Why Bad Looks Good

The Psychology of Attraction

Breaking Bad Behavior: The Seduction of Crime

Even seemingly law abiding citizens succumb to the thrill of criminal behavior.

Having practiced criminal law for my entire career, I still believe that most people are good. However, because the world continues to be filled with enough criminals to keep people like me in business for a lifetime, the key to staying safe is being able to recognize them before becoming victimized. Detecting crime often involves detecting motivation--which sometimes includes the question of why bad behavior looks good.

As a veteran prosecutor—having begun my career as a criminal defense attorney, I am very familiar with the counterintuitive phenomenon that some people enjoy committing crime. Not just the unlawful gain—but the dishonest actions themselves. And I am not just talking about speeding, underage drinking, or stealing a pack of gum. The seduction of law breaking encompasses crimes ranging from the trivial to the heinous.

In Seductions of Crime: Moral and Sensual Attractions in Doing Evil, Jack Katz tackles the provocative question of what motivates people to engage in criminal behavior.[1] He observes that much research has been devoted to attempting to understand crime through studying the background of the criminal, “to the neglect of the positive, often wonderful attractions within the lived experience of criminality.”[2] His book focuses on the “seductive qualities of crimes: those aspects in the foreground of criminality that make its various forms sensible, even sensually compelling, ways of being.”[3]

Much of what he observes is corroborated by the behavior of real criminals, from thieves to rapists, and everything in between. 

The Thrill of the Steal

Everyone loves a good bargain. Even people with tremendous wealth enjoy the satisfaction of finding a deal. For some people, however, the quest to acquire more for less includes the urge to get something for nothing—which at the extreme, turns into theft.  Not everyone, however, steals because they need the goods. 

Some people shoplift because they want the merchandise yet lack the means (or legal standing) to buy it.  An example of this is teenagers stealing beer from a convenience store.  Other shoplifters, however, do it for the thrill.  This group is not confined to young people or those who cannot afford to acquire the goods legally.  Shoplifting has been documented consistently through the years by a wide range of seemingly unlikely lawbreakers.

You might remember actress Winona Ryder’s shoplifting conviction. Sure she stole from upscale Saks Fifth Avenue—but we assume she was financially able to pay for the items. So why steal them? While we don’t know the answer in her case, other shoplifters are motivated not by a desire for the merchandise, but by the thrill of the crime and the element of risk.[4]

In Chapter Two of Seductions of Crime, aptly entitled “Sneaky Thrills,” Katz outlines a variety of criminal acts where the act itself provides the satisfaction, independent of gain.[5] One of the examples he uses is two wealthy young men driving in a new red Firebird one of the boys had just received as a 16th birthday present—deciding to steal a pizza from a delivery boy’s car.[6] Clearly these rich boys could have bought their own pizza. Nonetheless, one of these young men described the pizza as the best they had ever had—despite the fact that they were not hungry.[7]

The Seduction of Darker Crime: Sexual Assault and Rape

Having spent many years prosecuting sex crimes, I can tell you that the urge to break the law results in crime much worse than shoplifting. Research corroborates my practical experience.

In Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream, Robert I. Simon states that everyone experiences negative impulses stemming from aggression, hostility, and sadism.[8] The difference is in degree, and the ability to exercise restraint.[9]

Consider the following scenario. A husband is leaving the house at night to go to the store when his wife asks him why he is removing their children’s toys from the back seat of the car. Struggling momentarily for an answer, he mumbles something about wanting to put the groceries back there—forgetting that he had just told his wife that he only planned to buy a carton of milk. 

Here is another possible reason he has cleared the back seat of his car: the backseat is where he will force the prostitute he picks up in order to rape her. The child locks on the doors will keep her from escaping until he is done. Why rape a prostitute?  If you can believe it, one of these guys might rationalize—to save money to buy groceries for his family.  And, he figures he has a better chance of getting away with raping a prostitute than a random stranger because committing a crime herself, a prostitute is less likely to call the police.

Other men prefer to rape women walking alone. I have prosecuted men with loving partners at home, who nonetheless take the long way home from work in order to stop off along a dark street and assault women walking home alone at night; sometimes within minutes after hanging up the phone with their partners.

Perhaps they will even steal the woman’s clothes before they flee in order to buy themselves more time to get away—because a stranger is more likely to call for help.

The Serial Rapist: Not Always About Sex

A man who rapes strangers when he has an available sex partner at home is exhibiting motivation beyond merely obtaining sex.

Dennis J. Stevens in his book Inside the Mind of a Serial Rapist describes a serial rapist who married a woman he worked with, whom he raped on their first date.[10] Actively raping other women during their marriage, he used his wife to practice attack holds he planned to use on future victims to see which ones worked the best.[11]

In Danger: Our Quest for Excitement, Michael J. Apter shares a chilling excitement-seeking motivation for rape, revealed by a prison psychiatrist who has interviewed multiple rapists.[12] The disturbing sequence begins with a “buzz” of excitement and anticipation, fantasizing about how the rape victim will behave, the stimulation of the rape itself, the danger of detection, and the thrill of the escape.[13]

Many other types of crime are committed for the excitement as well. Apter notes for example that “thrill killing” is on the rise, often committed by young offenders.[14] And who can forget the revolting “Knock Out Game” craze that made headlines across the world over the past year?

Why do we care about all of this? Because knowledge is power.  People do not only commit crimes for financial gain, revenge, anger, or other motives.  Sometimes they do it for the thrill.

Protect yourself and your loved ones by taking every precaution you can.

[1] Jack Katz, Seductions of Crime: Moral and Sensual Attractions in Doing Evil (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1988).

[2] Katz, Seductions of Crime, 3.

[3] Katz, Seductions of Crime, 3.

[4] Michael J. Apter, Danger: Our Quest for Excitement (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2007), 150-51.

[5] Katz, Seductions of Crime, 52-53.

[6] Katz, Seductions of Crime, 52.

[7] Katz, Seductions of Crime, 52.

[8] Robert I. Simon, Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream: A Forensic Psychiatrist Illuminates the Darker Side of Human Behavior (Washington DC: American Psychiatric Press, Inc., 1996), 3.

[9] Simon, Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream, 3.

[10] Dennis J. Stevens, Inside the Mind of a Serial Rapist (San Francisco: Austin and Winfield: 1999), 94.

[11] Stevens, Inside the Mind of a Serial Rapist, 94.

[12] Apter, Danger: Our Quest for Excitement, 153.

[13] Apter, Danger: Our Quest for Excitement, 153 (citing personal communication with Dr. K.C.P. Smith, working at Horfield Prison in Bristol, England).

[14] Apter, Danger: Our Quest for Excitement, 161-162.

Wendy L. Patrick, Ph.D. is a career trial attorney and an expert in criminal law. She is co-author of the New York Times bestseller, "Reading People."

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