Do Criminals Desire to Get Caught?

Another myth with roots in Freud

Posted Aug 04, 2016

From time to time, we hear of people who bungle committing crimes so egregiously that it seems that they wanted to get caught.  Stories appear in the media about “stupid” criminals and the “world’s dumbest criminals.”  There was the man who phoned a convenience store to inquire how much cash was in the register before he robbed the store.  Tipped off in advance, police were on the scene to arrest him. I interviewed an offender who robbed a store and carelessly dropped a laundry pickup tag from his cleaner.  Police were quickly able to track him down. Thieves have posted photos on social media and bragged about their exploits only to have police apprehend them.

Students of human behavior have speculated that people take ridiculous chances or are extremely careless while committing crimes because, on some level, they actually wanted to get caught.  Such thinking seems to stem from writings by Sigmund Freud, who wrote about an unconscious desire to get caught and punished.  In a 1915 article titled, “Some Character Types Met with in Psycho-analytic Work,” Freud addressed “criminality from a sense of guilt.”  His thesis was that we all bear the burden of unconscious oedipal guilt. Freud asserted in “The Ego and the Id” that “an increase in this unconscious sense of guilt can turn people into criminals.” Freud maintained that the sense of guilt “existed before the crime” and constituted the “motive” for the crime.

For decades, proponents of psychoanalysis latched onto Freud’s theory. In his 1960 book, The Roots of Crime, Edward Glover referenced this concept as “the key to all problems in delinquency.” In short, adherents to psychoanalysis have contended that the need to be punished for unresolved oedipal guilt is a critically important causal factor in explaining criminal behavior. Freud’s clinical practice was not with criminals.  Nonetheless, many of his followers took observations he had made about neurotic patients and applied them to criminals, a very different population. 

I have been conducting psychological evaluations of offenders for 46 years.  Not once have I found that an offender in any way, shape, or form desired to get caught.  In fact, a detailed understanding of the thinking patterns that underlie criminal behavior leads to a completely different conclusion.

For the most part, criminals plan every move while premeditating crimes. They calculate what will transpire from the moment they conceive of a crime until after they make their getaway. They know the occupational hazards of crime—getting caught, convicted, confined, injured or killed in a high risk crime.  By the time a criminal is prepared to enact the crime, he is certain he will succeed and has eliminated these deterrents from consideration.  There is a “superoptimism” in which he regards the crime as a fait accompli. His experience supports this certainty.  He knows the likelihood of being arrested is low.  He previously has gotten away with crimes without anyone suspecting him as the perpetrator. Aware of the possibility that he could slip up, he is certain that this will not happen “this time.”

One offender observed in a conversation with me that superoptimism “kills criminals more than anything else.” As an offender gets away with more and more crimes, he becomes emboldened and develops a sense of invulnerability.  Then he may take greater chances. In some cases, the use of mind-altering substances contributes to recklessness. “Drugs knock off my caution,” one man told me. Some criminals who get away with complicated crimes subsequently let down their guard while committing a relatively minor offense.

From a responsible person’s perspective, a careless criminal may appear “crazy’ or “stupid.” But the criminal’s superoptimism is warranted by his extraordinary ability to cut off deterrents, by the number of his past successes, and by the care with which he devises current schemes. After the fact, criminals may acknowledge that they did something stupid or crazy but take offense to the slightest suggestion that they are crazy or stupid.

In short, criminals do not want to be caught.  Nor do they feel guilty about what they did.  Their regrets are about getting caught, not about the harm they inflected on others.  Nor do they commit crimes from a desire (unconscious or otherwise) to get help.”  In most circumstances, the only “help” that they seek is to get dug out of a hole that, by their own behavior, they have created for themselves.