Are criminals rational decision-makers, or are they motivated by uncontrollable psychological and emotional drives?

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People are motivated by numerous factors and may commit crimes for both physiological and practical reasons. A brain tumor can be the cause of behavior that crosses the line between legal and/or socially acceptable and illegal and aberrant conduct, as can the ingestion of certain types of drugs, whether legally or illegally procured. A normally law-abiding individual might be motivated to commit an illegal act out of desperation—for example, severe financial pressure—or out of vengeance for a perceived wrong committed against them. With the so-called “insanity defense,” the defendant in a criminal trial argues (or, more accurately, their lawyer argues) that the individual on trial did not understand the difference between right and wrong due to diminished mental capacity or delusional tendencies.

The literature on crime is voluminous and diverse. Study organized crime and you will encounter multitudes of individuals motivated to commit crimes out of a belief that it is a better way of making money than working a regular job. Study the culture within outlaw motorcycle gangs, such as the Mongols, Hell's Angels, Pagans, Bandidos, and so on, and you will encounter thousands of individuals who simply love the outlaw life, rejection convention and making money through trafficking in drugs, weapons, or people (i.e., human trafficking). Journalist Pete Earley spent a year interviewing and observing inmates in a maximum-security prison for his book The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison. The real-life inmates interviewed and studied by Earley represent the spectrum of criminal behavior, from those who reject the law on principle and accept prison sentences as the cost of doing business, and those whose lives are spent in and out of prisons because they lack the mental capacity to make “rational” decisions.

William Queen infiltrated the Mongols Motorcycle Club as an undercover operative for the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Early in Queen’s memoir of his time undercover in this extremely dangerous criminal organization, Under and Alone, Queen, operating under the pseudonym Billie St. John, describes a conversation with a member of the Mongols who has befriended the undercover law enforcement officer. During this encounter, the Mongol informs “Billie” that the Mongols are an outlaw organization and that he, the Mongol, commits acts that can land him in prison if caught. The purpose of this confession of sorts is to ensure that the prospective motorcycle club member, Queen, understands fully that, if accepted into the gang, he will be expected to commit serious crimes. That is the life one chooses if one wants to wear the coveted symbols of this organization.

The purpose of the above paragraph is to illuminate the extent to which many criminals are motivated by a desire to live outside the law because they find life within the constraints of “proper” society confining and not much fun. La Cosa Nostra, the Italian American network of criminal organizations popularly known as the Mafia, is full of individuals who make considered decisions to life the life of the criminal. It is not just organizations. Thousands of individuals similarly make such decisions. Are these individuals somehow physically incapable of making “rational” decisions? In many cases the answer is no.

On the other side of the spectrum are those who do act out of an inability to understand distinctions between right and wrong or to control their worst impulses. Such is the case with many serial killers. Prisons house many individuals who committed crimes because they were driven by some internal mechanism. These people may taunt the police through demeaning letters to newspapers or deliberately leave clues at the scene of a crime out of a desire to see whether police can accurately assess the significance of those clues.

In conclusion, there is no one answer to the question of what drives people to commit crimes. Kleptomaniacs are driven by a need to steal that may originate in the functioning of their brain. Spree killers might be motivated by mental breakdown brought about by major psychological trauma or a desire to gain fame. And, as noted at length above, many crimes are committed by people who know exactly what they are doing. They may believe they are too smart to get caught, or they may not care whether they are apprehended. Most white-collar criminals are driven by greed; is greed the result of a physiological impairment or simply a failure to live within constraints of conventional society? Was embezzlement carried out due to financial pressure or simply so that the perpetrator could buy a larger mansion? All scenarios and conditions may apply.

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There are millions of different criminals and crimes, all with a wide range of personalities and motivations and characteristics. For some people, crime may be a rational calculation and for others it may be due to uncontrollable emotional drives and for others it may be a mixture.

One might start by analyzing a very common type of crime that most drivers in the United States commit, namely speeding. While this is illegal and carries with it penalties, it is so common that most people who have occasionally driven a few miles over the speed limit would not consider themselves "criminals." The reasons people do this might include:

  • One does not believe that is is really wrong.
  • One might break the law by accident, not noticing that one has drifted a bit above the speed limit on a downhill.
  • One is late for something and calculates that the chances of getting caught are low.
  • One is emotionally attracted to the thrill of fast driving, something that might involve significantly higher speeds than the other cases.

Similarly the crime of stealing might range from teenagers doing minor shoplifting on a dare as a right of passage, white color criminals or drug addicts who see this as an easy way to earn large amounts of money. Arsonists and vandals and sexual criminals may act out of uncontrollable emotional or psychological impulses.

Criminal may range from psychopaths to the mentally impaired to rational people and crimes may range from misdemeanors to horrific felonies.

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In some cases, criminals are rational decision makers. In other cases, they are driven by uncontrollable emotional and psychological factors.

A person who has a family usually wants to support his or her family. If that person is unable to do this because they can’t find work or a have-low paying job, the person might resort to crime to provide for the needs of his or her family. This person might steal food so his or her family can eat. The person may need money to pay for health insurance or other legitimate expenses. While these actions are illegal, these are rational decisions that are being made to take care of an important and necessary need.

On the other hand, there are criminals who act because they aren’t well from a mental standpoint. The recent "Slender Man" case is an example. Two young girls stabbed a classmate to prove a point to a fictional character. These girls were deemed to be mentally ill. The same was true for Jeffrey Dahmer, who killed many people in Milwaukee many years ago.

There are various factors that may lead a person to commit a criminal act.

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There is no clear answer to this question.  Many criminals act rationally.  A thief may turn to stealing in order to support his/her family.  Someone may embezzle money from a company because they owe a large debt.  Someone may turn to violence out of what they perceive to be self-defense or as a way to maintain respect in a peer group.  Many times the motives for crimes are easy to trace.  While the action may be misguided, one can see a cause and effect relationship.  

Some criminals act out of a psychological or emotional drive.  The nineteenth-century serial killer H.H. Holmes claimed that the devil told him to kill women.  Jeffery Dahmer was another killer who turned to murder for no apparent reason.  Other criminals seek thrills through sex or theft; for these people, crime is the only way to feel any excitement.  These criminals are the hardest to rehabilitate, and in some cases society finds it easier to lock them up indefinitely or execute them.  

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There is no one way to answer this question.  Some criminals are rational.  Some are driven by psychological and emotional factors.  Some are a combination.  There is no single source of motivation that drives all criminals.

Let us look, for example, at a young man from a very poor neighborhood who becomes a drug dealer and perhaps an occasional thief or mugger.  He may be acting in part rationally.  He may believe that he has no real chance of becoming well-off and respected in a legal way.  Therefore, he turns to crime as a rational alternative.  Of course, he may also mug people partly out of anger about his position in society.

Now let us look on the other hand at some like Ted Bundy or like the “Son of Sam.”  These people are clearly driven much more by psychological or emotional urges that they cannot control.

As these examples show, we cannot identify a single mindset that is common to all criminals and which causes them to commit their crimes.

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