The Criminal Mind: Understanding and Dealing with Violent Criminals

The Criminal Mind: Understanding and Dealing with Violent Criminals

Understanding the criminal mind may help us reduce the occurrence of violent crimes over the long term, but also may help us personally survive a short-term, deadly-force encounter with a bad guy or gal. Science and research studies about criminals can help us understand the criminal mind, predict, and assist in handling (or perhaps resolving) some criminal problems up front. There are some scientific studies and explanations for actions, attitudes, and behaviors of the criminal mind. Shooting the bad guy or gal may not always be the best long-term (or short-term) solution, while seemingly being expedient for our imminent confrontation.

Some have said in an encounter “I’m shooting rather than take a chance.” But you are taking a chance whenever you present your gun or fire it. You have escalated the confrontation and, perhaps, lost your self-defense claim by initiating the action. Now don’t jump to conclusions and say “I don’t care what, I’m shooting the dirt bag,” but rather think about some situational things in advance of the encounter. Just as in the past we said “A frontal lobotomy (surgical procedure) to sever nerve connections to and from the brain’s prefrontal cortex is the panacea to correct his deviant or violent ways,” we don’t want to jump to conclusions. Recognize that up through the 1950s this was an accepted medical approach by some to control aggression and violence, to calm and reduce anxiety, to change the brain, or to deal with the mentally-different or deranged criminal mind? It even shared a Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1949 and noted individuals even had the procedure, like Eva Peron and Rosemary Kennedy. It often resulted in not resolving the problem and created more, like altered mental functions and drastically-changed personalities. We have to tread cautiously here, because there are very many scientific and non-scientific factors to consider with various degrees of influence in any confrontation. And, of course, our life may hang in the balance imminently in any deadly-force situation, so we have to be practical. Ask “Is my life or great bodily harm really imminently threatened now?” This may be difficult for you to answer in a situation. But, it can help us respond appropriately to possible future situations, IF we can spend time before an encounter thinking about the factors, relationships, and our situational options, as much as this is possible to do. Of course, it is not possible to anticipate all possible assaults, encounters and situations, so just try to pre-think 2 or 3 common situations in general that might occur. Like, being seated with your spouse in a restaurant for dinner, while legally carrying concealed, and a robber produces a gun to rob the place. Or, when in your bank getting ready to make a deposit and you have your carry gun concealed (this is legal in several states), when a robber presents a gun to rob the teller. Generally we must decide ahead if we have the mindset for shooting someone, IF they threaten our life or can cause us serious bodily harm. No one can tell you how to respond or what to do in any specific scenario you might be involved with, but your situational awareness of the particular factors in any unique situation is key. In two chapters of my recent book Concealed Carry and Handgun Essentials, I present more information about understanding the criminal mind, violence with guns, situational awareness, and a shoot-no-shoot general situational checklist. 

Criminal Mind Behavioral Research

There are many possible causes of crime, including biological, social, genetics and hereditary traits, and personal influences and differences. And there may not be a cause-and-effect relationship, even though there is a strong correlation among two or more factors. Just because there is a significant statistical correlation coefficient between one factor and a result does not mean that the one factor caused it to happen. So we have to be very careful drawing conclusions and prescribing our actions based on a vast array of different data, sometimes conflicting with different interpretations. Enormously complex! There is art and science involved, as well as situational variables, in understanding and dealing with the criminal mind and violent behavior. To stop violence, we must understand its causes. And that is more than the usual social and societal influences on criminals.

What does the research literature say about the criminal mind and violent behavior? An expert in Neurocriminology, Professor Adrian Raine of the University of Pennsylvania, researched the criminal mind to help reduce violent crimes. He focused on biological factors, aggressiveness, and impulsive violence. Raine concluded that “something as simple as low resting heart rate is probably the best-replicated biological correlate of antisocial and aggressive behavior, as well as high testosterone and low cortisol hormones.” He said “low serotonin is a well-replicated correlate of impulsive violence.” Now don’t slit your wrists, this is controversial with different opinions and conclusions.

