A Quick Course in Criminal Psychology

Since the typical criminal is a soulless profit-maximizing Vulcan, all we need to do is get the incentives right and crime plummets. Right?

Mmmm, maybe not.

Maybe we need to touch upon the mental patterns that make us human, patterns perhaps better designed for tribal or village life, for hunting, gathering, war, and maybe agriculture1. We might profit by looking at the pre-rational and the irrational, at the shortcuts our minds take to quickly come up with good-enough solutions (in the proper environment) without taking time to invoke reason on all available data.

So we turn our attention from economics to psychology and sociology – really basic psychology and sociology, so basic that the professionals will cringe at my lack of footnotes and obscure nominalizations. We really don’t need to go that deep to do a much better job of crafting a better criminal justice system than we have today.

Many Criminals are Poor Strategic Planners

Many of you who read my previous chapter on the economics of crime looked at my cost-benefit equations and thought: “There’s no way that criminals are thinking this rationally!” And in many cases you are probably right. Many criminals probably end up in jail due to bad strategic planning; they didn’t take into account the long-term implications of their actions. Indeed, we have standard terms for the extreme of such short-sighted behavior: crimes of passion, and poor impulse control.

If we had a criminal justice system which sets the incentives correctly as per the previous chapter, we would expect the jails to fill with poor strategic planners, people who do a poor job of weighing the odds of future events (like getting caught) vs. immediate benefits of criminal acts. Under such conditions we would expect a strong correlation between criminality and gambling, bad diet, excessive drug use, and poverty in general (since poor strategic planning can make you poor). Do we have such a correlation? It seems so, but I leave it as an exercise to the reader to dig up the numbers.

But have a care! Some of the modern racists claim this factor is the primary reason for the high incarceration rates of our permanently tanned citizens. The theory goes: life in the tropics requires less long term planning than life in a seasonal environment, where you have to store food to survive. Over the years this has produced genetic mindset differences between the races.

I do not wish to support this claim! There are many other reasons for the racial disparity. And as I pointed out in the previous chapter on the economics of crime, poverty itself increases the rational net incentives for breaking the law. I would also note that poor long term thinking is a very widespread human trait. There are plenty of successful white Republicans with credit card balances instead of adequate money in their retirement accounts. I vividly recall the wailing and gnashing of teeth from white Republicans when Bill Clinton paid down a tiny amount of the national debt. And then there is that global warming issue

Still, to the extent that people do end up in jail from making poor long term decisions, ask yourself this: does putting people in overcrowded prisons with nothing to do but play stressful power games all day long help? It seems to me that the opposite is true. (And putting people, especially juveniles, in solitary confinement has been shown to reduce impulse control.)

Lack of Empathy for Victims

Some criminals are psychopaths; they lack empathy in general. Maybe they had bad childhoods; maybe they have an organic problem with their brains. With the right incentives – fear of punishment and rewards for good behavior – psychopaths can sometimes be channeled towards socially acceptable behavior. But it would be nice to bring out a prisoner’s good nature – if there is any – before releasing him back into society.

I don’t know exactly how to do this, but cramming people together in violent conditions once again strikes me as counterproductive. So does isolating people from their families. (Check out the rates prisoners pay to phone home. And note the pattern of locating prisons hours away from the cities where the criminal lived.)

Maybe prisoners should have a pet.

Dominant, but not Academic

These are great times to be a nerd. Techies can make big money without working the phones, playing power games, or even wearing a tie. Even Hollywood has moved past the stereotypes of nerds being either dateless geeks or mad scientists bent on unspeakable evil.

But we aren’t all nerds. Indeed, most people are not college material. Academic thinking is unnatural! The natural man2 thinks more in terms of concrete facts, direct rules of thumb, and social status – vs. lofty abstractions.

When society is set up so you need a college education to have prosperity and status, the not-so-academic will resort to anti-social behavior, be it crime or voting for Donald Trump.

