Thursday, June 21, 2012

The criminal, the narcissist

The literary archetype

In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky’s aspiring criminal Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov tests his theory that the world exists only to serve the needs of a few exceptional men, to lift them to great heights and achievements. Raskolnikov convinces himself that laws apply only to average men, and not to those of his own intelligence and willpower:
[The extraordinary men] all transgress the law; they are destroyers or disposed to destruction according to their capacities...[I]f such a one is forced for the sake of his idea to step over a corpse or wade through blood, he can, I maintain, find within himself, in his conscience, a sanction for wading through blood...
To test his extraordinary man theory, Raskolnikov plans to murder a pawnbroker, presumably to use her money for good purposes. I won’t spoil the results of his experiment. But this narcissistic attitude, this sense of being above others and excepted from all rules and laws, seems to be universal among real criminals, leading me to think back to this character often.

The "right to crime"

White collar criminals, as mentioned in a past post, exhibit narcissism in spades. Warning signs of workplace violence, according to the study discussed, include a sense of entitlement and egocentric behavior. These offenders believe they are entitled to commit fraud, and feel victimized when challenged - much in the way that one teenage armed robber interviewed by psychologist Stanton Samenow believed he was the only real victim of his crime, since he was the one incarcerated.

The criminal act itself can betray a narcissistic perspective. Take the case of Thomas Lagenbach, a VP in a prestigious software company, charged with stealing discounts on Lego sets at Target stores by switching the barcodes on boxes. He not only resold sets on eBay at full price, but assembled many and put them on display in his own home. They would have served as visual reminders of successful burglaries, trophies in plain sight. Police found bags of bar codes at his home and in his car. It may seem remarkable that someone in a position with so much to lose would flaunt his crime so carelessly, not even bothering to take simple steps to avoid detection.

From breaking rules to breaking laws

The conveniences of technology, in addition to making life easier for law abiding folks, have made it easier to commit crime and for educated criminals in positions of trust to believe they are untouchable. This bar code scam serves as a good example. Stores are only able to catch offenders by carefully comparing inventory with sales and reviewing surveillance tape. The criminal, on the other hand, can go through checkout and leave the store with a receipt for his stolen merchandise.

But the other angle to this story is that with easy crime comes easy excuses. Many people, not exclusively criminals, suffer from some degree of narcissism. They may simply like to be the center of attention, or they may break small rules to prove their special status. But in most cases to break a law means to cause harm to another person, which goes beyond attention-seeking.

There are at least two ways, however, in which a person with feelings of entitlement and superiority could potentially cross this line. The first is to deny that real harm was caused, and in cases of property crime this is an easy rationalization for offenders to make. Crimes against businesses may create even more emotional distance from the act of theft, since no single individual appears to be harmed by it.

A second is, frankly, to be a sadist as well as a narcissist. The desire to control someone physically, to compel them to act in a certain way, leads to many forms of violent crime - from spousal abuse, to rape and murder. This worship of violence turns pain inflicted on others and their submission into an affirmation of the criminal’s power. Violent criminals don't evade the harm they cause, but derive pleasure from it.

Changing perspective

Given the widespread assumption that crime is an attempt to overcome poverty or some form of injustice, it’s a wonder that crime persists in the face of its total failure to do those things. And there are many cases, such as with this Lego thief, in which there is no apparent injustice that the crime is aimed at overcoming. Instead the crime just appears to be an irrational escape, an act of pure self-destruction.

Alternatively, if you consider that crime persists because it often succeeds at acquiring something for the criminal, then your focus shifts. And one thing it acquires is a delusional state of freedom from morality, Raskolnikov's "right to crime", which is freedom from accountability not only for his behavior towards others, but from the accountability of acting in his own interests.

Friday, February 3, 2012

On criminal impulsiveness

Self-control theory revisited

A General Theory of Crime by Gottfredson and Hirschi suggests that we can reduce crime by improving self-control. Inheriting the conservative idea that by nature we are all plagued by impulses to harm each other - that to quote Travis Hirschi on crime “we would if we dared” – they write that what distinguishes a law abiding person from a criminal is his successful suppression of those impulses. He learns from his parents and other authority figures that they are disapproved of, and develops the ability to abstain from acting on them.

Lack of self-control, they argue, is criminality. Having the impulse to commit a crime is taken for granted as natural and universal. Self-control theory, social bonding theory, and social control theory are all examples of conservative theories of crime containment rather than crime itself.

Interestingly, the theory does not distinguish between self-destructive behaviors and behaviors that are destructive towards others – both, they argue are symptoms of lack of self-control, the essence of criminality. G&H make a number of useful observations on criminals, indicating that they have low self-control not only in their commission of crimes but in other behavior such as alcohol and drug use, or sex. They conclude that a criminal’s self-control is much lower than the average person’s, accounting for impulsive behavior of all kinds. Many people have problems controlling unhealthy impulses, for example to overeat or spend too much money. But it is only at much lower levels of self-control where you will encounter behaviors such as theft or violent episodes.

Describing criminality in terms of self-control, however, is very problematic. To say a person lacks self-control is to say he acts without considering the costs of his behavior. This is why both deterrence models of justice and theories of socialization claim that punishment reforms criminals by giving them a negative experience to associate with the crime. Yet risk and cost are important factors to the criminal: first in choosing his victim, and in the location of the crime and the weapon used, if any. These factors are selected to balance payoff and risk of arrest, and he practices techniques to avoid being observed during the act. That a thief steals from a clothing store discretely (perhaps by hiding smaller items while pretending to use the dressing room) demonstrates that he is aware of the risk and has changed his behavior accordingly. To argue that he steals because he is ignorant of the risk or suffers from a disorder that makes him unable to control his actions, is contradicted by the crime itself.

Impulsiveness means a different world view

If, then, we are all are born with criminal impulses that we must control and both the criminal and the law abider demonstrate a capacity for self-control, then what’s left to explain the crime? The answer is that everyone does not share these impulses. The criminal experiences an impulse to steal, and often does exercise a measure of self-control to ensure he can pursue that action without getting caught. You or I on the other hand might have an impulse to eat cake, or to buy the latest gadget. Whether we plan a diet or budget around those choices or not, it’s the nature of the impulse that matters when defining criminality rather than how those impulses are managed.

It’s true that criminals are often guilty of making very poor choices aside from crime, including alcohol and drug abuse, irresponsible spending, and fits of rage when dealing with others. However when discussing self-control, the other side of the coin is the reward of action. Does the criminal recognize and pursue the kinds of rewards that others do, and how might that impact his choices? If he scoffs at the 9 to 5 “suckers” who work, save and invest, is he likely to set goals similar to theirs? Will he put the money away from his latest score, or blow it on cocaine, confident that there are enough victims for tomorrow? Why would he wish to learn to express his anger more respectfully, when he believes his fists are all he needs to get his way? His impulsive actions are not merely a failure to consider consequences, but reflect his deeply held beliefs about the world.