A question about criminal psychology

We’ve all heard dumb criminal stories that are good for a chuckle, but I’ve wondered about a phenomenon that’s not really, I think, in the same vein.

Many examples abound and I’m sure y’all can recall several of your own. Two brief cases I know of:
1.) I had an auto accident and an acquaintance of ill-repute knew I was hospitalized. He broke into my home and stole several checks (off the back of the checkbook, sly fellow). I was in the hospital when I received my statement and found several checks in alien handwriting written to various stores. The last one was made out to the perp. My bank gave him 24 hours to make up the funds and he did, so they let it go;
2.) My brother had an office manager who embezzled $30,000 from him by writing checks to himself that he carried on the books as payroll tax payments. The payroll tax payments were not made. He reconciled bank statements and was working there right up until the IRS showed up to freeze assets and foreclose (presumably he’d been intercepting previous IRS communications). It took very little time to figure out the score at that point and my brother has been able to save his business with an agreement with the IRS, and the perp is now in prison.

I knew the first guy and had met the second, and neither we’re slobbering idiots. And this is not one of those they-left-their-license-plate-behind kind of stories.

But in both those cases, if they’d thought about their crime enough to do what they did, it seems to me that some psychological pathology must have been operating for them to not have seen that their endeavors were not just risky, but rather definitely going to lead to their comeuppance.

So, what psychological mechanism is working in such a case? I’ve tried to imagine this in the context of the old subconscious cry for help, but that is not really satisfying (in part, perhaps, because both of these guys are repeaters).

I’d consider the first guy a slobbering idiot. He probably would not have been caught if he hadn’t made out the one check to himself. How would he explain that?

And the second guy probably was smart, but just got greedy. You can get away with practically anything if you do it just once, and he was likely counting on this. I can imagine a scenario where he swipes some money in the same amount as a payroll tax payment, and then if he needed an excuse, blames the IRS for some administrative screw-up on their end where they cash the check but can’t account for it.

Then after nothing happened for 6 months or a year, he began constructing alternative theories as to why the missing money wasn’t noticed, and figured “Well, if the IRS hasn’t caught it my now, they never will.” And he tries it again cuz the original alibi is still good having never been used.

After still not being caught, he comes up with another alternate theory, thinking maybe the IRS doesn’t have the resources to go after each and every employer whose check “gets lost in the mail” each fiscal quarter.

And he does it again, thinking the IRS is a bunch of buffoons who can’t even catch the easy “mistakes”. And he still has the original excuse for when he needs it.

But the smart ones know that their luck will run out eventually. Even then, they can’t resist “just one more”, or else they come to a point where they realize good and well they are going to get caught and then continue with reckless abandon until it all falls down.

This last bit got me thinking about Ponzi schemes.

Speaking in the general case, there are a couple of principles (from a criminal psych perspective) that are common to most criminals.

First, most thieves feel that they have a right to take. The source of this “right” comes from the feeling that: 1) other people are doing it, I may as well too (uncommon), 2) it isn’t fair that other people have things I don’t (common), 3) other people have an unfair advantage over me (very common), 4) no perceived choice (very common). Thieves, like most all human beings, act in what they perceive is their own best interests.

Second, they don’t think they will get caught. This is why punishment is pretty ineffective and, IMO, why recividism rates are so high. Again, they are human beings just like you and me, and if they thought of being caught and punished really occured to them then they likely wouldn’t commit the crime.

From a criminal science perspective, if I were investigating this crime I would be looking for the “whammy”, especially for the second guy. Usually, there is something motivating the crime then pure greed. The person may have an expensive drug habit or ilegal gambling debts to pay off. This is the feed into the two principles above. They person feels that have no choice but to steal the money. Of course, from the outside their are plenty of choices, but a variety of factors may make thievery seem like the only viable one. For example, if it were a drug habit they could try to get themselves off of them, but this would require them admitting it possibly their employer, peers, friends, family, etc. The shame and embaressment of it all makes thievery seem okay.

Sometimes what happens is the person frees themselves from one whammy and then invents another one because they have been successful, or they will simply move on to another cause for stealing. For example, a person has a gambling debt (the whammy), the pay it off and are successful. Then they decide that because of the stress they have been under trying to pay off the debt they didn’t get the raise they should have, which means they couldn’t get the 54" TV. That isn’t fair, in their mind, they should have got the raise, and they would have if it weren’t for the recent problem. In thier mind, it is okay to catch themselves up to where they should be.

Hope this answers you question at least a little bit. If not feel free to ask some more specific questions and I’ll answer as best I can.

