Samuel Yochelson, M.D. Died 42 Years Ago

His legacy: an in-depth understanding of the "criminal personality."

Posted Nov 26, 2018

On November 12, 1976, my mentor and friend, Dr. Samuel Yochelson passed away after collapsing in the St. Louis airport from a heart condition.  He was en route to his first out of state speaking engagement regarding what now is contained in a landmark three-volume work titled “The Criminal Personality.”

A Yale-educated psychologist and physician, Dr. Yochelson moved in 1961 from Buffalo, N.Y. to Washington, D.C.  He closed his psychiatric practice to launch what became a second career at the invitation of St. Elizabeths Hospital, a mental health facility with a sizable forensic population.  With funding by the National Institute of Mental Health, he undertook what still, to this date, is the largest in-depth, research-treatment study of offenders conducted in North America.  The voluntary participants in his study were all male from a variety of economic, social, and educational backgrounds.  Some had been St. Elizabeths Hospital patients declared “not guilty by reason of insanity” or patients sent to the hospital for determination of competency to stand trial.  The others were referred to him by criminal justice and other agencies.  Some men participated briefly in the study, others during years of individual sessions and in small groups.

When he arrived at St. Elizabeth's, Dr. Yochelson was psychoanalytically-oriented.  He did what he knew best – methodically took histories, probed for early memories, and sought to identify causes of his patients’ behavior. Based on decades of experience in Buffalo, he believed that insight would foster change.  After several years of work, the outcome was criminals with insight, rather than criminals without insight.  Dr. Yochelson wryly commented that the insight they showed should be spelled “i-n-c-i-t-e.”  They were incited to blame other people and their environment.  In a moment of rare candor, one man commented, “If I didn’t have enough excuses for crime before psychiatry, I sure have enough now.”

A man of keen intellect and unassailable integrity, Dr. Yochelson was learning a great deal, but the men he was treating remained unchanged. Yochelson questioned their self-serving statements that concealed more than they revealed.  He shifted from seeking “reasons why” to focusing on their thinking processes that gave rise to irresponsible and arrestable behavior. It had become apparent that the environment in which these men grew up and their early experiences were less important than were their thought processes as they made choices as to how to cope with whatever life handed them. 

Taking a phenomenological approach, Dr. Yochelson endeavored to understand the world from the offender’s point of view.  He developed the concept of “errors in thinking,” a term he originated before cognitive psychology became a mainstream treatment.  He was able to identify specific thinking errors that, when present to an extreme degree and in combination with one another, invariably resulted in physical, emotional, or financial injury. 

Having developed an understanding of the population with which he was dealing, Dr. Yochelson was better equipped to help criminals change.  The result was his creating a program that could apply to a wide spectrum of men and women who had injured others.  Rather than delve into causes, his approach was to help offenders become aware of their own errors of thinking, then engage in what he termed “the calisthenics of change” to implement corrective thought patterns.

A frequent early criticism of Dr. Yochelson’s work was that nearly everyone makes the identical errors in thinking that he ascribed to criminals.  We have all been untruthful at times, insensitive to others’ feelings, used anger to get our way, and been unrealistic in our expectations of other people.  Wasn’t Dr. Yochelson making a “criminal” out of everyone? 

Dr. Yochelson explained that both errors in thinking and criminal behavior exist along a continuum.  For example, there is a difference between a person who turns a deaf ear to another’s point of view and an individual who shows little or no empathy at any time.  The criminal views the world as his chessboard and people as pawns for him to manipulate.  The individual with a “criminal personality” sees life as a one-way street, and his self-esteem depends upon prevailing whether by deception, intimidation, or force.

I was fortunate to work with this brilliant and compassionate man until his untimely death in November of 1976.  As a clinical research psychologist at St. Elizabeth's and his co-author, I not only learned from him professionally but also grew to appreciate his encyclopedic knowledge of many subjects, his sense of humor, and his wisdom about life.  Dr. Yochelson’s legacy is an enduring contribution to understanding the psychological makeup of the individual with a criminal personality and to helping individuals with such a personality change to become responsible citizens.