Forbidden Fruits: A Journey Inside the Criminal Mind with Dr. Samenow

Theologians, philosophers, and scientists have grappled with the problem of evil for millennia. Why do some of us grow up to become thieves and murderers when the rest of us don’t? Is it a matter of genetics or environment? Are there unseen forces at work that can inspire one person to become Jeffrey Dahmer and the other Mother Teresa?

Stanton Samenow, a clinical psychologist who has worked with chronic law-breakers all of his life, believes that these kinds of debates potentially neglect the most important factor of all: choice. The habitual offender understands that their antisocial actions harm other people, but they choose to commit them anyway.

This disregard for others is just one aspect of what Samenow calls "the criminal mind:" a self-centered, exploitative pattern of thought common to all criminals, ranging from purse-snatching street thugs and white-collar criminals to serial killers and terrorists.

In 1984, Samenow wrote Inside the Criminal Mind, a book that took readers behind the bars of America’s prisons and forensic psych units to learn how criminals see themselves and their potential victims. Thirty years later, Inside the Criminal Mind is back in a new, revised edition.

We recently interviewed Samenow regarding his theories, the new edition of his book, and how we might better protect ourselves from criminals.

Signature: Inside the Criminal Mind was initially published in 1984. What kind of new content can I find in the new edition?

Dr. Stanton Samenow: In the 2014 edition, I take the reader on a tour inside the criminal mind, exploring in detail the inner workings of that mind. I include new cases and address new topics.

I highlight new arenas in which the criminal operates. For example, the Internet is a constantly expanding forum for those who endeavor to perpetrate cybercrime and engage in cyberbullying. I discuss how drug manufacturing, distribution, and use provide criminals opportunities for intrigue, excitement and financial gain. A new chapter focuses on the fact that the criminal’s sexual exploits have little to do with sexual fulfillment, but are much more directed toward conquests and repeated affirmation of the self as irresistible. Also included is a new chapter examining two homicides perpetrated by young men from very different backgrounds but whose thought processes are nearly identical, demonstrating that criminality cannot be attributed to social background and parenting styles. A new chapter on the criminal’s anger explains why employing "anger management" programs with this population are doomed to failure.

SIG: What is a "criminal mind" and how is it different from the mind of a law-abiding person? Is this concept synonymous with "antisocial personality disorder" or "psychopathy"?

SS: Psychiatric terms change, but human nature does not. The "criminal personality" is similar to what currently is termed "antisocial personality disorder." It also contains elements of "narcissistic personality disorder" and "borderline personality disorder." An individual with a criminal personality thinks in a particular way. Errors in his thinking result in physical, emotional, and financial injury to others on a vast scale.

We all occasionally make "errors" in our thinking, but the criminal is extreme. For example, most people tell lies. But there is a difference between the occasional small lie that an otherwise responsible person tells to avoid embarrassment and the pervasive dishonesty of a criminal who lies even when there seems to be no purpose to be served. As the reader understands the world from the criminal’s point of view, he will realize that a criminal always has a purpose for lying, even about seemingly innocuous matters.

SIG: Does every person with a criminal mind go on to commit crimes? Conversely, does every criminal have this criminal mindset?

SS: Some people who never get arrested for committing a crime, nonetheless, are self-centered, controlling, dishonest, and exploitative. They have a "criminal personality" even if they do not have a criminal record. They victimize others and leave a trail of injury.

Regardless of their educational achievement, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, or any other demographic variable, all criminals have the same mentality. They have different tastes and preferences in terms of the crimes that they commit. The mentality of the "white-collar" offender and the rapist are the same.

SIG: Could the evolution of a criminal mindset have been productive or beneficial to humanity at any point?

SS: It is unlikely that the mindset of a criminal ever has been beneficial to society. Criminals are not collaborative in any positive manner. They have no concept of interdependence. They build themselves up by tearing others down. They pursue power and control to elevate their own sense of importance without regard to whom they hurt. They lack a concept of injury to others. Even their occasional good deeds as well as their talents are to little avail as they prop up their view of themselves as good people making it easier for them to commit more crimes.

SIG: There are those who believe that criminality is a function of genetics and early environment. Do either of these play a role in the development of the criminal mind?

SS: Everything but the federal deficit has been blamed for causing crime. The fact is that we still do not know what causes people to function as criminals. For more than a half century, causal theories have floated in and out of fashion. While none of them resolves the causal enigma, they have often provided justification for criminal conduct (which criminals are quick to pick up on). Many aspects of human existence, including formation of personality, we do not know the causes of.

It is essential to focus on understanding who the criminal is, how he thinks and functions. It is a bit like having a scratched table. We don’t have to know why the table got scratched. We do need to know what the table is made of so we can make an informed decision about what to do with the table.