I’ve worked with ex offenders for more than 20 years. There are many reasons that folks commit crimes. You seem to, however, be looking for the 'why would some one do something knowing that they will be caught?"

Specifically, you seem to be looking at things like embezzlement and theft from folks the theif knows.

Couple of things at work (IME). One is the difference between long term and short term consequences, immediate gratification. Do you carry a credit card balance? If yes, and yet you still talk yourself into buyging something on sale using the credit card, this is an example of immediate gratification outweighing the long term consequences factor. and the longer it goes on, the more they think (erroneously)that they got away with it.

I had a secretary steal some checks. She cashed one just before the 4th of July, then skipped work on the 5th (she was supposed to be in). We didn’t know yet about the check, so we called her, wanting to know what happened, etc…She came back to work after I talked to her, thinking that she hadn’t been implicated in the bad check (true at that point), and maybe never would be (hA!)

By the time the checks came to light, (another few weeks later), she’d been able to talk herself into believing that she couldn’t be implicated in the theft. So, when I confronted her about it, she had the correct air of innocence etc.

And, of course, when the spector of drug abuse, gambling or other financial woes come into play, so does desperation.

Most of the folks I’ve met who have stolen, steal from ‘faceless’ entities such as stores, insurance cos etc. when they’ve stolen from individuals (b& E of a home for example), the thinking is ‘they can afford it’ and ‘they probably have insurance’.

The embezzlers I’ve known, tho are a different lot of folks, 'cause, in addition to the theft, they have to act deceptively to the coworkers, business owners etc. Some have a plan to get away before the theft is found, others simply don’t think that far in advance.

In the case of Ponzi schemes I’d imagined that most originators of such plan an exit. Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe they do think the mountain can just keep gettin’ higher.

wring, yes, that’s exactly what I meant - I was pondering the commission of (sometimes sophisticated) crimes where the layout is such that it is inevitable that the crook will be revealed. I hadn’t really considered the added dimension that both of these crimes involved stealing from someone they knew personally.

The first guy, the check thief, likely had some drug problems that made a month from now seem far different to him than it does to me. The other guy, we discovered, had a prior embezzlement conviction (yes, my brother has high-graded his hiring practices) and was not (AFAWK) dealing with a “whammy” - he apparently spent the bucks entertaining friends (an addiction some might suppose?). Both, though, started out as intelligent folk with reasonable (i.e., middle class or better background - no grinding poverty or the like) chances at success.

And lost track of time, I suppose.

Thanks all for the comments; I still struggle to understand.

Beatle, why do people smoke? There are people who find it easy to convince themselves that the consequences of what they’re doing now will never appear.

Other posters have suggested some of the faulty rationalizations that these people might have made. Here’s another one: “I want to do this. I know I’ll probably get caught if I do it. But I still want to do it. Maybe I won’t get caught. Maybe the office will burn down and all the records will be lost in the fire. Maybe I’ll win the lottery and pay back all the money before anyone notices it’s gone. I want this so bad. It’ll be weeks before anyone figures out I’ve done it and I’ll have all that time to come up with a good alibi. I really want this. What if I get hit by a truck tomorrow? What difference will all this make if I’m dead? I want to do this.”

By the way, a couple of good books on the subject matter:

“The Psychology of Crime” by Philip Feldman (a bit hard to find)
“Inside the Criminal Mind” by Stanton Samenow
“The Criminal Personality” by Stanton Samenow & ? (can’t remember, Samuel something)
“The Psychology of Criminal Conduct” by James Bonta (easier to find than “The Psychology of Crime”)

I’ve found that when planning to do something criminal, you’ll often pump yourself up for it so much that you will overlook obvious flaws in your plan. I’m pretty smart and usually am good about noticing important details, but I’ve been involved in some hare-brained schemes and it was only sheer luck that kept me from getting caught. I’m not sure what it is about criminal behavior that makes otherwise intelligent people stupid, but it’s definitely something that happens.

There also comes a time when a well concieved plan and a flawless execution get in the way. The immediate gratification afforded by the commision of a crime can be too attractive for other factors to be taken into account.

Let us take the case of a “friend” of mine (where is the wry smiley when you need it?) whose plan to defraud included a complex procedure using the very extent of his not inconsiderable insider knowledge of a banking and comms system. This knowledge and plan had led to the formation of an almost flawless plan. The crime , while not undedected could never have been traced back to our “friend”.All that remained was the setting up of a dummy account into which to transfer the ill gotten gains. Circumstance meant that a new urgency in obtaining the funds arose. Instead of waiting the time required to simply set up the account the perp decided to go ahead with the plan and transferred the money to his own book entry account. This was done while fully aware that the transfer would eventually be tracked down.

