The Psychology of Stealing
The truth about why people steal
By Steven M. Houseworth, MA
Section 1- Thinking CommissionsChapter 1- Cops and Robbers .........11
Chapter 2- Punishment .....................45
Chapter 3- Mental Rehearsing ..........79
Chapter 4- License .........................117
Section 2- Thinking OmissionsChapter 5- Circular Thinking ...........166
Chapter 6- Hurt ............................196Overview .............................. 201
Understanding Hurtful People ........ 204
Understanding Who and How ........ 211
Understanding Financial Injury.........227
Practical Applications ..............246
Section 3- ChoicesChapter 7- Caring ........................... 257
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In my first few years as a corrections counselor I developed four primary approaches and one fundamental assumption when attempting to be effective in my work. My partner, Patrick, and I were new to our profession and anxious to learn. We asked our seasoned colleagues about practices and best interventions and quickly assimilated into the departments professional culture. Over the years Pat and I began to realize that the common sense, practical approaches to crime that we were using, were ineffective, and that the four primary interventions we were using were based on false assumptions. It was our role to impact our offending clients in such a way as to minimize continued crime. What we learned is that in the business of corrections it is important to know what works and why it works, and, to know what doesnt work and why it doesnt work. This manual is based on sound, research based, scientific principles and best practices which have consistently proven to be effective.
One of our objectives is for the reader to learn what works and what doesnt work, and to know why it works or doesnt work. Our second objective is for the reader to learn and understand each segment of this manual. Thirdly, it is necessary for the reader to step back and see how each piece of this manual fits into a whole, which, when put together acts much like a puzzle - the picture is clear when all of the pieces are put together. One of our basic tenets is that interventions are most effective when they have affected the clients thinking - their attitudes, values and beliefs.
In the following pages you will learn about a new and exciting way to effectively work with people who steal. If you are anything like me and my partner were twenty five years ago, then you are probably pretty frustrated with the corrections process. I vividly recall my first few weeks on the job as a fresh new college graduate and employed for the first time in my chosen profession as a juvenile probation officer. My very first client was a young man who had burglarized a home. His name was Tim. I recall looking across my desk at Tim and his mother. While gathering pertinent family information and background I was doing self talk which went much like this:Oh my God. This kid is a burglar. A burglar. He burglarized a home! Im suppose to do something with him. What do I do? I dont have a clue what to do with him. Why did they give me such a difficult case to work? Do I send him somewhere, a psychologist maybe? Is it MY job to work with him? This kid is a burglar. What do I do? Punishment, that must be it. He committed a crime and the best way to deal with this kid is to punish him. Ill put him on probation, make him pay restitution and have him do community service work. Hell check in with me once a week and Ill go to the school and/or his home and check up on him. Yeah, thats it. Ive got a plan. I know what to do now. Watch him in the community, punish him, and if he screws up again we can lock him up to protect the community.
What an emotional experience this was. Even after years of college study and preparation my first client taught me that I was not at all prepared to effectively intervene in the lives of people who commit crimes. In this meeting I came to my first false conclusion - use punishment as a primary intervention. Research has consistently demonstrated that punishment is not an effective tool and, in fact, often produces counter productive results. If you still think punishment is an effective intervention be prepared to have your thinking challenged. Keep open minded and Chapter 2 will explain why punishment doesnt work.
In the weeks following my first meeting with Tim I questioned my colleagues, asking, What do you do with someone who commits a burglary? The typical answer I got was to look for weaknesses and fill the need. For example, if the offender is not doing well in school then I should look into an alternative school. If he didnt have a job I should pursue the Job Corp or help him get a job. (I remember spending hours teaching kids how to apply for jobs, how to dress, what to say and how to interview.) If the family had conflict, I was suppose to send the family to counseling. The assumption was that if I did something to redirect the youth or solve one of the youths other problems, - family counseling, get the person a job, solve school problems, etc.., - the person would stop committing crimes. Im a bit embarrassed to say that I used this approach for years before realizing I was having no measurable effect on the persons criminal behaviors. Sure, I did some good. Tim may have had a job, but what I found is that I was working with an employed burglar. Tims family may have gone through counseling, and as a result was functioning more harmoniously, but what I had was a well adjusted youth who was stealing from homes. His grades may have improved but he was still stealing. My second false conclusion was that if I worked at solving other problems I would be successful at solving the presenting problem - stealing. The assumption behind this approach is that if you can successfully solve one problem, you will, somehow, magically solve the other problem. Research and experience has consistently proven this tact to be quite effective at solving the youths other problems. It is, however, logically flawed and ineffective at solving the presenting problem -stealing. Helping a person solve a problem in their life makes a counselor or corrections worker feel good about himself but, this practice is not relevant to the task at hand - correcting the criminal behavior.
Another common practice is to schedule weekly check-ins. The meeting goes something like this:Probation Officer: Hows it going?
Probation Officer: Whats new?
Probation Officer: Hows school?
