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

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mkoren eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

pholland14 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.