Alfred Adler Institutes of San Francisco and Northwestern Washington

Theme Pack 6: Criminals and Crime

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Individual Psychology and Crime1

By Alfred Adler [1936]

Chapter XXIII in The Collected Clinical Works of Alfred Adler: Volume 6

The Criminal Pattern of Life

In this paper I would like, as I always like, to exchange experiences with my audience. The problem of crime is one which I have investigated for many years: the viewpoint at which I have arrived, therefore, may be looked on as the result of long-continued research. I have not been inquiring so much into particular crimes as into the lives of individual men and women; and my task was made easier by the general findings of Individual Psychology. By means of Individual Psychology, we begin to understand all the various types of human beings; and, after all, human beings are not so remarkably different from one another. We find the same kind of failure exhibited in criminals as in neurotics, psychotics, suicides, drunkards and sexual perverts. They all fail in their approach to the problems of life; and in one very definite and noticeable point, they fail in precisely the same way. Every one of them fails in social interest. They are not concerned with their fellow-beings.

One other point is necessary to understand criminals, but in this point they are just like the rest of us. We all wish to overcome difficulties. We strive to reach a goal in the future, by attaining which we will feel strong, superior, complete. Professor Dewey refers to this tendency, very rightly, as the striving for security. Others call it the striving for self-preservation. But, whatever name we give it, we will always find in human beings this great line of activity--the struggle to rise from an inferior position to a superior position, from below to above. It begins in our earliest childhood and continues to the end of our lives. Life means to surmounting obstacles. We should not be surprised, therefore, when we discover exactly the same tendency among criminals. All the criminal's actions and attitudes show that he is struggling to be superior, solve problems, and to overcome difficulties. What distinguishes him is not that he strives in this fashion, but rather the direction his striving takes. As soon as we see that it takes this direction because he has not understood the demands of social life and is not concerned with his fellow-beings, we shall find his actions quite intelligible.

I want to stress this point very strongly, because there are people who think otherwise. They regard criminals as exceptions to the human race, not like ordinary people at all. Some scientists for example, assert that all criminals are feeble-minded. Others put great emphasis on heredity; they believe that a criminal is born wrong and cannot help committing crimes. Still others hold that

1 Originally published in English in the Police Journal, Vol. 17., No.6, pages 8-11, 22-23, 1930. Edited for readability by Laurie J. Stein, 2004.

crime is something unalterably fixed by the environment: once a criminal always a criminal.

Neither environment nor heredity compel us. Children of the same family and environment can develop in different ways. Sometimes a criminal springs from a family of irreproachable record. Sometimes in a family of very bad record, with frequent experiences of prisons and reformatories, we find children of good character and behavior. It happens, too, that some criminals improve in later life; and the psychologists of crime have often been puzzled to explain how a burglar, after reaching the age of thirty, may settle down and become a good citizen.

Before I go any further, I wish to exclude the idea that criminals are insane. Psychotics commit crimes, but their crimes are of quite a different kind. We cannot hold them responsible; their crimes are a result of a complete failure to understand them and a wrong method of treating them. In the same way we must exclude the feeble-minded criminal, who is really no more than a tool. The true criminals plan the crime. They paint glowing pictures of the prospects, stimulate the fancy or ambitions of feeble-minded individuals, then they hide themselves, leaving their victims to execute the crime and run the risk of punishment. The same thing holds, of course, when older, experienced criminals take advantage of young people. The experienced criminal plans the crime; children are deluded into executing it.

Now let us return to the line of activity by which every criminal--and every other human being--is striving to gain a victory, to reach a position of finality. Goals vary greatly. We find that the goal of a criminal is always to be superior in a private and personal manner. What he strives for contributes nothing to others. He is not cooperative. Society needs of its members, we all need of each other, a common usefulness, an ability to cooperate. The goal of a criminal does not include this usefulness to society, and this is the really significant aspect of every criminal career.

