The Esteem-Motivated Offender

Written By: Reid
Jan 01, 2010

It is human nature to seek acclaim and recognition. Given the choice, most people would rather be well known and respected than an obscure outsider who is unimportant and ignored. Typically, this basic need is satisfied in socially acceptable ways. Some people excel in school, sports, or the arts. Others may perceive themselves as being a really good parent or spouse. Still others strive to be outstanding employees or civic leaders. There are individuals, however, who are unable to satisfy this basic human drive through socially acceptable behavior (or have an insatiable need to prove their superiority). Some of them become esteem-motivated offenders.

Most crimes make sense to the average person. A man loses his job and is threatened with eviction, so he robs a convenience store to pay his rent. Another man kills his wife during a heated argument. While we know that these acts are illegal and wrong, at least the motives are understandable. This is often not the case with esteem-motivated crimes, which include a wide range of behavior ranging from false claims of rape and con games to sexual molestation, product tampering and arson.

Esteem- motivated crimes are committed to elevate the suspectis self worth. Through his criminal behavior the suspect demonstrates superior power, influence, intelligence or skill over his victim which may be a person, a company or agency, or even society as a whole. The crime may reap financial or revenge gains, but the primary drive is to elevate the suspectis deflated esteem. John Wilkes Booth, for example, did not hate Abraham Lincoln or his policies. He assassinated Lincoln so that he would be remembered in history as someone who killed an important person.

Characteristics of Crimes

One characteristic of an esteem-motivated crime is that the offender uses stealth, ingenuity, or cunning to accomplish his goal. To obtain a password into a government computer database, an employee could be tortured to reveal the password. But obtaining the password is not the goal for the esteem-motivated offender. Demonstrating his superior intellect by cleverly hacking into the system is his goal.

Manipulation of the victim is very common, e.g., a rapist talking his way into the victimis apartment or the child molester telling the victim to keep their activity a secret. The arsonist may start a small fire to cause the building to be evacuated and feel powerful as he realizes it was his action that caused the emergency vehicles to arrive. A good indication that a crime was esteem-motivated is that the victim is left feeling foolish, e.g., iWhy didnit we use a more sophisticated security system?i; iWhy did I let him in my apartment?i; iWhy did I believe that guy was a police officer?i iWhy did I let my boss harass me in that way?i

Esteem-motivated crimes often escalate over time. In the beginning, it may have been sufficient for the offender to meet a child in a chat room and persuade the child to reveal information about her body. Eventually, this activity is no longer a challenge or psychologically rewarding, so the offender attempts to obtain pictures of the child and then to eventually meet her in person. Esteem- motivated crimes often come to the attention of authorities after they have escalated to criminal behavior. These offenders may become violent in their late-stage behaviors, e.g., pulling fire alarms escalates to calling in bomb threats which escalates to planting actual bombs.

An exception to the foregoing characteristic is the person who experiences a situational loss of esteem or self-worth. This may be from losing a job, breaking off a relationship, failing in school or having an upcoming stressful event such as a court trial or wedding. Under this circumstance, the suspect may be a one-time offender. A good example of this is the suspect who makes up a story about being the victim of a crime (abduction, rape, robbery, arson) to seek attention or emotional support from loved ones.

Esteem-motivated offenders generally act alone. Their crimes typically do not require an accomplice and the offender does not want to share the glory or power with another person. However, sometimes the esteem is derived from manipulating a person into joining the offender in illegal activity. John Allen Muhammad, the DC sniper, recruited a younger man to participate in the sniper activity. His feeling of power was derived not only from deciding who would live or die, but also in manipulating the accomplice.

Characteristics of Offenders

While esteem motivated offenders obviously have an inadequate personality, with predominant features of paranoia and oversensitivity to criticism (real or perceived), these traits are often veiled within the suspectis persona. What is more likely to be apparent to the investigator is that these individuals have a normal to above normal intelligence, are long-range planners, and have good impulse control.

While many of these offenders are reclusive and very private, others express high confidence and may interject themselves within the investigation by contacting the police or media. Sometimes the offender will leave an obvious clue or isignaturei at the crime scene to make certain the offender receives proper credit for the act.

Interview / Interrogation

Because of underlying low esteem, these offenders should not be approached in an authoritative or intimidating manner. It is more productive to present the interview as an opportunity to assist the investigator, e.g., iI would appreciate your assistanceOei or as part of a logical sequence of investigative steps, e.g., iI am interviewing everyone who has security clearance to that area.i A structured interview approach, such as the Behavior Analysis Interview, is ideal for this offender.

Esteem-motivated offenders have very shallow insight on their behavior and will place blame for their crime onto someone or something else. For example, they will project blame for their criminal behavior onto the victim, unfair treatment by an employer, an unjust government or society or affected judgment as the result of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol. It is not at all uncommon for these offenders, even after they have confessed, to maintain this distorted perception behind their crime, e.g., iI touched her to show love and affection, i iHe deserved what I did to him n I am not guilty.i

This lack of insight, coupled with resentment toward authority, will cause the esteem-motivated offender to reject any effort to obtain a confession through intimidation or threats of consequences. These offenders will respond well to an interrogation approach that expresses understanding toward the suspectis behavior and reinforces underlying justifications for his crime.

In conclusion, the first step of an investigation is to identify what motivated the criminal behavior. Typically, investigators think of financial or emotional motives (anger, revenge, jealousy, etc.). However, many crimes are committed for the sole purpose of elevating the offenderis self esteem, and this motivation should always be considered. While these offenders cover a broad spectrum of backgrounds and personality traits, they all will project blame for their crime away from themselves and justify their criminal behavior by distorting reality. These underlying attitudes will surface during a structured interview which will guide the investigator in identifying these offenders. During the interrogation theme, the suspectis distorted reality should be reinforced to create an environment in which the suspect feels more comfortable telling the truth.

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