Do criminals “think incorrectly”? A long time interviewer of them says they do.

Dr. Stanton Samenow
Dr. Stanton Samenow

Stanton Samenow has made a career of interviewing criminals and the people who knew them. He believes that many bad guys “think incorrectly” and it is worth quoting at length what he says about a subset of them, a group who, when they commit a murder of a family member, or a rape of a stranger, or theft, completely surprise the people around them, who think the crime out of character.

…Their fundamental premise is that life should revolve around them. They arrogantly believe that others must fulfill their expectations. They hold such an inflated, albeit insecure opinion of themselves that they perceive even a minor criticism, disappointment, or frustration as a threat to their entire self-worth. These individuals do their utmost to control others,but often such control eludes them. Consequently, they are perpetually dissatisfied and simmer with anger at a world that does not accord them what they believe they deserve.

Dr. Samenow believes that thinking comes first, and emotions later. The thought causes the crime. (in my view, it goes both ways).

In many of the cases he cites in his book The Myth of the Out of Character Crime, the truth would have been very hard to believe. One man named Wally was upset with his wife Diane, and was determined to get custody of his son. “No one, certainly not Diane, had the slightest idea that Wally repeatedly fantasized about killing her.” or in another example: “Stuart’s father saw that he was shy and reclusive. How could he have known that since childhood, his son had composed pornographic stories that were increasingly violent in nature…”

Stanton notes: “When the offender commits the crime, he is not thinking about whether it is right or wrong. This is because at that time it is “right” for him…He can shut off consideration of consequences as quickly as you might flip a switch…the offender can also shut off conscience.”

Some of these people think of themselves as irresistible and unique and are very pretentious.

Dr. Samenow spent about 34 hours interviewing one of the “Beltway snipers”, Lee Malvo. Before Malvo was caught, he and his older friend John Muhammad shot people with a sniper rifle in various places near Washington D.C and suburbs. Of the 27 people they shot, 17 died. Malvo’s legal defense tried to portray him as influenced by his older friend, but Samenow found that he was well-educated, thought of himself as very unique, was very proud of his self-discipline, and perhaps influenced other people more than they influenced him. Malvo was raised in Jamaica mostly by his mother because his father left her when he was 5 years old. But this is common in Jamaica, and some children do well despite the lack of a father. In Kingston, Jamaica, Malvo often heard gunfire and often saw dead bodies in the street.  But again, this didn’t mean he had to turn out the way he did.

His mother believed in him, and worked hard to place him in good schools. He was intelligent, but also very stubborn, and he described himself to Stanton as a “control freak”. He would often express contempt for other people’s opinions.

Though he had been instilled with the difference between right and wrong, he committed crimes. He was interested in firearms and once said that “Snipers adore their weapons.”

Lee Malvo was impassioned over social injustice, especially mistreatment of blacks, and had read extensively on this subject.

His older friend John Muhammad wanted to create a Utopian society for black children in Canada. Lee supported this objective.
After they shot a few people, he left a note demanding 10 million dollars from the government in exchange for stopping the killings. On an illustration drawn for police, he wrote “September 11 we will ensure will look like a picnic to you.”

Malvo said he had an enormous sense of control and power while slaughtering innocent individuals who were doing nothing other than living their day-to-day lives. And that illustrates a motivation (a desire to feel power and control) that most of us simply don’t have.

There is an irony here. Since Lee was impassioned over social justice, then how is it justice to kill some totally innocent person, from far off, with a sniper rifle? Talk about incorrect thinking!

Samenow’s term for Malvo, and some others in the book is a “secret controller.”

Lee malvo
Lee malvo

However, Malvo was also a convert to Islam, as was his friend John, and that explains the reference to September 11, and one self-portrait Malvo drew showed him in the cross hairs of a gun scope shouting “Allah Akbar!” Surprisingly, Dr. Samenow doesn’t mention Islam, but it is a great illustration of his argument that “thoughts influence emotions.” Minus the religion, would Malvo have drawn another portrait, this one with John Muhammad which had the words “We will kill them all. Jihad”? Obviously not.
He drew another portrait, this one of Osama Bin Laden with the label “prophet.”

