Many people develop natural but erroneous assumptions about motives for crime. These include:
1) The crime was committed to fulfill a need.
2) The crime was a response to unique stress or emotional distress.
3) The criminal believes what he is doing is right.
For example, when we fiction readers think of a thief, our mind might go to the character Jean Valjean, from Les Miserables; in other words, to a criminal created from the desperation of poverty and human suffering. And street criminals are far more likely to win the sympathy of listeners than a wealthy embezzler or extortionist. The presence of suffering invites sympathy as a reflex, and we end up putting ourselves in the criminal’s shoes. When we do this we imagine scenarios where even we might break the law.
This begins what is known in intelligence analysis as “mirror-imaging” - when a person processes information about an event through his own experience. By substituting his experience and personality for the other person’s, this can lead to a greatly distorted understanding of behavior.
Seeing someone suffering commit a crime, one imagines himself in a similar position and draws conclusions about what might have caused the behavior. For example he decides that a criminal without a job would be less likely to recidivate if he had work skills or a better education. But because he is extrapolating from his own psychology, these conclusions only blind him to facts. He doesn’t notice that the criminal had a job, but lost it for mouthing off to his boss and missing work; that he was in school, but dropped out. And the underlying reasons for those behaviors are invisible, because they aren’t being studied.
This is why psychology is such a valuable tool for criminology. To avoid carrying assumptions to an analysis of crime, we have to fill in that blank space titled “why did he do it?” with research, not role play.
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