Thursday, September 16, 2010

“Crimes of passion” and two approaches to motive

Sources: Inside the Criminal Mind, A General Theory of Crime, FBI’s Crime Classification Manual, Daily Mail

The “crime of passion”

Reading an article the other day, I remembered the alleged category of “crimes of passion”. These crimes are spontaneous, unpredictable, and occur in response to a sudden emotional trauma. For example a husband, hearing of his wife’s infidelity, murders her or her lover in a fit of blind rage. In fact, this account of events follows naturally from conservative criminology, which claims that criminality results from lack of control. The husband may have been a law abiding individual, may have been the perfect family man and neighbor, but this behavior was the result of decades of conditioning by laws and society. The emotional shock simply loosened those controls, leaving him unable to hold back his anger.

On first inspection of the crime, details would support that view. The FBI calls this a “spontaneous domestic homicide”, spontaneous because it is unstaged. The crime usually takes place at the offender’s residence with a weapon of opportunity. And often there will be signs of “undoing”, indicating remorse following the kill. This means the offender may do things such as wash, redress or cover the body, or reposition it on a sofa or bed to give the appearance of sleep. They do this for their own benefit in the attempt to erase the crime from their mind, not for the purpose of concealing it from authorities. If you stop here, you may conclude that suddenly the offender was overwhelmed with rage and lost his mind. After the episode he regained his senses and was hit by the realization of what he had done.

However, the profile of these cases includes a history of abuse or conflict between the offender and victim, dispelling the illusion that the violence was new or foreign to the character of the offender. Criminal psychologist Stanton Samenow observed this pattern, rejecting the view that such crimes are truly unplanned. Previous acts of violence or threats may be hushed up by the family, making the homicide appear sudden and out of character. He discusses one case he was referred by the court: the offender had no prior criminal record and appeared to have just gone “berserk”. The offender himself claimed that he had just snapped and did not know what he was doing. However over the course of interviews it was clear that the marriage had been plagued with fights, that in fact he had struck his wife on several occasions and once even attempted to drown her in the bathtub. Because no one knew of this violence, they could not explain the murder. Samenow concluded that,

…the act was not the product of a deranged mind, nor was it perpetuated by a man to whom violence was an alien impulse. The idea of ridding himself of his wife had occurred to him again and again. In that sense, he was programmed to murder his wife—programmed not by someone else, but by his own habitual patterns of responding to conflict.

People seem to want to conclude that such violence is sudden even when it clearly is not. In the article mentioned earlier, a man killed his wife and four others after complaining that she did not cook his eggs the way he wanted them. The title of the article: “Husband enraged over how his wife cooked his breakfast eggs kills her and four others in Kentucky shotgun rampage”.

After shouting at his wife, she fled to a neighbor’s trailer. He chased her with his shotgun, firing dozens of shots and killing 5 people, before finally killing himself. Despite the title of the article, the offender’s behavior was not a sudden, new anger over something as ridiculous as breakfast, but was the climax of months of brewing hatred. He was about to be evicted because of increased hostility toward neighbors, and one neighbor reported a history of violence.


There are two approaches one could take in analyzing such cases. One would be to identify the offender’s problem as “impulse control”, which is often done by conservative criminologists. However, to do so smuggles in this word “impulse”, which needs to be explained. Would you say that the primary problem in the last case was that the offender “failed to control his impulse to kill wife and neighbors”? Is “control” really the proper focus of the analysis, or are you wondering instead why he had this desire to kill that needed controlling? This is one clear example of the conservative “nothing to see here” attitude toward criminal motivation. An “impulse” is taken for granted as something natural to everyone, with the only difference that criminals have difficulty controlling them.

For example, according to Gottfredson and Hirschi in A General Theory of Crime, the nature of criminality is “lack of self-control”. Interestingly, this defect manifests both in criminal behavior and in behaviors such as over-indulgences of food, alcohol or sex, and drug use. They suggest that by improving self-control in even a non-criminal behavior, this should improve self-control in criminal behaviors, since the source is the same. There is no qualitative distinction made – with reference to motivation – between overeating and murder.

The alternative presented by Samenow is to examine how the offender has habitually responded to conflict. Those who commit “crimes of passion” have a history of responding to conflict with anger and threats. The nature of the conflict itself is of trivial importance; it could be over an affair, or over how eggs were prepared at breakfast. It is natural to feel frustrated by conflict with others, however rather than examine the reason for the conflict and either resolve it or come to terms with it, the offender takes his own frustration as a primary for the other party to acknowledge and bend to. If they do not adapt their behavior to his liking, he responds with further threats, escalating into murderous fantasies.


  1. An excellent analysis, Bryson!
    The distinction is critical and unarguable, the way you have presented it. In fact, I'm so angered by the fact that I never thought of it, that I feel the need to go on a rampage and squash as many ladybugs as I can find.

  2. Thank you, Alan! I’m glad you found your way here. I also think the distinction is critical, but it does not seem to be generally recognized. I think part of the problem is that criminology is dominated by sociologists. You can tell a lot about criminal behavior from their actions, but you also need to know what is going on in their heads. Sociologists do perform interviews, but the focus of those interviews is on the variables of the theories they are testing. They may for example give the offender a multiple choice questionnaire, with predefined choices for the reason they committed their crime. If they simply check “economic reasons” that is reported in the research as supporting this theory or that. The form may also have an “other” choice. But to gain any meaningful insight, you have to be focused on your subject, not your theory or filling out bubbles. And sociologists aren’t necessarily qualified to do interviews with criminals, who have unique barriers to being open and truthful.

    Take it easy on the ladybugs. ;)