Manual laborers must pay a hefty toll to paperwork experts to appease the bureaucrats. They must compete against subsidized competition from abroad. Those who work for others have fewer bosses to choose from thanks to decades of mega-mergers.

Dealing drugs on the street may entail risk to life and liberty, but it provides status.

The Wrong Tribe Problem

People are naturally tribal. And I mean people of all races. Racism, patriotism, and beating up long haired hippies are all manifestations of the tribal impulse. So is getting all worked up about flag issues.

The tribal impulse can make people into better citizens. If country=tribe, then tribalism inspires doing things for the good of the country, including obeying the laws of the land. If country is not equal to tribe, then one can gain satisfaction and status by defying the law. Think of Robin Hood or the Greek Klephts.

Here, we have an obvious reason for racial crime disparities. African Americans were denied full citizenship in this country for centuries. Full citizenship didn’t truly begin until my childhood. Thanks to other factors a subset of the African American population still doesn’t feel like it has full citizenship. For them, the police are not “us.”

Stop-and-frisk makes the problem worse. So does excessive sentencing for minor crimes.

Social Justice Warriors don’t help, either. Blaming every outcome difference on White Privilege can exacerbate the problem.

We need to fix racial injustices and turn them into dim memories as soon as possible, in order to put the “Us” in U.S.

Young Men Test the System

Some juvenile delinquency is natural. Young men frequently demonstrate their bravery and independence by defying the system. Think of the phrases “good old boys” or “frat pranks.” In ancient Sparta they institutionalized the pattern. Young men were required to steal in order to eat. But they were harshly punished if caught. Many other societies had young men prove their mettle via brutal initiation rituals.

Our combination of safety consciousness, zero tolerance, and professional military makes it hard for young men to prove their mettle without ending up in prison. This is especially true for the poor and black. (Try to envision a black version of The Dukes of Hazzard. I can’t. The heroes would end up shot or in prison in the first episode.)

This is not to say that we should let young men get away with crimes. Far from it! There needs to be punishment or there is no sport. And punishment should start at crimes minor enough that society can semi-tolerate, so young men don’t have to do dire deeds to prove their manhood. But such punishment should be short, certain, but unpleasant – not a lifetime tag of Criminal. The penalty should be the same for the wealthy frat boy and the poor ghetto dweller.

One possibility:

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to come up with other options. I will suggest a few in future chapters.

Marriage is Civilizing

Young men behave better when they have a wife. Look at the history of the Jamestown colony. Or watch some old Westerns.

Today, we have a War on Marriage going on. And I’m not talking about the legalization of gay marriage. I’m referring to quite a few other factors, including no-fault divorce and the brutal marriage penalties imposed by our current welfare system.

End the War on Marriage and the crime rate will drop.

And Yes, Some Criminals are Just Plain Crazy

Insanity can lead to anti-social behavior. Duh. Once upon a time, the insane ended up in prison – which made them more insane. Reformers such as Dorothea Dix decried the injustice, and states built mental asylums.

Today, we can sort of cure many forms of insanity with the right drugs, and states are closing the old asylums.

But it takes more than a few days in a hospital to figure out the correct drugs and the right dosage. And many drugs take time to fully cut in.

And so once again the prisons are becoming our warehouses for the mentally ill. The arrangement is expensive and evil.

And the resultant mass-shootings are going to cost us our Second Amendment rights. Republicans take note. Methinks it is better to spend some tax money on keeping the asylums open than to sacrifice the liberties of the sane.

More to Come

This is not a complete list of ways in which humans differ from economic Vulcans. But it is enough to inspire a host of reforms. I have hinted at but a few criminal justice reforms here. I challenge you, dear reader, to come up with some yourself before continuing further.


1Young Earth Creationism says we were doing agriculture from the start. Other theories of human origins indicate even primitive agriculture is a bit unnatural.

2I use sexist language here intentionally. The prison population is predominantly male.

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