Another factor was undoubtedly a cavalier attitude to what might happen as a result which when combined with an ill afforded attitude of superiority meant that our hero cared not for the consequences.

The crime went ahead and was detected and the criminal was tracked and apprehended (I’m going to leave out the game of cross country tag with Interpol , the helicopters and the other fun stuff). Our crimainal was charged , convicted and paid what was determined to be his debt to society by the courts.

Before I offer my postulations on the above another few facts.

The entity to whom the money belonged was a large company.
The money was being usedfor illegal purposes by said company.

I understand that justification like the above two caveats are a little trite and to be perfectly frank I’m not sure if the money had belonged to a little old lady saving for an operation that the crime as planned would not have gone ahead.

It serves to illustrate a point however. When a crime is being considered eventualy a critical mass is reached whereby justifications like the above two along with the others mentioned mean that the person with the criminal intent will often feel as though there is little choice but to go ahead with the crime.

Justice , morality and ethics become strangley warped and twisted when they are applied to ones own situation in the mind of a criminal. The justifications outweigh the moral objections and even the consequences. Its a strange and dangerous place to be. Maintaining the belief that what is about to be done ,(while not exactly right, is not incredibly wrong)is difficult and can often mean that caution is thrown to the wind.
I want to adress the comments made by Glitch.
First, most thieves feel that they have a right to take.

(they do…not they have)

  1. no perceived choice (very common). Thieves, like most all human beings, act in what they perceive is their own best interests.

I guess our criminal falls into category 4 in this case. The situation in which he found himself was an unenviable one but it would be wrong to state that a resentment of the ability of others to live “normal” lives wasn’t a factor as well.

Criminals do feel that they have the right to take what is not theirs. Do not underestimate this when weighing up the motivations or the character of a criminal. Their logic or perception may be out of kilter with what is normally acceptable but to them that right is real and exists. The right may be from percieved slights or unfairness , it can be out of desperation or it can be out of a feeling of superiority and an untouchabilty.

Such a powerful feeling is that that our criminal while fulling understanding that what he did was wrong , while fulling believing that all crime should be punished finds himself horrified and mystified when others commit crime. A contradiction , yes , but because it is difficult for even one such as he to completely understand what is going through the mind of a “justified/righteous” criminal mind it is immpossible for people who lack the mindset required to commit a crime to comprehend.

Our criminal is not sorry , not ruefull , dammit he isnt even ashamed.

What is it that makes a mind like that?

Wheras some people should be charged with criminal neglect for not spell checking , grammer checking, and reformatting their posts before clicking.

And one final point. Don’t judge criminals by the ones we know about. Presumedly, the smart ones never get caught.

generally a good point ** Little Nemo** and one I often mention, however, in this case, the OP is talking wondering about those folks who commit a crime that **obviously ** they’re going to get caught at.

Damhna: Actually, the thief in your example, would fit more into category 3 (if I had of explained it better in the first place I think you would have picked that one). I associate it with at more personal level for the thief maybe because I deal with it on that basis most often; however, it is better described as “righting a wrong, usually social”. Of course, it is also important to note that although things are categorized for the usefulness of the criminal scientist or an investigator, that real people have a myriad of reasons, compulsions and impulses for doing what they do, but there is usually one dominating thought, a kind of basis. It is the reason that the criminal will fall back to whenever the question of continuing in their actions springs to mind.

As you can imagine it is difficult to compress a rather broad subject into a 500 word or less bulletin board post, my apologies for any incompleteness. I recommend that anybody really interested in this stuff pick up one or two of the books listed and read them, they do a much better job of explaining things than I could.

Very True, and those categoties can only be applied in general. Determing or distinguishing BadGuy Type2 from BadGuy Type3 is far more difficult when confronted with individuals and these definitions can only be fairly broad.
What use then categorising criminal types in this manner at all?

Do you categorise the thief of my tale with Type 3 because of the arrogance associated with the event ?

Two different reasons. The criminal scientist wants to break it down into categories so they can study each category as distinctly as possible. For example: What is it about people in category 3 that cause them to think that way? Is there a correlation or relationship between categories? Is there a correlation or relationship between events and categories (like the “whammy” and category 4)? A psychologist might find it helpful in the treatment of some people with possible mental/emotional causes behind their crimes.

For the investigator, it helps them understand the crime which helps in gathering evidence and possibly finding other suspects. Sometimes you find a possible motive before you find the a really solid suspect so understanding the categories of mindsets and your possible suspects can help you narrow things down.

