In the world of noir fiction, criminals are routinely portrayed as brilliant masterminds who cleverly plot mayhem while engaging the police in suspenseful cat-and-mouse games. But for every Joker or Hannibal Lector that appears on the silver screen, there are scores of criminals in the real world who show stunningly poor judgment: getting their crimes tattooed on their bodies, writing “fictional” books detailing murders they’ve committed or turning their own wanted posters into profile pics on Facebook.
A&E Real Crime spoke with Joel Dvoskin, a clinical forensic and correctional psychologist, to better understand why some criminals directly implicate themselves in their crimes by communicating openly about them, thus leading to their convictions.
Looking at some recent cases of self-incrimination, where the perpetrator flaunts their criminality, it seems unfathomable anyone would willingly shoot themselves in the foot. What’s the logic behind it?
Some of it is braggadocio. Some of it has to do with wanting acceptance by criminal peers—that’s especially true with gangs, but not exclusively; it’s also true with juveniles. They think it gives them street cred.
But as I often say…if you go to prison looking for evil geniuses, you’re going to be frustrated. Most people in prison are bad at life, and most are bad at crime. There’s a lot of reasons someone will do something stupid. One of the reasons is: They’re stupid.
It’s because of a low IQ? Are the people who commit crimes less intelligent than the population at large?
The short answer to that is, it’s very complicated. People with the lowest IQs are probably less likely to commit crimes, but more likely to get caught. But I shouldn’t have used the word ‘stupid.’ When I say that people in prison tend to be bad at life, it’s more about poor judgment than low IQ.
I’ve asked [incarcerated criminals] before, ‘What were you thinking?’ And the answer is, ‘Nothing.’
What’s the value in street cred, as you mentioned earlier, if getting it means getting locked up?
If I said to you, ‘If you do X, you’re going to go to prison,’ you’d be intimidated by that. But what if you thought it was your destiny to go to prison, and it was just a matter of time? Some kids will say, ‘I’m going anyway, so I may as well go in with a rep.’ And I’m not saying [their incarceration] is inevitable, but if they believe it’s inevitable, it influences their behavior. If they believe they’re going anyway, the threat loses its power.
We know of cases where gangs have required their members to do things to gain entrance, such as announcing, in some way, their membership, to gain full acceptance. People care about their reputations with their peers. And that’s as true for people in the honors society as it is with criminal peers.
Unlike with an honors society, though, it seems like openly flaunting criminality might not just gain the appreciation from your peers. It might also potentially instill fear in some people. Do you think that plays a part in this kind of decision-making?
It’s kind of any and all of the above. It may be you want to be intimidating, it may be that you feel intimidated, it may be that you want status or reputation. But people are different.
How about as a means of taunting the police and the powers that be?
It could be about flipping off the authorities. But if your whole social world revolves around criminal peers, then it’s not a jump to suggest they might be your motivation for these kinds of communications.
What about as a means of confession? Do you think some of these criminals want to be caught, but feel for some reason they can’t turn themselves in?
I’m sure that’s happened, but it requires some emotional gymnastics to explain. If you want to confess, it’s pretty easy to do. Just confess. If someone is conflicted and wants to get caught, say they’re tired of being on the run, but they don’t want to snitch… I’m sure that’s happened. But I couldn’t tell you it’s common.
In the course of your work with prison populations, do you find that once people are incarcerated they’ll continue to share information with each other or with guards that works against their interests?
I would say in the course of life people share information that’s against their interests all the time. Just pick a random Facebook account. You’ll read something and go, ‘Aren’t you embarrassed? Why in the world did you put that on your Facebook account?’
People love to talk. If you ever watch Law & Order, [in real life, the cops] would never catch anybody because they don’t shut up long enough to get the guy to confess. They never give the suspect a chance to say a word because they’re stars. If you just shut up and listen, people tell you more stuff; and often enough, they incriminate themselves.
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