The style of life typical of an individual is built up very early; we can already find its main features at the age of four or five. We cannot suppose, therefore, that it is an easy matter to change it. It is a man's own personality; it can be changed only by understanding the mistakes he made in building it up. We can begin to see how it happens many criminals, although they have often been punished, humiliated, despised, and deprived of every good that our social life can offer, still do not reform. They commit the same crime over and over again; it is not economic difficulty that forces them into crime.

A criminal is not interested in others. He can cooperate only to a certain degree. When this degree is exhausted, he turns to crime. The exhaustion occurs when a problem is too difficult for him. It is interesting to consider the problems of life which we have to face, the problems which a criminal cannot succeed in solving. It will appear, in the end, that we have no problems in our lives but social problems; and these problems can only be solved if we are interested in others.

Individual Psychology has taught us to make three broad divisions in the problems of life. First, let us take the problems of relationship to other men, the problems of comradeship. Criminals can sometimes have friends, but only among their own kind.

The second group of problems includes all those which are connected with occupation. A great number of criminals, if they are questioned about these problems, reply: “You don't know the terrible conditions of labor.” They find work terrible; they are not inclined, as others are, to struggle with these difficulties. A useful occupation implies an interest in other people and a contribution to their welfare, but this is exactly what we miss in the criminal personality.

The third group includes all the problems of love. A good and fruitful love-life calls equally for interest in the other person and for cooperation. Criminals want an easy way out for the problems of love.

We can see, now, where we should begin in our treatment of criminals. We must train them to be cooperative. If I am right in my observations, criminals look, speak, and listen in a different way from other people. They have a different language which handicaps the development of their intelligence. When we speak, we intend that everybody understand us. Understanding itself is a social factor; we give words a common interpretation that we understand in the same way that anyone else might understand. With criminals it is different; they have a private logic, a private intelligence. We can understand how criminals, if they see attractive things and want to obtain them in easily, conclude that they must take them from this hostile world in which they are not at all interested. They suffer from a wrong outlook, a wrong estimate of their own importance, and the importance of other people.

But this is not the most noteworthy point in considering their lack of cooperation. All criminals are cowards. They evade problems they do not feel strong enough to solve. We can see their cowardice apart from their crimes, in the way they face life. We can also see their cowardice in the crimes they commit. Criminals think they are courageous, but we should not be fooled in the same way. Crime is a coward's imitation of heroism. In striving for a fictitious goal of personal superiority, they like to believe they are heroes, but this is again a mistaken scheme of apperception, a failure of common sense. When they are found out, they think: “This time I wasn't quite clever enough, but next time I shall outwit them.” And if they do get away with it, they feel they have obtained their goal; they feel superior, admired and appreciated by their comrades.

We must disturb this common estimate of the criminal's courage and cleverness. Sometimes we must put the responsibility on the parents. If we trace back to the childhood of a criminal, we will usually find that the trouble began in his early family experiences. The environment itself did not count, but how the child misunderstood it, and no one was there by his side to explain it to him.

It is always a difficulty for the other children if one child in the family is especially prominent or gifted. Such a child gains most attention and the others feel discouraged and thwarted. They do not cooperate, because they wish to compete but do not have enough confidence.

When a child who lacks cooperation goes to school, we can notice it in his behavior on the very first day. He cannot make friends with the other children. He does not like the teacher, is inattentive, and does not listen to the lessons. If he is not treated with understanding, he can suffer a new setback.

Poverty also offers opportunities for a mistaken interpretation of life. A child from a poor family may meet social prejudice outside the home. His family suffers many deprivations, trials, and sorrows. Perhaps he has to earn money very early in life to help out his parents. Later, he comes across rich people who lead an easy life and can buy everything they want; and he feels they have no more right to indulgence than he has. It is not hard to understand why the number of criminals is so high in the big cities, where very noticeable extremes of poverty and luxury exist. No useful goal ever came from envy. A child in these circumstances can easily misunderstand, thinking that the way to superiority is to get money without working for it.

