Understanding the Criminal Mind

Written By: David Buckley
Mar 31, 2021

Understanding The Criminal Mind

The courts have demonstrated an understanding that there must be a balance between a criminal suspect’s desire to avoid punishment for the crimes they commit by denying involvement and the law enforcement officer's desire to resolve the case either through the development of evidence or an admission of guilt from the suspect or a combination of both. It is unreasonable to expect a criminal suspect to admit wrongdoing by simply asking questions. As the Supreme Court has recognized, "very few people give incriminating statements in the absence of official action of some kind." Schneckloth, 412 U.S. at 224; see Williams v. Withrow, 944 F.2d 284, 289 (6th Cir. 1991) ("[W]e have no doubt that effective interrogation techniques require, to some extent, a carrot-and-stick approach to eliciting information from an uncooperative suspect."

We all know from personal experience that people will instinctively deny behavior they fear will result in unpleasant consequences. Denial is part of the human condition, a coping mechanism, a way to avoid unwanted consequences. As a child, we deny having taken a cookie from the cookie jar to avoid the consequences of being sent to our room and as an adult we are sometimes in denial to avoid the consequences of an unpleasant reality of life. For example, we ignore a bad cough that has persisted for months because we do not want to find out it is stage 4 lung cancer. It is not until our loved ones put pressure on us to go to the doctor that we discover our worst fears were true. If we had addressed the issue much earlier when the symptoms first surfaced, maybe the consequences would not have been as severe. If pressure was not applied by loved ones, we may never have faced the truth.

Addicts deny having a drug, alcohol, or gambling problem and ignore all the evidence that is clear to their loved ones. It is not until their loved ones apply pressure to the addict via an intervention that the addict faces the truth and consequences of their behavior. Human behavior is such that we often need to be under pressure before we act, be it a deadline, two-minute warning signaling the amount of time left in a game, peer pressure, societal pressure, or pressure we place upon ourselves. Even though we know it is against the law to operate a vehicle without wearing a seat belt many people fail to comply with the law. Cognitively we understand that it is safer to buckle up but for some of us it takes societal pressure and constant reminders to persuade us to comply with the law. Medicine has proven that smoking is dangerous to our health and yet it took years of societal pressure and reminders to persuade people to stop smoking. It is often the encouragement, pressure and understanding that act as the catalyst to persuade people to do things that are difficult or unpleasant.

It is unreasonable to think that criminal suspects will admit their involvement in criminal behavior without some level of encouragement, pressure and understanding. Even when a suspect does admit the truth regarding their criminal behavior most will try to minimize their culpability and refuse to take full responsibility for their behavior. In addition to shirking responsibility for their actions guilty suspects attempt to shift the blame for their behavior to someone or something other than themselves. For example, during an interview with a Chicago gang member, he explained that the reason he and his fellow gang members chose to rob a woman was as follows.

“Just watching her, the way she flashed her money around ya know, thinken she was better than the people in the neighborhood, she always thought she was better than the people. She’d drive nice new cars, Lincoln Continentals, Cadillacs. I just said hell, this time I’m getten this bitch, I’m getten her. She wants to show off, let’s see how bad she really is, how she can really take it. She wants to give her money up or what. She didn’t want to give her money up, she went to grab her mace and when she did I smacked her in the face and one of the guys kicked her in the arm and broke her arm.”

This brief statement reflects the attitude common to many individuals who engage in criminal behavior. The suspect in this example has blamed the victim for the robbery by suggesting that she was flaunting her success and the assault was caused by her resistance. In other words, ‘she started it’. Critics of interrogation techniques often point out that the investigator's use of minimization, rationalization and shifting the blame are inappropriate tactics which may contribute to the elicitation of a false confession when in fact the minimization and rationalization techniques used are designed to appeal to the pre-existing thought process and attitude of the guilty offender. These tactics do not entice an innocent subject to make a false confession but, in fact, appeal to the pre-existing attitudes of the offender.

