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Generalizing a Point to an Absurdity: A Criminal's Tactic

An obstacle in the process of change.

Key points

  • This behavior is an attempt to minimize the gravity of the offense or action.
  • Forensic examiners are likely to encounter this tactic and must understand what it represents.
  • Responsible people make these statements occasionally, but some criminals do so habitually.

“What’s the difference between my mother keeping twenty-five cents too much change from the grocery store and me? She’s as much a thief as I am,” proclaimed a twenty-year-old man who marauded through neighborhoods, stealing anything he could find in unlocked, parked cars.

Technically, he was correct in asserting that he and his mother possessed money that did not belong to them. However, his statement equating the two is absurd on the face of it. The context for this man’s pronouncement was his justifying his ongoing conduct while speaking with a counselor.

One can be certain that what another person did or might have done played no role in his burglarizing cars. An offender has no reason to explain anything to anyone unless he is being held accountable.

“Everyone drinks. My dad has a scotch every night after work.” This statement was made by a man who had defied a condition of probation that he abstain from alcohol. When his blood alcohol test results came back positive, he disputed with his probation officer the “no alcohol” condition.

Not only did he cite his father’s daily drink, but he also launched into a diatribe about cocktail hour being part of society’s culture and contended that alcohol helps people relax. Moreover, he declared that he was not a problem drinker, that he could drink without overdoing it. Like the burglar, this man was making a point, then generalizing to an absurd degree, equating people who have one drink with his pattern of binge drinking alcohol.

Donald was caught lying to his boss about the amount of time he had permission to take off from work. When questioned, he said he didn’t know what the big deal was because most of his fellow workers had cheated on their time sheets. The difference was that Donald had missed blocks of time from work on many days each month. When his supervisor finally confronted him, Donald became indignant and asserted, “Everyone takes extra time off. You just happened to catch me.” Here he was equating frequently sneaking away from the job with a legitimate process by which his fellow workers applied for leave and had to have their request approved.

All three men were intelligent. Each had considerable experience deploying this tactic intended to shift the focus from a pattern of misconduct to what others do on occasion. By doing so, they were minimizing and attempting to justify the seriousness of their behavior.

How to React to this Tactic

A counselor will inevitably encounter this tactic during the change process. The criminal must abstain from doing some of the things he wants to do. From his perspective, to deny himself is to suffer in that he does not experience the same excitement that his lifestyle entailed. He also must do some things that he will find tedious or disagreeable. Hearing this, a criminal may balk and ridicule the therapist’s advice by asserting, “Am I supposed to suffer all the time and enjoy nothing?”

If a counselor tells a criminal that his words are important but that what he does is more important, the criminal may distort the message and angrily claim, “You don’t believe me. Why bother talking at all.” As he generalizes a point to an absurdity, he goes on the attack and tries to discredit the overall process of change and the counselor.

Responsible people sometimes divert discussion of their conduct and focus on someone else. The critical factor is the overall personality of the person who may deploy a similar tactic on occasion versus a person who resorts to it as a way of life.

Generalizing a point to an absurdity is a tactic habitually used by criminals in an attempt to minimize conduct that has harmed other people. Professionals who work with criminals sometimes get taken in by this tactic. Generalizing a point to an absurdity can assume a subtle form and can be convincing. The absurdity is not always obvious to the recipient. A person who is an agent of change working with criminals must recognize this for what it is – a tactic that must be addressed as one of many barriers to change.