My point was that people are not single-minded machines and you cannot drop them conviently into a single category and only that single category. They tend to belong to categories to various degrees. However, as I noted there is generally one category which is dominant.

Caveat #1: My knowledge of this specific case is too limited to make a very sound judgement. However, the justifications are what make me lean towards category 3. The money was from a large company and the large company was using/acquiring the money illegal. I.e. they don’t deserve it anymore than I do, they have no claim to it. They are a social ill and so there is nothing wrong with me taking from them.

Caveat #2: I am not by any means a professional criminal psychologist. I am knowledgable in the field because of my profession and former professions but still take my declarations without somewhat of a grain of salt.

I understand that without a more thourough knowledge of the facts that the assesment is likely to be somewhat flawed.

I would suggest that the social ill aspect was not a PRIMARY motivator in this instance but rather one of the side justifications that allowed the dilema to be resolved which satisifed the primary factor and pushes this one more correctly into a case 4 scenario (one where survival was percieved to be at stake).

The side justification was an aid to overcoming the objectionable nature of the theft (in the mind of the thief).

This is all very up in the air anyway. Who is to make the determination? Surely the criminal must not be allowed to analyse the situation for surely he would be biased. Can a professional make a judgement any more soundly without being intimatly aware of what thought processess occured?

This is where my objection to the classification of criminal types comes from. It might be well and good to class Hannibal Lecter as a sociopath but in real terms does that give us much insight to either his thought processes or indeed what “remedy” might correctly be applied to render his renegade type more “normal”.

(I am perhaps betraying my ignorance of wether or not socipathy is caused by a chemical imbalance or other physical factor here but the same might apply to a Class2 thief ??)
So where is the value other than making indexing of prisoner reports easier?

This is circular logic and as such is dismissed as an explanation.

Your explanation of the investigators requirement for categorisation is accepted but I wonder of how much use it can realistically be of use if it is anything more than a general category. TypeA might commit a TypeB for a TypeC reason in an unfortunate departure from the norm , is it not then likely that his categorisiation as a TypeA might move him further down the suspect list?

Are profilers really as ineffective as recent BBC documentaries would suggest. (FYI the gist of which was that they would appear to be entirely composed of smarm and can make only adequate guesses that I would expect any Joe to be able to make)
I’m interested to learn what the nature of those “former professions” of yours were ? I dont know the awnsers to the questions I ask and I have no strong opinions on them to be honest. You seem however knowledgable enough to be able to satisfy my curiosity (should the wont take you).

I will answer the rest later since I only have a few moments. But I used to work as a security consultant. I would help people and large businesses analyze their security installations and systems and suggest ways to improve it or sometimes hired to test them.

Before this century, much of the thinking about criminality assumed that it was a kind of mental illness or congenital abnormality. The belief was that people would behave morally if there wasn’t something wrong with them. This corruption of the mind was also assumed to manifest itself in physiology. Even today, we are still attracted to the idea that you can tell a criminal by looking at him.

Starting with Sutherland’s The Professional Thief (or perhaps even before then, since I’m sure Sutherland didn’t arise in a vacuum), criminologists began to propose that criminals were just as sane as everyone else, and acted out of rational (I would call it `rationalized’) self-interest.

This makes more sense to me, because I don’t see any of what is attributed to criminal psychology as unique to criminals. Everyone makes mistakes even when they know better. It’s basic human folly, and not importantly characteristic of the mind of a criminal. Everyone rationalizes their transgressions. The difference is in the nature of the transgressions, and the nature of the consequences. None of this is special about the mind of a criminal, except that crime is involved.

In addition, many (and I suspect most) of us engage in ‘risky’ behavior, be it smoking cigarrettes, the occasional over drinking, smoking pot or the like, some sexual habits (for example, cheating on a jealous SO), speeding, drinking milk that’s out dated, writing a check while planning on making a deposit, not keeping track of your internet purchases so as to pay use taxes on them.

Much of it comes down to risk by specific act vs. generalized risk compared to consequences of getting caught vs. benefit if you get away with it.

As a former smoker, I recall the mind set that assured me that while ‘smoking’ in general was (Dana Carvey Bush imititation on)bad, bad (Dana Carvey Bush imitation off), this particular cigarette that I was smoking, well, it wouldn’t hurt me, it’s that one way in the future **that’s ** the one that will do it.

So, while the consequences for criminal behavior are fairly well known, as stats show, the potential for getting caught at it, aren’t necesarily high. But for me personally, that one chance is enough - I like being able to walk out of the jail. :smiley: