.”

The Bottom Line

Thought precedes action, so perhaps it’s not surprising that convicted felons tend to share common thinking patterns. Hopefully, as we learn more, we can target these dysfunctional beliefs in treatment, reducing the recidivism rate and enabling the person to lead a more productive, crime-free life. For us non-incarcerated folks, if our date answers, “He shouldn’t have been in the road to begin with,” when we tell him the sad story of a run-over dog, run for the hills.

Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D, is the author of Complete Idiot's Guide to Psychology.

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