Neuronal Networks, Implicit Cognitions & Criminal Behaviors

Tiger By The Tail, Part 4

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

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In previous contributions, I’ve proposed that our reactive responses to criminal behavior evolved from our survival-oriented neural networks, particularly those related to fear, anxiety, and anger. These responses eventually coalesced into practices best characterized as tribalistic. As members of the "law abiding tribe,” we are very interested in catching those who threaten us and the integrity of the tribe. We want to be safe from them and minimize future threats by predicting who may continue to pose repeated threat risks, doing what we can to reduce those threats by various modes of containment ("rush to incarcerate”), punishment (longer sentences, truth in sentencing, ‘Three Strikes,” etc. ) and rehabilitation (e.g., education, drug treatment, mood management programs). However, as many critics have noted, despite our best efforts we are not faring very well.


Although we remain the world’s leading incarcerator, with over two million in our jails and prisons, we also have the world’s highest recidivism rate at between 60 and 70%, depending on whose statistics one believes. The headlines associated with our war on drugs often reflect its failures, despite the steady - and expensive - increases in our efforts.Our social and legislated responses to criminal behavior have unleashed two powerful systems - "Shifting the Burden” and "Escalation.” The side effects of these systems continue to challenge, if not undermine, our efforts at having a substantive impact on reducing crime rates, producing the familiar "revolving door” phenomenon well known to many of us who work in corrections and criminal justice settings. Offenders are incarcerated, released, arrested again, re-incarcerated, and the cycle repeats.


However, the revolving door phenomenon is not just one sided. It also applies to our socially collective responses to crime. Historically, we have gone from a utilitarian revenge/retribution/punishment model prior to the late 1800s to a treatment/rehabilitation model through the 1950s, and back to a repressive "just deserts” punishment model in the early 1990s through today. A smattering of rehabilitation now can be found creeping back in, primarily influenced by litigation. Basically, we have come full circle. As Peter Senge, a well-known advocate of systems thinking observed in his book The Fifth Discipline, "The easy way out usually leads back in.” (Senge, 1990, p. 60). Clearly, we need a deeper understanding of the process if meaningful change is to occur in our criminal justice system.


So we might begin with wondering this: knowing what they know, what influences an individual’s decision to engage in criminal behavior in the first place? How do they make justify their behaviors as "OK” to do?


Experts have long debated and attempted to explain why some engage in criminal behavior and others don’t, since, in many cases, criminal behavior does not seem overly rational, particularly given the negative social, physical, and legal responses that often follow. Explanations have included spiritual deficiencies, biological determinants, criminal personalities characterized by errors in thinking, environmental influences and addictions, among a list of others, either in isolation or in combinations. Similarly, offenders asked why they re-offended offer a multitude of similar explanations like the following:

  • "I couldn’t get a job, I needed the money, and there was no other way to get it.”
  • "I was high or drunk and wasn’t thinking straight.”
  • "I was hanging with the wrong friends.”
  • "I had a bad childhood,” or "I had abusive parents”
  • "It’s just bad genes.”
  • "I grew up with crime; it’s what we did,” or "Everybody did it.”
  • "I was angry because my girlfriend and I had a fight.”


While these explanations may be intuitively engaging, they really don’t answer the question: "How did you make it OK to commit your offense?”Most of us would have a difficult time answering that question about what we do, and offenders are no exception. That said, there is only one reasonable answer:"I didn’t make it OK, my brain made the rest of me do it.” The brain’s answer is, "I couldn’t help it; that’s just how it was when my neural networks got going under the circumstances.”


In short; our brains are responsible for directing and compelling much of what we voluntarily do, and our brains are not responsible for how they get programmed to do that.


Depending on what one reads, our brains – incredibly complex organic computers - contain between 85 and 100 billion neurons, interfaced with each other by approximately 100 trillion synapses. These neurons do only one of two things - fire or not fire, activating or inhibiting. Our neurons collectively use more than 100 neurotransmitters and a little electrical action to compel the rest of our body to do stuff. What follows is simple: as our brains function, so do we, including thoughts, decision making, and the rest of our minute-by-minute daily affairs. In other words, what we do at any given moment is determined by our brain’s dynamic neural networks as they activate, moderate, or inhibit other neural networks we experience as our perceptions, thoughts, and behaviors.


In short, we are and do what our brains compel us to be and do. In the instance of criminal offending, our brains’ neural networks activate behaviors that are not adequately inhibited by other neural networks. Simple.


"Wait a minute!” you exclaim! "Doesn’t this really smack of a sort of biological determinism? What about ‘me,’ ‘free will,’ ‘moral responsibility’ and ‘freedom of choice’ that makes us individually responsible for our behavior choices? These are concepts upon which our criminal justice system is based.”


Come back next week, and I’ll address those questions!

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