Probation Officer: Grades okay?
Client: Yeah, I guess.
Probation Officer: You missed any days lately?
Probation Officer: Any contact with the police since we last met?
Probation Officer: Okay then. Youre doing well. Keep up the good work and Ill be out of your life in no time. But you remember, if you screw up again it isnt going to be pleasant. Im a nice guy but you are in control. If you screw up you force me to lock you up.
How arrogant of us to think that this kind of contact with a client will be meaningful, much less impactful. Certainly we cant blame the probation officer or counselor, they havent been taught what to do. In fact, few people know what else they can do. Weekly check-ins has absolutely no impact on recidivism. In fact, were you aware that studies on the effect of probation has consistently shown that probation, unto itself, is no more or less effective than incarceration - regardless of caseload size?
The final tact in my list of ineffective interventions is what I call the education and warning approach. I would attempt to make sure the offender knew the law and the possible consequences for violating it. I would sit a kid down, or even a group of them, and explain the legal definition of stealing, what a misdemeanor and felony is, and outline the maximum amount of time they could spend in jail as an adult. Sometimes I would take them for a tour of the County Jail. I felt pretty good about this approach. At least I could say the kids knew the rules and were warned about the possible consequences. I felt I was taking positive steps to forewarn them should they choose a life of crime. If they screwed up I could say to myself, I warned them. I felt I was at least doing something. I was doing something, but unfortunately this approach too, did not work. One day I realized, the kids already know stealing is wrong and, they knew they would get in trouble if they were caught. My education and warning approach resulted in me telling kids information they already knew and had no effect on their choice to commit crime.
If, in the 1970s, we would have asked the question, "What causes crime, what causes people to steal?", most likely people would have said poor parenting causes people to turn out criminal. In the 1980s the fad was that people who committed crime were victims of abuse as children. The 1990s was a time when we heard a lot about the break down of the family unit. Over the past twenty years the assumption was that something was wrong with the family. Interestingly, if we go back fifty years we would find the popular theory had to do with poverty and unemployment. Seventy five years ago we assumed the cause had to do with a lack of discipline and, one hundred years ago the focus was on the lack of morals and religious values. The theories abound and span a list which includes the bad seed theory, peer pressure, state of the economy, family values, our diet, the effects of fluorescent lights, bad eye sight, learning disabilities, etc... Today researchers are busy looking for the crime gene. All of these theories subscribe to what is known as the causal model of crime. The causal model is one which has an underlying assumption that there is a cause, something wrong inside or outside of the person which is the source of their criminal behavior and, if this cause can be identified the person can be cured. The causal model was ostensibly one which was worth pursuing, after all, it served the medical profession quite well. In medicine we can find a germ or bacteria and kill it to make the patient well. In the social sciences this causal model has not proven itself, in spite of 100 years of research. This manual does not use the causal model to explain, understand or cure criminal behavior. The causal model simply has not served the social sciences well.
In summary, the four false assumptions are:False Assumption: Punishment works. Research has consistently demonstrated that punishment is an ineffective tool and, in fact, often produces counter productive results.
False Assumption: If I help solve a central problem in a youths life he will stop committing crime. Research and experience has consistently proven this tact to be quite effective at solving the youths other problems, but to be logically flawed and ineffective at solving the presenting problem -stealing, crime.
False Assumption: Probation works and weekly check-ins will solve the problem. The fact is probation, unto itself, is no more or less effective than incarceration - regardless of caseload size.
False Assumption: Education and warnings will have a positive effect. Most crime education programs do little more than inform the youth of information he already knew, i.e., if you get caught, youll get in trouble.
The one false fundamental underlying assumption was:The causal, or medical, model leads to the root of all crime and if the root can be identified and addressed, the person will stop committing crime.
This causal model has been the underlying assumption throughout the 1900s. In effect this assumption became a 100 year experiment. The experiment demonstrated conclusively that the causal model is not useful in corrections.
If the causal model, punishment, addressing other problems, weekly check-ins and education is ineffective at changing peoples behavior, then what can be done? First, we need to acknowledge that people from good homes and bad homes commit crimes. We need to recognize the poor are not the only ones who commit crimes. We need to accept that, as prevalent as crime is, there must be something normal about the willingness to cross the human boundaries we label as crime. We must understand that in the spectrum of human behavior we will have takers, takers and givers and givers
We need to look into the mind and soul of the thief and non-thief in order to understand the similarities and the differences. We need to grasp that inherent in the human condition is the phenomenon of selfishness. Selfish in the sense that people want. They want experiences, they want states of mind and in American culture, most of all they want things. From this perspective even the giver is getting something in return for his chronic kindness.
