Creating the Tiger: Neurological Networks and Tribalism

By Richard Althouse, Ph.D., Immediate Past President, International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology


"Be sorry before, not after. That way you’ll use your mind to make your way rather than repair it.” - A Buddhist saying.


Tiger By The TailTiger by the Tail?


In my previous contribution, I wondered if our "tough on crime” criminal justice policies had created a tiger that we now have by the tail to keep it from eating us. I believe we have.


Over my 37 years of working in corrections, I eventually wondered what kept fueling America’s evolving, costly, and often ineffectual "tough on crime” ideology, while ignoring "smart on crime” strategies supported by data and competent research. Eventually, three fundamental ideas emerged.


Creating the Tiger: Our neurological networks

First, I came to believe that the motivational driver of criminal management policies has been, and continues to be, deeply rooted in our genetically-based neurological networks. Individuals do what it takes for an organism to survive when faced with circumstances in which survival is or may be threatened. In those situations, our neurological responses facilitate fear and anger, both stressors, and we want to do almost anything to immediately eliminate the threat, feel safe again, and feel less stressed, both now and in the foreseeable future.


Growing the Tiger: Neurological Tribalism

Second, we eventually became neurologically aware, as did other animals before us, that our individual survival chances were increased when we lived together in groups. In that process, we eventually preferred to associate with those like us, and to avoid others not like us, since they might be threatening competitors (often they were!) or weaken the strength of our own tribe.


For that to work well, individual deviance from tribal beliefs could not be tolerated, since it might weaken the tribe’s chances for survival. Hence, persistent deviants were severely punished, killed, or socially isolated and kicked out of the tribe. In the latter situation they, often went off to form a new tribe, and create new competition. There are multitudes of tribes today, but for the purpose of our discussion, the two tribes are "normal citizens” (i.e., law abiding) and "abnormal citizens” (i.e., criminals). Members of the former help us feel safe; members of the latter threaten us and make us feel unsafe. Our natural neurological responses—fear and anger—compel us to want to eliminate members of the latter and implement actions to do so. Neurologically and tribally speaking, we do not want members of the "criminal” tribe back among our own "law-abiding citizens.” Ever.


The Tribal Tiger at Work: We don’t want ‘em back!

This "don’t want ’em back” tendency has had real consequences in our criminal justice system. For examples, it may explain why critics accuse our criminal justice system of the following:

  • over-incarcerating offenders
  • racism (differentially locking up members of other tribes)
  • paying "lip service” to rehabilitation (we don’t really want to fix them)
  • failing to recognize constitutional rights to treatment or "the humane or reasonable thing to do” legislatively, and only reacting to litigation
  • offering few reentry programs over the years (we really don’t want them back do we?)
  • creating a situation where employers don’t like to hire anyone with a criminal record
  • having the highest recidivism rate in the world


This collective neurological process, and the related tribal responses to threat, may also explain why, as Noaks and Wincup reported, criminological research has had little direct, immediate impact on crime control policy or practice (2004). To that, I would add, unless it served to promote the expedient social and criminal justice ideology de jour in the interests of promoting public safety, usually by becoming even more punitive.” Remember the far-reaching influence of Martinson’s "nothing works” paper despite his own retraction some years later?


Training the Tiger: Making Distinctions and Understanding Systems

Tiger By Its Own Tail (C) TangoPang (, once we become aware of our neurological impulses, we can make rational distinctions between alternatives. As our current correctional problems reflect, our basic-survival neurological systems don’t always work to our advantage, and they need to be managed by higher-order cognitive processes.


Here is a simple example. Many years ago, I participated in a meeting of legislators, judges, corrections administrators and P&P agents from two adjoining states to discuss effective crime control strategies. Despite similar population demographic characteristics and crime rates, State A had half the incarceration rate and individuals incarcerated of State B, and had apparently equally effective crime management results. The corrections budgets of the two states reflected this significant difference. When asked how this was possible, legislators from State A noted, "We only lock up those we are afraid of, not those we are angry with.”


That simple higher-order cognitive distinction saved State A millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded corrections costs without any reported increase in risk to public safety, whereas the failure to make that distinction cost State B’s taxpayers millions of dollars down through the years. Eventually, State B’s policies led to one instance of litigation because of the lack of mental health resources that cost taxpayers even more.

Our decisions can contribute to creating hidden systems that, over time, work against us and possibly undermine our efforts. The outcomes of Prohibition I and the current "War on Drugs” (Prohibition II) are great examples of other tigers we’ve created that eventually we had to grab by the tail to keep from eating us. Having a basic understanding of a system and of some systems models can help us identify and avoid such negative and costly outcomes.


Since understanding a basic system is both important and easy, my next contribution will provide a brief overview of a basic system and provide a couple of systems models that will be useful on the other side of our gateways.


Until then, I’ll end with this observation: "Systems never fail.”

Join The Discussion - Leave your comments below. (Click to View Comments In Separate Window)