The feeling of inferiority can also be centered on an organic deficiency. I am a little guilty, on this point, of having paved the way for theories of heredity both in neurology and psychiatry. A child burdened with imperfect organs is interested only in himself, if nobody develops his interest in others.

A large proportion of orphans become criminals, and it seems to me a disgrace to our culture that we can not establish the spirit of cooperation in these orphans. Similarly, no one was present to win the affection of many illegitimate children and transfer it to their fellow beings. Unwanted children often take to criminal practices, especially if they know and feel that nobody wanted them. Also, among criminals, we often find ugly persons, which has been used as evidence of the importance of heredity. But think what it feels like to be an ugly child! He is at a great disadvantage. Perhaps he is a child of a race mixture that does not have attractive results, or that meets with social prejudice. If such a child is ugly, his whole life is overburdened; he does not possess what we all like so much, the charm and freshness of childhood. But all these children, if they were treated in the right way, could develop social interest.

Moreover, it is interesting to observe that we sometimes find unusually handsome boys and men among criminals. While the first type might be considered victims of bad hereditary traits, mixed together with physical stigmata, deformed hands, for example, or cleft palate, what are we to say of these handsome criminals? In reality, they have also grown up in a situation where it was difficult to develop social interest: they were pampered children. Criminals are divided into two types. The first type are does not know that there is fellow-feeling in the world and has never experienced it. Such a criminal has a hostile attitude to other people; his look is hostile and he regards everybody as an enemy; he has never been able to find appreciation. The other type is the pampered child; and I have frequently noticed, in the complaints of prisoners, that they assert: “The reason for my criminal career was that my mother pampered me too much!”

Such children lose the ability to struggle; they always want to have notice taken of them, and are always expecting something. If they do not find an easy way to satisfaction, they blame the environment for it.

The Roots Of The Criminal Pattern

Every personality is a kind of musical creation. If we have an ear for such things, we can hear in all its different expressions and movements a single unifying theme. The criminal has his own structure of personality and style of living. His crimes fit in with his general conception of life; they are part of the answer he gives to the problems which confront him. In one respect the theme of his personality is the same as everyone else's. We hear in it the human striving to overcome difficulties, to reach security and significance. But the criminal's striving for significance is limited and distorted. He lacks the ability to cooperate; he lacks interest in other people. Wherever he finds a problem which demands this interest in others for its solution, he throws himself into great tension. He feels incapable of solving it, since he has never been trained to solve such problems. The criminal's superiority exits only for himself and only in his own imagination. To deprive others is his idea of superiority.

The themes of the criminal and the neurotic personality are very much alike. In both the striving for importance is on the useless side of life. We can distinguish them in other ways readily enough. Unable to solve problems involving cooperation, and all the problems of life are of this kind, he still keeps a certain residue of activity. In comparison, the neurotic has completely withdrawn from activity. The criminal can join with others, but only with those whom he knows to be on the useless side. Thieves have gangs, but who has ever heard of a society of anxiety-neurotics? The criminal's sphere of attack is greater, but he is more openly hostile to society. The neurotic believes that he wishes to cooperate with others, but feels that he is not able. His attitude is: “I should like to be on the useful side, but...I do not know how to do it.” On the other hand, the criminal consciously refuses to cooperate. His attitude is: “Others are not decent to me; why should I be decent to them?” Also, a criminal consciously has a superiority complex. He thinks himself stronger, more heroic, more important than others, but underneath we shall always find feelings of inferiority and inadequacy, as if he could not succeed like other people. It is the opposite with a neurotic. He knows that he feels embarrassed and inferior in society; he knows that he feels worthless and inadequate, but he conceals from himself the goal of supremacy which underlies his style of living. With the criminal, as with the neurotic, we can do absolutely nothing, unless we succeed in winning his cooperation.

