Concept of the Month -- December 2003

Can A Criminal Learn from Experience?

Characterizations of the criminal (the "psychopath," "sociopath," individual with an "antisocial personality") include the observation that he cannot learn from experience. That is to say he discounts or ignores the past and does not use it as a guide for present or future conduct. There is no inherent incapacity to process information so as to benefit from past experience. If one understands the world from the offender's point of view, it becomes evident that he does learn from experience. He may not learn what others who are responsible want him to learn --e.g., that crime doesn't pay, that criminal behavior leaves a trail of injury and so forth.

The criminal learns in areas that are important to him. He may learn, in a sense, to become a better criminal -- to become more careful and calculating as he contemplates certain crimes. A drug using offender observed, "Drugs knock off my caution." By that he meant that when using drugs, he was less cautious when he committed crimes. So this man actually attended meetings of Narcotics Anonymous and stopped using drugs so that he would be more proficient in the crimes he committed. He knew he would be better coordinated, his mind sharper.

If one truly believes that a criminal cannot learn from experience, then there is no hope for change. But offenders can be taught in a systematic, cognitive program for change to recognize this error in their thinking, to recognize the consequences some of which are unpalatable to them, then implement a corrective concept whereby they make active efforts to learn from the past to become more responsible human beings.

Stanton E. Samenow, Ph.D.

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