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Reblogged:Criminals Don't 'Snap'

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En route to other things, I unearthed a series of Psychology Today blog posts by my favorite criminologist, Stanton Samenow. Within these posts, Samenow debunks the common trope of the ordinary person who "snaps" or otherwise commits an "out of character" crime.

Samenow's first post lays out two major premises -- that people act consistently with their character and that character can be hard to read -- underlying his overall argument as follows:
There were clues before the crime, too. (Image by Max Kleinen, via Unsplash, license.)
[P]eople always respond in character. It is impossible for a person to do otherwise. You cannot be other than who you are. The "out of character" crime can be understood only by figuring out what the character of the alleged perpetrator truly is.

It takes a very long time to know the many dimensions of an individual's personality well enough to assess accurately what is "in character." What a person presents publicly often differs radically from what he is like privately. The brilliant and compassionate doctor who has taken care of us for years might not be so admirable if we lived with him. [bold in original, link omitted]
A person's character, as we see from the rest of Samenow's argument, arises from the kinds of choices a person habitually makes, and these in turn are affected by the way a person thinks. This isn't a denial of free will: Samenow's discussion clearly shows that he strongly advocates helping people correct the way they think about ethical issues and social interactions.

In his second post, Samenow applies his thinking to the particular common notion that a person "snapped" to commit a horrendous act:
Nearly everyone experiences unanticipated, stressful events. Human beings adopt an attitude toward adversity that is consistent with their character. Critical is not what happens to a person, but how he chooses to cope with whatever life hands out. Consider the impact upon an employee receiving without any warning a job termination notice. Suddenly, he is not able to support his family. There are many possible reactions to such a devastating, unexpected event. A person may become so depressed and psychologically immobilized that he secludes himself at home and does nothing to improve his situation. Another person fantasizes "getting even" but takes no action. A third person returns to the job site and angrily confronts his former supervisor at gunpoint. And a fourth individual immediately starts locating leads for a new job. The individual responds in a manner consistent with how he has reacted to other major stresses. A person who has dealt with past setbacks by seeking to improve his situation will not endanger others or himself by engaging in a violent confrontation. [my emphasis]
This makes sense, but the myth he is attempting to debunk is frequently buttressed by assertions by people who know the criminal that what he did was out of character.

Samenow addresses this issue in his third post by reminding us that it is difficult to judge people and that the kinds of people who are likely to commit crimes can cover their tracks pretty well:
In their unceasing pursuit of control, these people fortify an insatiable psychological need. They may attain positions of considerable power which they utilize to further inflate their sense of self-importance. They treat others as they would pawns on a chessboard. Because they are admired, their faults are overlooked, sometimes not even recognized. Colleagues and peers endure their exploitative and abusive conduct which only serves to reinforce their sense of invulnerability.

I call these individuals "secret controllers" because they are not perceived as controlling. They are successful in attaining what they want. Rarely do others challenge them. These people may not be seen accurately for who they really are until they have done irreparable damage. When a secret controller encounters a major threat to his ego, his response may be cataclysmic, appearing completely out of character.
I generally agree with Samenow, although not with his conventional use of the term selfish. I think predatory would be a more accurate term, whether such a person actually breaks legitimate laws or not.

-- CAV

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