Our only remedy is to find out the block to cooperation which the criminal suffered in childhood. Here Individual Psychology has opened up the whole dark territory for us. We understand how important the skill of the mother is at this time. She can guide the development of all the desires and drives, the inherited abilities and disabilities of the child. Here, we see the first possibility of mistakes. If the mother is skillful, the situation for the child is very favorable. She must first of all relate the child properly to herself; interest him in her own person. If she is not able to train this interest, she will not be able to train him later in a wider cooperation. The extenuating circumstance for all criminals is that they have a certain degree of cooperation, but not sufficient for the demands of our social life; on this point the first responsibility rests with the mother.

The next step is to interest the child in the father. He is also an important part of the child's social world. But perhaps the mother does not want the child to be interested in anyone else. Perhaps she is unhappy in her marriage; the two parents do not agree; they are considering divorce, or they are jealous of each other. Perhaps, therefore, the mother wishes to keep the child all to herself, spoils him and pampers him and will not let him be independent of her. It is quite obvious how limited the development of cooperation will be in such circumstances.

Interest in other children is a further requirement for the development of social interest. Sometimes if one child is the mother's favorite, the other children are not very much inclined to include him in their friendship. When this circumstance is misunderstood, it can serve as the starting-point of a criminal career. If one boy in a family has outstanding gifts, the boy next to him is often a problem-child. The second son, for example, is often more amiable and charming, while his older brother feels deprived of his rights. It is easy for such a child to deceive and intoxicate himself with the feeling that he is neglected. He looks for evidence to prove that his reproach is true. His behavior becomes worse; he is treated with more severity; he finds confirmation for his belief that he is thwarted and put in a back place. Because he feels deprived, he begins to steal; he is found out and punished. Now he has still more testimony that he is not loved, and that other people are his enemies.

When parents complain of bad times and bad circumstances before their children, they can block the development of social interest. The same thing can happen if they often make accusations about their relatives or neighbors, always criticizing others and showing bad feeling and prejudice. It would be no wonder if the children grew up with a distorted view of what their fellowmen were like; nor should we be surprised if in the end they turned against their parents, too. Wherever social interest is blocked, only an egoistic attitude is left. The child feels: “Why should I do anything for other people?” and, as he cannot solve the problems of life in this frame of mind, he is bound to hesitate and look for an evasion, an easy way out. He finds it too difficult to struggle, and he does not feel concerned if he hurts others. It is warfare, and everything is fair in war!

Among criminals with whom I have been in contact, and in the descriptions of crime I have read in books and newspapers, I have tried to find the structure of the criminal personality; and I have always found that the key of Individual Psychology can give us an understanding of the circumstances. Let me choose a few further illustrations from an old German book by Anton von Feuerback, as I have often found the best descriptions of criminal psychology in old books.

