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Are Criminals Suggestible?

Criminals are both highly suggestible and impervious to suggestion.

Key points

  • Many criminals present themselves as victims, easily persuaded and corrupted by others.
  • Some parents, teachers, and mental health professionals believe that people "become" criminals because they are followers.
  • What the criminal tells others when accountable is often very different from the truth.

Many parents of criminals ascribe their offspring’s antisocial behavior to being easily influenced by the “wrong people” or to hanging out with a “bad crowd.” Criminals make similar assertions when they are held accountable for their behavior: “I went along to be cool. Everyone I know does it. It was impossible to say no.” They characterize themselves as extremely suggestible and eager to fit in. Their self-portrayal is that of a pliable, vulnerable person, and a victim.

Ronald’s family moved from a quiet small town to an upper middle-class suburb. Where he had lived, people were so interconnected that it was hard to get away with much. Shortly after moving, Ron gravitated to teenagers who used drugs, skipped classes, and shoplifted. Arrested for burglary, he told a counselor that some kids had recruited him to join their informal gang. His mother told the counselor that Ronald got swept into a pack of kids who took advantage of his insecurity and naivete. She hardly recognized her own son because his attitude and behavior were so different.

The Ronald whom I interviewed seemed neither insecure nor naïve. He was rigid, recalcitrant, and abrupt He saw no reason to talk to a “shrink,” and no one could convince him otherwise. He was anything but suggestible to his parents’ guidance or mine. I encountered a stone wall when it came to asking him to consider any point of view contrary to his own.

Criminals appear highly suggestible from one perspective, but remarkably unyielding and uncompromising from another. Ronald was eager to learn from an older youth how to fill out a check that was stolen from a checkbook. He was quick to embrace any activity that offered excitement.

The criminal is poised to act on a hot tip. He may not evaluate the source of the idea or even consider whether it is feasible. Eager for action, he may follow and emulate another person whom he barely knows. He is likely to participate in a get-rich-quick scheme with little regard for consequences.

The careful judgment that the criminal often exercises vanishes as his usual skepticism and suspiciousness give way to a search for excitement. He needs no urging to jump into a situation if he thinks he will emerge as a hero. Having a criminal around in an emergency may turn out to be a plus.

While counseling a man on probation, I found him to be oppositional and uncooperative. Suddenly, water from a burst pipe started cascading into my consulting room. Without hesitation, he moved books, files, and furniture out of harm’s way into a nearby room. Sitting in my chair, paralyzed by the sudden flow of water, I had not requested his assistance. He simply took charge. Not at all suggestible to what I had to offer as a counselor, he was truly a hero that day.

A person’s suggestibility depends upon his interests. When it comes to exercising his power or pursuing a conquest, criminals are highly suggestible. Ronald spewed contempt for peers whom he referred to as “goody-two-shoes.” He remarked that to go to school, do homework, and spend time with his family was “like being a dog on a leash.” No parent, teacher, or counselor could influence him to abandon his buddies who skipped classes, hung out, used drugs, and went on shoplifting sprees.*

A criminal who holds a position of authority in an organization does not commit an act of malfeasance because he is corrupted by the power he has gained. He already was corrupt. His position in the company provides an arena for him to build himself up. He is suggestible to schemes that will result in self-enrichment although they are at the expense of his employer.

In summary, criminals are not suggestible when it comes to functioning responsibly. But they remain highly suggestible to whatever offers excitement and the prospect of a personal triumph. When held accountable, criminals will claim that they were misled, lied to, pressured by others. Quite the contrary is true. As one offender remarked, “I made myself into a god at every turn.” He was in charge, nobody’s fool – suggestible to anything that would inflate his sense of importance.


* A correspondent sent to me the following item about the criminal’s suggestibility. The source of the quotation is Theodore Dalyrimple’s “Life at the Bottom.” It reads as follows:

“When a man tells me, in explanation of his antisocial behavior, that he is easily led, I ask him whether he was every easily led to study mathematics or the subjunctive of French verbs. Invariably the man begins to laugh, the absurdity of what he has said is immediately apparent to him. Indeed, he will acknowledge that he knew how absurd it was all along, but that certain advantages, both psychological and social, accrued by keeping up his pretense.”

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