There is also a lesson from the cases in this book. And that is, that people who think incorrectly, and have an inflated self-image, and wrong expectations of others, can end up doing great harm, even murder.

I would add that double-standards are common in the way people view the world. And what looms large, and what seem relatively unimportant to people, does not always correspond to reality. Many Americans for instance are so uneducated that they don’t know who Stalin was – a Russian leader who only 70 years ago was murdering tens of millions of people. But they would be able to name popular singers. Likewise, there was much reporting of a black youth, Trayvon Martin, who was shot by a neighborhood-watch volunteer, and though this was certainly a tragedy, our media (and our president and our justice department) gave much less attention to a lovely young black girl who was one of the many casualties in Chicago recently in black on black violence. I don’t think this is hypocrisy, its more interesting than that.

In my own experience, there are people who draw hatred to them like a magnet.  So just as the public may not appreciate the awfulness of some people (like Stalin), they may devote  much more negative emotion toward men who have done much less.  You may have seen some of the tourist maps of New York city, which are meant to be funny, showing the rest of the country as a minor appendage to the city.  This is a distorted map of the world.  And yet, many people walk around with all sorts of distorted maps in their heads.

Of course personality, not just thought, has a lot to do with evil, and as Edmund Burke, who influenced the founders of the United States, once said, “There is no safety for honest men, but by believing all possible evil of evil men, and by acting with promptitude, decision, and steadiness on that belief.”

I’ve seen an example of that too – bad people can constantly push the envelope, and imaginatively and ruthlessly explore the possibilities to hurt those they don’t like. It’s almost as if they are driven by an imperative to do evil.

Historian Paul Johnson wrote “It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.”

This applies to our view of human nature as well. All people are not like us, they do not always feel what we would feel, and as Dr. Samenow finds, they don’t always think like us either.

There is one last thing to say about Lee Malvo though. And that is what he himself said ten years later: “I was a monster. If you look up the definition, that’s what a monster is. I was a ghoul. I was a thief. I stole people’s lives. I did someone else’s bidding just because they said so. … There is no rhyme or reason or sense.”

One time he scouted for a clean shot for John Muhammad, and John’s bullet screamed across the highway, instantly killing Linda Franklin, who just happened to be at the Home Depot at precisely the wrong time.

Malvo remembers the eyes of Ted Franklin, Linda’s husband, the devastation, the shock, the sadness. “They are penetrating,” Malvo said in a rare media interview from prison. “It is the worst sort of pain I have ever seen in my life. His eyes. … Words do not possess the depth in which to fully convey that emotion and what I felt when I saw it. … You feel like the worst piece of scum on the planet.”

This leads to another point. In our earlier years, we can do things that we completely regret later. We can be people who we actually would despise in our later years. But it can be too late.

The Myth of the Out of Character Crime by Stanton E. Samenow Ph.D. (Sep 14, 2010)
The later interview with a repentant Malvo is at:
Lee Malvo as Jihadist: see Michelle Malkin’s article at:

American knowledge of Stalin: – I have no poll that shows how many Americans know about Stalin, but I do have polls of what they know about America.  “Newsweek reported in its March 28/April 4 2011 that only 30 percent of randomly selected adults knew that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land; and two-thirds could not identify America’s economic system as capitalistic or market-based.”  So I think I can safely extrapolate to their lack of knowledge of Stalin.  Perhaps worse, Russian youth, who are quite educated, are taught that Stalin was a strong leader who did much for Russia, probably because their current authoritarian leader doesn’t want them to do too much thinking about how genocidal paranoid madmen can rise to leadership positions.


One thought on “Do criminals “think incorrectly”? A long time interviewer of them says they do.

  1. I share your doubt about the proposition that thought precedes emotion. Emotion is always the initial driving force but we like to have props or excuses to justify our feelings. The Islamist terrorists are the clearest examples today, but all terrorists claim some higher motive or cause to explain their evil actions. I think that terrorists are basically criminals who have latched onto this or that ideological or religious movement as an excuse for their evildoing. Sadly, as a UK resident, I have to say that British youth is now following the American lead and becoming shockingly ignorant about what I had always assumed was general knowledge about history. (And other fundamental subjects.)

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