Conrad K. murdered his father with the help of a servant. The father had neglected the boy, treated him cruelly, and mishandled the whole family. Once the boy struck back at him, and his father brought him before the courts. The judge said: “You have a wicked and quarrelsome father and I can see no way out.” Notice how the judge himself provided the boy with an excuse. The family tried in vain to find a remedy for their troubles. Confronted with a difficult problem, they were in despair. The father took a woman of bad reputation to live with him, and drove his son out of the house. The boy made the acquaintance of a day-laborer who had a passion for putting out hens' eyes. The laborer counseled him to kill his father. He hesitated because of his mother, but the situation went from bad to worse. After long deliberation, the son agreed and killed his father with the laborer’s help. Here we see how the son was not able to spread his social interest even to a father. He was still deeply related to his mother and esteemed her highly. Before he could override the remainder of his social interest, he needed to have extenuating circumstances suggested. It was only when he gained support from the day-laborer, with his passion for cruelty, that he could intoxicate himself into committing the crime.
Margaret Zwanziger, called the “famous poison murderess,” was a charity child, small and deformed in appearance. As Individual Psychologists would say, therefore stimulated to be vain and anxious to attract attention. She was grovelingly polite. After many adventures, which brought her nearly to despair, she tried three times to poison women in the hope of securing their husbands for herself. Feeling deprived, she could not think of any other way to “get her own back.” She pretended pregnancy, and attempted suicide in order to secure these men. In her autobiography (so many criminals delight in composing autobiographies) she writes, in unconscious agreement with the views of Individual Psychology, but unable to understand her statement: “Whenever I did anything wicked, I thought “No one is ever sorry for me; why should I worry if I make others sorry?'” Here she works up to the crime, drives herself on, and provides extenuating circumstances. It is a remark I often hear when I propose cooperation and interest in others: “But others don't show any interest in me!” My answer is always: “Somebody has to begin. If the others are not cooperative, it is not your affair. My advice is that you should begin, and not care whether the others are cooperative.”
N.L., oldest son, badly brought up, lame in one foot, took the role of father to his younger brother. We can recognize this, too, as a goal of superiority, until now probably on the useful side. Perhaps, however, it was pride and a desire to show off. Later on, he drove his mother out of the house to beg, saying: “Be off with you, you beast.” We can be sorry for this boy; he is not even interested in his mother. If we had known him as a child, we could have seen how he was developing toward a criminal career. Out of work for a long time, he had no money. He contracted a sexual disease. One day, on his way home from a futile
search for work, he killed his younger brother in order to gain control of his small income. Here we see the limits of his cooperation: no work, no money, a sexual disease. These circumstances always confront us.
A child was orphaned early and given over to a foster mother who spoiled him beyond belief. In this way, became a pampered child. He developed badly in later years and was very clever at business, constantly trying to impress everybody and wanting to be in front. His foster mother encouraged him and fell in love with him. He turned into a liar and a swindler, getting money whenever he could. His foster parents belonged to the lesser nobility: he put on aristocratic airs, squandered all their money and drove them out of their house. Bad training and pampering spoiled him for honest work. He saw his task in life as lying and cheating in order to overcome. This made everyone an enemy to be outwitted. His foster mother preferred him to her own children and to her husband. This treatment gave him the feeling that he had a right to everything, but his low estimate of himself was shown in the fact that he did not feel able to succeed by normal means.

We have pointed out already that there is no reason why any child should suffer from this discouragement, this deep inferiority feeling that it is useless to cooperate. No man need feel defeated before the problems of life. The criminal has chosen the wrong means; we must show him where he has chosen them and why. We must train him to have confidence, to be interested in others, and to cooperate. If it were fully recognized everywhere that crime is cowardice and not courage, I believe that the greatest self-justification would be taken away from criminals and no child would choose to train himself for crime in the future.

Prevention and Change

The criminal constantly prepares his thoughts and emotions for his criminal career. He plans during the day and he dreams during the night in an attempt to break down the last remnant of his social interest. He always looks for excuses and justifications, for extenuating circumstances and for reasons that “force” him to be a criminal. Piercing through the wall of social feeling is not easy; it offers great resistance. But if he is to commit a crime, he must find a way--perhaps through brooding over his wrongs or intoxication--to get rid of this hindrance. This helps us understand how he continuously interprets his circumstances in a way that will confirm his attitude; helps us understand, also, why we can achieve nothing by arguing with him. He sees the world with his own eyes, and he is prepared with a life-time of argument. Unless we can discover how his attitude developed, we cannot hope to change it. We possess one advantage however, in which he cannot compete: it is our interest in others, which allows us to seek the real way to help him.

When a criminal faces a difficulty, but lacks the courage to face it in a cooperative way, he looks for an easy solution by plotting a crime. He does this especially when he needs to make money. Like every human being, he looks for a goal of security and superiority.

He runs away from the conditions of labor and from the associated tasks of life. His training away from cooperation has genuinely added to his difficulties--the majority of criminals are unskilled laborers. By developing a cheap superiority complex, he hides his feeling of inadequacy.

