Last night Larry King Live of CNN hosted a discussion about whether criminals can be rehabilitated. I think it will be re-aired this weekend so try to watch. One of the guests drew a distinction between “learned” criminal behavior and psychopathy. She stated she believed that criminals who have learned to be that way can unlearn but psychopaths cannot be rehabilitated. I know many of you also hold this belief so I would like to tell you why I strongly disagree.
First I will tell you my position:
ALL criminality stems from an interaction between a person and a situation. A person is a product of his/her genetics and experiences. So in a sense what makes up personality (the “person”) is learned for everyone including the psychopathic. We are preprogrammed by our genetics to learn certain things better than others.
In terms of situational variables solid research has demonstrated that antisocial associates, poor work and educational performance, substance abuse, poor family ties and poor recreational achievement are all associated with criminality. These variables operate independently from personality variables and are important for even the most psychopathic individuals.
The more psychopathic a person is, the more deeply ingrained is the lifestyle of parasitism and predation BUT even those with lower levels of psychopathy can be very resistant to change and very dangerous to society. The definition of response to treatment depends on what you are looking for. If a person cheats 8 people a week, then goes into a program and cheats 1 person a week, that is a change. Everyone has a different definition of “rehabilitation”.
Coincidentally, I just read a great book, Persons in Context: Building a science of the individual. It is a tribute to Walter Mischel, Ph.D. one of the great thinkers of modern psychology. In his chapter “Intelligence as a Person-Situation Interaction”, Robert Sternberg lists five fallacies of thinking. He says, “There is another dimension to person-situation interaction: the extent to which particular situations elicit ‘stupid’ thinking in intelligent people.” All of his 5 fallacies occur in the context of perceived power or dominance. They are:
- The unrealistic optimism fallacy. This occurs when one believes that one is so smart and so powerful that it is pointless to worry about the outcome of what one does.
- The egocentrism fallacy. This occurs when one comes to think that one’s own interests are the only ones that are important.
- The Omniscience Fallacy. This occurs when people think they know more than they do.
- The Omnipotence Fallacy. This results from the power one wield or believes one wields.
- The invulnerability Fallacy. This derives for the illusion of complete protection.
Dr. Sternberg is one of many scientists who have discovered that the experience of power changes the mind/brain. Some people are more prone than others to these effects of power. Since psychopathic individuals seek out power constantly like a heroin addict seeking a fix, they are never free from all of the above fallacies of thinking. Life is a situation of constant power or perceived power.
In the absence of a loving nature all power pursuit becomes antisocial. Now power pursuit and attainment can also stomp out a person’s loving nature, if it was ever present in the first place.
To rehab the psychopathic we have to strip them of any power and teach them to love and care for others. To my knowledge there is no program that has yet succeeded in doing this even for those “sociopaths” who score at the lower end of the psychopathy scale.