The psychological rationalizations and minimizations offered by the investigator run contrary to what an innocent person believes because an innocent person is not trying to minimize the seriousness of the crime. The innocent person does not have pre-existing attitudes of rationalization and minimization regarding the crime and therefore does not understand and rejects the statements of the investigator. Investigators use empathy, minimization, and rationalization to lower a guilty subject’s resistance to telling the truth. The investigator must present themselves to be someone who understands why they committed the crime and as someone who is not judging them as a ‘bad person’. A guilty suspect is more likely to move past denials and reveal the truth to someone they feel understands them.

The most effective investigators have a strong sense of empathy and use that strength to develop rapport and trust with the guilty suspect. Regardless of the seriousness of the crime guilty suspects do not perceive themselves as a ‘bad person’. In 1993, Paul Keller was arrested and found guilty of setting 76 fires that killed three people and caused more than $30 million in property damage in the state of Washington. He is responsible for one of the most extensive arson sprees in American history. The three fatalities occurred when he burned down a retirement home. During his interrogation, after having admitted to setting the fires, Keller stated the following.

“I’m not a bad guy.”

“I wouldn’t hurt a flee.”

“I’m a kind person.”

“There was no malicious intent”

“I don’t belong in jail.”

“I’m not the criminal type’.

Keller’s perception of himself may be difficult to understand considering the heinous crimes he committed and the pain and suffering he inflicted on his victims. It is a challenge for investigators to display empathy and understanding to an individual like this, but it is necessary to develop the level of rapport and trust to motivate him to tell the truth.

In 2013, Ariel Castro pleaded guilty to 937 counts, including rape, assault, and murder. He held his victim’s captive for eleven years and continually beat and raped them. During Castro’s statement given at the sentencing hearing he stated the following.

“I’m not a monster. I’m sick.”

“I’m not a violent person.”

“I know what I did was wrong, but I am not a violent person. I simply kept them there without them being able to leave.”

“Amanda, she got into my vehicle without even knowing who I was. I don’t blame – I’m not putting fault on her, but I’m just saying – I’m trying to make a point across that I am not a violent predator that they’re trying to make me look, a monster, I’m not a monster, I’m a normal person. I am just sick.”

“…they would even ask me for sex, many times…. these girls were not virgins.”

“The victims are happy.”

Ariel Castro is clearly in denial. He is unwilling to face the reality of the crimes he committed and the pain and suffering he caused his victims. He is rationalizing his heinous crimes and shifting the blame for his actions to his victims.

Regardless of the crime most suspects have a distorted perception about their culpability and have developed some rationalization to ease their guilt and justify their criminal behavior.

One of our investigators interviewed a twenty-one-year-old female bank teller responsible for the theft of $2600 from her teller drawer and she felt it was important to tell the investigator that, “There was nothing frivolous about this.” She went on to explain that the reason she stole the money was to pay her bills. She did not go out and buy jewelry or go on a vacation - she stole the money to ‘survive’.

Investigators empathetic approach attempts to tap into these pre-existing rationalizations to allow the subject to ‘save face’ and provide a motivation for them to tell the truth by telling them “You don’t want people to think the worst about you”.

To be successful in their goal, investigators must develop a rapport with the suspect, gain that person’s trust, and apply techniques of active persuasion to elicit a legally admissible confession. To learn the truth, investigators often must empathize with a suspect and give the appearance that they can understand why the suspect acted in such a manner to commit the criminal act.

The investigator may offer psychological and moral justifications for the suspect’s actions and even shift the blame for the suspect’s actions onto the victim of the crime in their effort to learn the truth. However, the investigator should never minimize the legal consequences of the subject behavior; should never make promises of leniency or make threats of physical harm or inevitable consequences (“If you don’t cooperate and confess to this, I will make sure you never see your wife or kids again.”)

For more information on this topic see the following presentations on our YouTube channel, The Reid Technique Tips:

Empathy and Understanding

Projection and Rationalization

Positive Persuasion

The Core Principles of the Reid Technique

Best Practices

The Value of Recording Interrogations

False Confessions – The Issues to be Considered, Parts One and Two

Permission is hereby granted to those who wish to share or copy this article. In those instances, the following Credit Statement must be included "This Investigator Tip was developed by John E. Reid and Associates Inc. 800-255-5747 / www.reid.com." Inquiries regarding Investigator Tips should be directed to Toni Overman toverman@reid.com.