Yochelson and Samenow: What Makes a Criminal? 

In their landmark research Yochelson and Samenow set out to answer one question:

Are all criminals the same?

Psychologist Stanton Samenow believed the answer to that question to be an emphatic yes.

In 1976 he and his mentor, Samuel Yochelson, published the first volume of their three-volume work The Criminal Personality. The books detail the findings of a sixteen-year study, which the psychologists conducted among lifelong criminals at St. Elizabeths Hospital, a federally-operated psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C.

Through their publication, Yochelson and Samenow contested several major criminology theories of their time and assert their belief that criminals are individuals who exhibit criminal thinking patterns.

They identify 52 criminal thinking errors, which, they claim, are present in extreme levels in the thought processes of criminals.

What did their study look like?

Yochelson and Samenow performed a longitudinal study. In other words, they conducted interviews with and attempted to provide treatment for the same group of patients throughout the decade plus duration of their study.

They began their study with 240 male patients who were being treated at St. Elizabeths and had come from a variety of backgrounds. The patients were “hardened criminals” and had committed thousands of crimes in their lifetimes, according to the psychologists.

It must be noted that only 12 of those patients spent extensive time (i.e. in excess of 5,000 hours) with the psychologists.

Contemporaneous reviews of Yochelson and Samenow’s publication tended to focus on the shortcomings of their methodology. Beyond such as issues as the contradictions in their writing, which make the presented observations and conclusions suspect, the experimental design that the psychologists employed had serious flaws.

First of all, the researchers did not include a control group, meaning that they did not interview and provide treatment for non-criminals concurrently with criminals. Therefore, their study provides no valid evidence that there are differences between criminals and non-criminals.

Second, Yochelson and Samenow completed their study with a small number of all-male patients. The exclusion of women meant that the study already provided information for only half of the total population.

On top of that, the attrition that occurred over the fourteen-year period left so few patients that subsequent researchers had to wonder if any results that held for such a small sample size would hold for the population as a whole.

Finally, the researchers failed to consider other criminological approaches in the study of their patients. While they rejected sociological and biological explanations for criminal behavior, they offered neither logical arguments nor data to support their decision to do so.

Despite the errors apparent in the design of their study, the conclusions that Yochelson and Samenow drew have been influential on the field of criminology and deserve discussion.

Criminal actions arise from errors in thought that develop into criminal thinking patterns.

After studying criminal minds for years, Yochelson and Samenow concluded that criminality was not rooted in physiological, psychological, or sociological afflictions. They stressed that criminals should not be thought of as victims. Instead, criminals should be recognized as rational actors like non-criminals. The difference between the two groups lies in their respective thought processes.

Criminals display thinking patterns that are characterized by errors. In all, Yochelson and Samenow identified 52 thinking errors that differentiated criminals from non-criminals. Although the psychologists acknowledged that non-criminals also display thinking errors, they believed that criminals commit errors in greater numbers and in such a way that amplify one another.

Samenow, who promulgated his and his mentor’s work alone after Yochelson died in 1976, grouped the individual errors into four categories:

  1. Idiosyncratic thinking patterns
  2. Automatic errors of thinking
  3. Thinking errors from idea through execution
  4. Tactics obstructing effective transactions

Errors in the first three categories, although not separated from one another, can be viewed online here. Idiosyncratic thinking patterns encompass such errors as excessive levels of pride, fear, and anger.

Automatic errors of thinking include self-victimization and a lack of empathy. Thinking errors from idea through execution include the ability to “cut off” one’s conscience” and the ability to see one’s self as a good person.

The final category, tactics obstructing effective transactions, describe the processes through which criminals were able to avoid treatment when confronted by psychologists, or “change agents.”

Yochelson and Samenow believed that criminals rarely changed through therapy because they obstructed sessions through lying or other means. Only by confronting a criminal and forcing him to acknowledge and alter his thinking errors could a psychologist help that criminal to change.

The theory of criminal thinking patterns has not gone away

While Yochelson and Samenow’s methods led many in the psychology and criminology communities to view their work with skepticism, their ideas have neither been forgotten nor completely ignored.