Dr. Stanton Samenow, a renowned criminal behavior psychologist and researcher, has interviewed, studied, and offered his professional interpretations and conclusions about the nature of the criminal mind. In essence, he concludes that the different manifestations of criminal behavior are just a matter of style and the extreme selfishness and lack of concern and empathy for others by the criminal, with self-gratification being their top if not sole priority. In one of his books, he stated that the criminal shuts off empathy and sentiment just like someone flips off a light switch. Sentiment and savage brutality reside side-by-side in the same individual and one has no bearing on the other, he says.

Dr. Samenow gives some interesting comments in his interviews with violent criminals. One criminal who committed rape and other violent crimes said “I can change from tears to ice and back again.” This individual had a soft spot for animals and would nurse an injured dog to health. He would become teary eyed during movies that were sentimental and attended church frequently. When it came to his intended victims, however, there was no empathy or sentiment whatsoever. Dr. Samenow also recalled the murderer who refused to step on an insect because he “didn’t want to kill anything living.” Yet, he would snuff out a person’s life without a second thought.

For a variety of reasons, criminals have different values, priorities, and behaviors than law-abiding folks and we should not attach ours to theirs, especially when we are in a deadly-force situation. Assuming the bad guy/gal will not shoot you over $5 is a very poor assumption. Recall Truman Capote’s book “In Cold Blood” in 1959 about the Kansas murders of a family of four without any apparent reason. Each family member, including young teenagers, was shot in the head with a shotgun. The murderers left with a pair of binoculars, a small radio, and less than $50. So, is it best to assume if you totally comply with the bad guy/gal’s demands they will not harm you? Or do you come out guns blazing? Either action could be deadly for you… dependent upon the situation. So each situation is unique, very situational, and it’s best to AVOID an encounter if you can. You are in an uncertain and strange situation, under stress, with many unknowns, uncontrollable factors, and many impairments to your quick thinking. You do not know the motivations of the criminals, their empathy and usual behaviors, nor anything about them. Confusing and conflicting. Some will kill you to get your money to buy drugs. Another killer, as reported in San Diego recently, left money to his victim’s family. You simply do not know. A very difficult decision under stress in a few seconds, keeping in mind the applicable laws, etc. Seems “darned if you do” and “darned if you do not.” Wow, this is confusing and complex.

Most people have no idea of how totally foreign it is for a criminal to put himself in the place of another person.  A very large number of criminals see the world as a chessboard with people and objects being like pawns for them to maneuver at will, solely for the criminal’s benefit. Samenow says the criminal does not regard a victim as a victim, but instead, with his selfish mindset, he sees himself as the victim, because now he is in trouble and faces a possible penalty. It seems that criminals think in such selfish all-or-nothing terms because believing themselves omniscient and knowing everything, they sense no need to evaluate a situation at any length (unless casing out a place to commit a crime). If a criminal is certain of his omniscience and infallibility, he has no reason to engage in the rational mental processes that are necessary for making decisions, like defining the problem, establishing a realistic objective, suspending judgment, gathering facts, evaluating alternatives, and selecting a rational, thought-out solution. If criminals want something, they obtain it very quickly, one way or the other without rational decision-making and concern for their victims. As Samenow reasons: “This all-or-nothing selfish thinking invariably leads to the criminal constantly experiencing frustration, disappointment, and anger at a world that does not give him what he thinks he is due.”  For the criminal mind, the opposite of winning and affirmation, is loss and degradation, without any middle ground. Thus having almost all peaks and valleys in his emotions and behaviors is the criminal’s selfish response to his own unrealistic view of himself and others. He experiences life on the spur of the moment, basing what he does on the expectation that he is absolutely correct and that others will do whatever he wants. Without empathy and failing to take other people’s needs and wishes into account, the criminal constantly encounters barriers to his plans. This threatens his view that he knows everything, that he is in control, and that others will agree to his demands. Assaults, bullying, and attacks occur for a criminal’s amusement or self-gratification. He builds himself up by tearing others down, says Samenow. Also, as Dr. Samenow explains, for the criminal, being in charge is integral to his self image. Anything less than having complete control is not acceptable to him. Thus, he resorts to any means to achieve an end — deception, intimidation, brute force, or violence.