Without judgment being passed, a fundamental premise of this manual is the notion that humans are selfish. With this perspective it makes sense that people pursue a satisfaction of their selfish wants. You only need to look at those around you to prove this basic premise. Though the quantity and types of items are different, you can travel from culture to culture and rediscover this basic truth. Furthermore, a very satisfying additional basic tenant of this manual is that, most people are not willing to cause injury to other people, - if, they understand the injury. If this were not true, there would be no boundaries and we would live in a state of chaos and anarchy. This manual takes a very positive and hopeful posture toward the human condition. This manual assumes most crime is the product of an overdose of selfishness and an under dose of othersness. It takes the position that stealing is a selfish crime which can be corrected by appealing to the offenders thought process and having them experience the dissonance between their thoughts and actions, between their feelings and their soul. This dissonance creates a discomfort which calls for resolution and a state of homeostasis. When most people are confronted with this conflict between their thinking and their behavior, they choose to do what they believe is right.
This manual will will expose effective cognitive interventions which circumvent the four false assumptions outlined above; we will abandon the superstitions of the causal model and, instead, rely on the clients internal control system and the above noted assumptions about human nature. This form of intervention is called Dissonance Therapy.
The change paradigm of our society and the vast majority of our clients, is to focus energy on changing the offending behavior. The primary intervention promoted by our citizens is to try to be the change agent by punishing the offender for his criminal behavior. Clients, on the other hand, not being masochists, tend to depend on commitment and will power. Though these approaches have proven ineffective time and time again, they are the intervention of choice for most lay, and many professional people. I am not suggesting accountability be abandoned. I am, however, promoting a new zeitgeist, one which also focuses on changing the offenders way of thinking.
Contemporary labels for this added model would include cognitive restructuring, cognitive behavior modification, correcting thinking errors, Rational Emotive Therapy (RET) or even Reality Therapy. Though all of these are of the same genre, I refer to this intervention as Dissonance Therapy. The underlying assumption is that if you can be successful at changing a persons thinking, a change in behavior will follow.
Research, and years of psychoanalytic therapy, has consistently shown that insight alone does not result in substantial behavior change. In response to this finding, Dissonance Therapy strives to go one step further. The objective of Dissonance Therapy is to create significant cognitive dissonance within the client. The resulting unrest and conflict in a persons attitudes, values and beliefs calls for the pursuit of a resolution. This pursuit of resolution culminates in movement seeking homeostasis between a persons thinking and actions. A movement which could go one way or the other. This model would suggest that when a person experiences cognitive dissonance, either the thinking will change to match the behavior or the behavior will change to match the thinking. With Dissonance Therapy the internal world of the person, their thinking, is what is important, the external world only has meaningful influence to the extent it can impact the thinking of the individual.
Cognitive dissonance occurred for Holly when she, on one hand believed, Im a good person. Im very responsible and moral. and, on the other hand, realized that several of the little items around her home were stolen from her employer. Dissonance Therapy predicts Holly, being faced with both facts simultaneously, will experience healthy cognitive dissonance. That such a self realization would result in her either, 1) correcting her behavior (stop stealing and maybe even return the items), 2) adjusting to her thinking (rationalization and/or justification in an attempt to convince herself Its no big deal. They dont care anyway), or, 3) the less likely, reframing her self image to - Im a thief.
We assess and address the clients attitudes, values and beliefs.
Victim Awareness and Empathy Development
The client will benefit if he can feel the pain of his victim and picture the human being(s) he affected.
Change occurs when our clients experience and scrutinize the inconsistencies between their thinking and their behavior, and the conflict between their feelings and their soul.
Clients will benefit when they learn of the errors and omissions in their belief and values systems.
A key to our success is for each client to learn new decision making skills and to assume personal responsibility for their actions and choices.
Each component of our programs begins with an educational piece.
We allow our clients to think through issues and come to their own conclusions. To be effective, a counselor must remove the power from the relationship.
THEORETICAL BASEChoice Theory
The underlying assumption that people are in control of their actions.
Realizing empathy is crucial to the socialization process.
People learn through a series of rewards and consequences, internally or externally imposed.
Cognitive Behavior Modification
If a person experiences enough emotional discomfort over their decisions they will naturally make different choices.
Most people are unwilling to cause injury to other people, if, they understand the injury.
UNDERLYING ASSUMPTIONS* Mankind is inherently selfish.
* Humans, on the whole, are programmed not to do injury to one another.
* Humans, on the whole, inherently develop a sense of right and wrong. This preprogramming, for the purposes of this book, will be referred to as the soul.
* The feelings associated with the desire to "have" often results in a conflict with the soul.
* A life predominantly driven by feelings is one which has succumbed to its inherent selfishness.
* A life ruled by its inherent programming, the soul, is one with fewer self imposed troubles.
* A life which struggles between feelings and the soul is one which is experiencing the classic human condition.
* Learning to distinguish between the soul, (trusting your gut, listening to the little voice within you, letting your heart rule, etc) and feelings, our selfish nature, (the desire to have, greed, immediate self gratification, etc.) is a process which can improve the quality of life.
If the reader cannot be open to these basic underlying notions, this book will not prove fruitful reading.
Steven M. Houseworth, MA Author
Last Updated: Sunday, December 21, 2008