SIG: Beyond the laws broken is there any difference between, say, a criminal from a non-western culture and one from the United States? Do cultural mores and traditions play any sort of role in the manifestations of the criminal mind?

SS: Within a single country, laws change. A crime today may not be considered a crime tomorrow. In discussing criminality, my emphasis is not on the laws and mores of a particular society at a particular time but, rather, how people live their lives. One offender remarked, "If rape were legalized today, I wouldn't rape, but I would do something else." What mattered was the excitement of doing whatever is forbidden. "Take my crime away, and you take my world away," remarked one felon. Certainly, there are varying cultural definitions of what constitutes "forbidden" behavior. However, killing, stealing, and doing other things that hurt people are almost universally proscribed.

SIG: Do you make a distinction between individuals motivated by ideology to commit acts of violence and the average street thug?

SS: Criminals attach themselves to an ideology that then becomes a vehicle for the expression of their personality. If they ever have to legitimize their criminal conduct, they claim that they were acting in behalf of the cause they have adopted. Their mentality is no different from that of the street criminal. (I discuss this in a chapter on the criminal as a terrorist.)

SIG: Why do you write about "habilitating" criminals rather than rehabilitating them?

SS: The dictionary defines "rehabilitate" as a process of restoring a person or object to an earlier constructive state or condition. Rehabilitating a 19th century mansion entails returning it to its former grandeur. Rehabilitating a stroke victim involves helping her regain functions she previously had. There is nothing to which to "re-habilitate" a criminal. The scope of "habilitation" is larger. It is to help him abandon thinking errors that give rise to criminal conduct, to learn corrective concepts, and implement those concepts so as to live responsibly.

SIG: Are some people beyond habilitation? If so, what should society do with them?

SS: Some criminals will reject any opportunity to live a responsible life. They constitute a danger to society. Public safety must take priority over their freedom. They need to remain confined.

SIG: What do you think of pre-emptive interventions with people who might have a tendency toward criminality?

SS: Just as we endeavor to prevent physical, learning, and other disabilities, so it is important to attempt to intervene early before a person becomes a one-man walking crime wave. Parents and teachers must be educated to recognize expanding and intensifying patterns of thinking and behavior that give rise to the formation of a criminal personality. They must be trained how to deal with very troubling behavior that requires a different stance from that taken when raising and educating children who indicate that they are developing into trustworthy, responsible human beings.

SIG: We've all heard the expression that it takes a thief to catch a thief. Could it take a criminal to habilitate another criminal?

SS: There is nothing more absurd than one irresponsible person instructing another irresponsible person how to become responsible. One does not need to have an M.D. or Ph.D. degree to help criminals change. However, an agent of change must be well-trained in understanding the thinking patterns and tactics of people with a criminal personality. And agents of change, when teaching others how to function responsibly, must live responsible lives themselves.

SIG: You've spoken of how manipulative and superficially charming criminals can be. As a psychologist, is it hard to keep from being taken in?

SS: The three most frequent words I use in working with criminals is "time will tell." I often do not know at any given time if a criminal is being truthful. I avoid being gullible and just accepting what he says. However, I am not dismissive and cynical. Time tells the story. The more information one has regarding how criminals think and how they operate tactically, the less likely he is to be "taken in."

SIG: What are "cognitive distortions" and why are these important to identify during counseling?

SS: Cognitive distortions are synonymous with what I identify as "errors in thinking." They are thought patterns that, in combination with one another, give rise to behavior that harms other people. An example is the criminal’s sense of entitlement or sense of ownership. From his perspective, when he enters a room, every object in that location that he desires already belongs to him. He just has to figure out how to take possession of it and conceal it while he makes his getaway.

SIG: Are there any particular warnings by which the average person might identify a criminally inclined person?

SS: Criminals are successful in their enterprises because they are so good at concealing their intentions. There are expanding and intensifying patterns that signify trouble. They do not predict with certainty that a person will end up in jail, but they should not be ignored, dismissed, or excused. Among the patterns are lying that becomes a way of life, conduct indicative of a belief that any means justifies the end, unrelenting attempts to control other people so as to prevail in every situation, an uncompromising attitude, a lack of receptivity to what others think, and shutting off fear rather than depending on it as a guide to responsible functioning.

SIG: How can we make ourselves less attractive to criminals looking for a victim?

SS: Do not make rash decisions to trust people on the basis of first impressions. Personalities reveal themselves over time, often very slowly. If a person asks you to do something that is contrary to your beliefs, trust your instincts and do not get involved. If a sales pitch seems too good to be true, avoid the purchase. Trust your common sense in terms of how you attract attention. Secure valuable possessions, leaving them out of temptation’s reach. Do not lend money or possessions to anyone whom you do not know very well. Avoid areas that you know to be unsafe.