Practical Implications and Conclusions

The reality is that a criminal who is willing to engage in a violent crime such as aggravated assault, rape, robbery, or home invasion, is not the kind of person with whom one will likely be able to reason with, or from whom empathy and compassion can be expected. Violent criminals have goals, value systems, priorities, attitudes, decision parameters, paradigms, and behaviors different from the vast majority of citizens. Compliance with such a violent criminals’ demands does not guarantee safety. Indeed, those who engage in crimes of violence are often drug users seeking funds to feed their addiction, and when lacking their drug may be unpredictable and irrational. Still other criminals have sexual assault or other violence as their primary goal, with robbery as a secondary goal, making cooperation with the criminal’s demands for property uncertain and your response confusing and possibly ineffective. There are risks from just being in a violent situation, but there are also risks for taking the inappropriate action or for not taking action at all. Situational success for making the best decision, considering the many factors.

Law-abiding, rational armed citizens can save themselves from violent crime and also save other would-be victims by understanding the criminal mindset and deterring criminals from victimizing others in the future. Get training in the fundamentals of handgun essentials, safety, legal considerations, and proper concealed carry for your personal protection, then decide if a concealed carry license is for you. Of course, avoid trouble, but be prepared, just in case.

Continued Success & Be Safe!

Photos by author.

Note: This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only and the author strongly recommends that you seek counsel from an attorney for legal advice and a certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense and concealed carry. It should not be relied upon as accurate for all shooters & the author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever.   

© 2016 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For copyright information, contact Col Ben Findley at [email protected].

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  • Some people are wired differently/incorrectly. Dr. James Fallon has done research on psychopathy and while there is a huge biological foundation, environment is a mitigating/aggravating factor. The interesting thing is that the professions with the highest percentage of psychopathy are executives and politicians. From what I understand, sociopathy is different than psychopathy. Sociopaths usually have some sort of moral compass or rules they live by and may have some sort of empathic pathways that may be twisted, whereas as with psychopaths, anything goes and they don’t feel empathy. I could be wrong, but that’s the way it was explained to me. In any case, I think that situational awareness is the best attribute in defending oneself. Most of the time, people leave me alone. I’ve worked as a child protective worker and for a bail bond in another life and had to go into areas of NYC that weren’t safe or fun, but I never was bothered. Being 6’5 probably helped too, but I also developed a better situational awareness. The only two times that I was hassled, was once when I was on a date and well dressed in downtown Manhattan and the other time was a desperate homeless guy in Washington square park. With the former, two guys made like they were arguing and bumped into me and then tried to pick a fight. I saw it coming and knew it was BS and I talked my way out of trouble. The homeless guy required a different approach. When I worked for the bail bond we had badges that we wore around our necks. I pulled up on the chain and asked the homeless if he wanted to be violated when he hassled me because I didn’t want to buy drugs. Those guys tend to have warrants out on them and if he’s selling drugs, well, let him think I was a cop. He backed off. Lucky for both of us. I had my combat commander and it wouldn’t have ended well and would have been a major hassle. Today I lead a much mellower life doing tech support at a university. 🙂

    • Col Ben

      Hey James. Thanks for your comments and you have some great ideas. There are no final conclusions about why people commit crimes. There are so many variables; it is difficult to generalize. Forensic and criminal psychology research continues and there are some disagreements among even the “experts.” Some stress the biological cause, e.g. brain dysfunction and abnormalities. Others stress the sociological, e.g. social surroundings, the environment, & political & economic factors. Still others stress the psychological, e.g. individual personality, personal defective or dysfunctional mental processes and felt need. Probably all play some role in understanding and interpreting criminal behavior. So we have to be careful and not generalize. I have learned this the hard way and each SITUATION is unique. So sad that even if you comply with the demands of the criminal, he/she may just shoot you any way. Scary! Well, back to my similar mellow experiences like you my friend.

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  • Saltporkdoc

    Great unbiased evaluation! I say this as a former 14 yr LEO, Chemical Dependency Counselor of 7 yrs and Domestic Violence Offenders Counselor of 9 yrs!

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