In 1989, psychologists Glenn D. Walters and T. W. White used six of Yochelson and Samenow’s 52 thinking errors as the basis for their own theory of criminal cognitive patterns. Walters and White determined that criminals displayed eight overlapping thinking styles: mollification, cutoff, entitlement, power orientation, sentimentality, superoptimism, cognitive indolence, and discontinuity.

  • Mollification describes how a patient rationalizes or justifies criminality
  • Through cutoff, a criminal eliminates mental deterrents to crime
  • and through entitlement, he or she establishes a sense of privilege
  • Power orientation refers to a criminal’s displays of aggression
  • A criminal displays sentimentality when he or she believes good deeds will counteract crimes
  • and superoptimism when he or she overestimates his or her ability to avoid crime in the future
  • Cognitive indolence refers to laziness
  • Discontinuity refers to a lack of self-discipline

These thinking styles became the basis of Walters’s Psychological Inventory of Criminal Thinking Styles (PICTS), a set of questions designed to determine whether an individual displayed criminal cognition patterns.

Because PICTS provides for psychologists a quantitative tool with which to analyze patients, Walters’s work seems to have received more serious academic consideration than the work of Yochelson and Samenow.

It has also inspired imitations. Some correctional facilities have identified and studied criminal cognitive patterns. In 2009 the Minnesota Department of Corrections and the Hazelden Foundation, an organization that provides support for individuals and families coping with psychiatric illnesses, released a list of nine thinking patterns.

Their list shares many similarities with both that of Yochelson and Samenow and that of Walters and White. The concept of criminal thinking patterns still seems to have a place in the field of criminology.

What about other theories employed in the field criminology?

The main problem with The Criminal Personality is not that Yochelson and Samenow employed questionable methodology to reach a conclusion that continues to provoke discussion and research in the field of criminology.

Rather, it is that they reject so much of mainstream criminology in favor of their own theories. They claim that biological and sociological factors have no bearing on the actions of a criminal.

In the second chapter of their book, Yochelson and Samenow discuss the history of criminology and the prevalent theories at the time of their study. Much of their discussion focuses on positivism.

The theory of positivism is built on the assumption that internal and external factors that operate outside of an individual’s control cause the individual to exhibit criminal behavior. Such factors could include social structure, population density, internalized behaviors, brain structure and even genetic traits.    

In 1976 the psychologists rejected positivist explanations for criminal behavior because such explanations remove responsibility from the criminal. Samenow’s opinion on criminology theories other than his own has not changed since Yochelson’s death.

In a recent interview, he stated that white collar criminals from affluent backgrounds have the same mentality as rapists who grew up in poverty and that both groups have a responsibility to avoid crime regardless of their environmental or genetic background.

In contrast to Samenow, mainstream researchers tend to agree that modern criminology cannot provide definitive explanations for the origin of criminal behavior. Instead, they tend to approach criminality from a wide range of perspectives.

Current theories include the rational choice theory, the contemporary trait theory, and the social structure theory.

  • The rational choice theory aligns somewhat with Yochelson and Samenow’s concept of criminal thinking patterns. It holds that criminals are rational actors who weigh the costs and benefits of their actions and determine that the rewards from committing a crime outweigh potential punishments.
  • The contemporary trait theory suggests that there is a biological cause of criminal behavior. The causative agent could be inherited genes, abnormal physiology, or abnormal brain chemistry. The trait theory carries some controversy because of the perceived association between the identification of “crime genes” and the implementation of eugenics. However, researchers are not interested in identifying a “crime gene” but rather in associating criminal activity with inherited traits linked to aggression and antisocial behavior.
  • The social structure theory argues that environmental conditions provoke criminal behavior. High unemployment and lack of opportunity tend to drive people to commit crimes.

There likely will never be an explanation for criminal behavior that applies to all people who commit crimes. Nonetheless, criminologists continue to study the origin of crime. Hopefully, the wide variety of perspectives with which researchers approach criminology will allow for ever more nuanced and effective strategies for dealing with crime.