We have the knowledge, and by now we have enough experience. I am convinced that Individual Psychology shows us how we could change every single criminal. But consider what work it would be to take each criminal and treat him so that we changed his style of life. Unfortunately, in our culture the majority of men would exhaust their ability to cooperate if their difficulties went beyond a certain point, and we find that in hard times the number of criminals always increases. I believe that to abolish crime in this way, we would have to treat a great part of the human race, and I am not sure that it would be practicable to have an immediate aim of making every criminal or potential criminal a fellowman.

We can do plenty, however. If we cannot alter every criminal, we can do something to relieve the burdens of those people who are not strong enough to cope with them. With regard to unemployment, for example, and the lack of occupational training and skill, we should make it possible for everyone who wants to work to secure a job. This would be the only way to lower the demands of our social life so that a great part of mankind would not lose the last remnant of their ability to cooperate. Unquestionably, if we did this, the number of criminals would decrease. Whether the time is ripe for this relief of our economic conditions, I do not know; but we should certainly work for this change. We should also train children better for their future occupation, so they can face life more successfully and with a greater sphere of activity. We can also do this in our prisons. To some extent, steps have already been taken in this direction, and perhaps all we need to do here is increase our efforts. While I do not believe it would be possible to give every criminal individual treatment, we could contribute much by a mass treatment. I propose, for instance, that we have discussions with a great number of criminals on the social problems, exactly as I have described them in these lectures. We should question them and let them answer; we should enlighten their minds and waken them from their life-long dream; we should free them from the intoxication of a private interpretation of the world and so low an opinion of their own possibilities; we should teach them not to limit themselves, and diminish their fear of the situations which they must encounter. I am very sure that we could achieve great results from such mass treatment.

We should also avoid in our social life everything which can act as an obstacle to the criminal or to poor and destitute people. Great extremes of poverty and luxury lead those who are badly off to become overwhelmed. We should therefore diminish ostentation. There should never be sensational headlines in the newspapers. It would be much better if we were more silent, did not mention the names of criminals, or give them so much publicity. This attitude of providing recognition needs changing. We should not believe that either severe or mild treatment can change a criminal. He can be changed only if he understands his own situation better. Of course we should be humane; we should not imagine that criminals can be terrified by the thought of capital punishment. Capital punishment sometimes only adds to the excitement of the game, and even when criminals are electrocuted, they might think only of the mistakes through which they were caught.

It would be very helpful if we increased our efforts to discover those who were responsible for crimes. As far as I can see, at least forty percent of criminals, and perhaps far more, escape detection; this fact is always at the back of the criminal’s mistaken view. Almost every criminal has experienced occasions when he committed crimes and was not found out. On some of these points, we have already improved and we are going in the right direction. It is also important that criminals should not be humiliated or provoked either in the prison itself or after they leave prison. An increase in the number of probation officers would be useful, if the right type of man is chosen; these officers should be enlightened on the problems of society and the importance of cooperation.

We could accomplish a great deal by these methods. We would still not be able, however, to decrease the number of crimes as much as we wish. Fortunately we have another means, and it is very practicable and successful. If we could train our children to cooperate sufficiently, if we could develop social interest in them, the number of criminals would diminish considerably, and the effects of crime would decrease in the near future. These children could not later be incited or allured. Whatever troubles or difficulties they met in life, their interest in others would not be wholly destroyed. Their ability to cooperate and to satisfactorily solve the problems of life would be much higher than in our own generation.

The only question that remains is how to choose the best point of attack, what method will develop children so they can stand the tasks and problems of later life. One practical way promises a real solution. We can make teachers the instruments of social progress by training them to correct mistakes made in the family, to develop and spread social interest of the children toward others. This is an entirely natural development of the school. Because the family is not able to bring up the children for all the tasks of later life, mankind has established schools as the prolonged arm of the family. Why should we not use the schools in this way? Why should we not use the schools to make mankind more sociable, more cooperative, and more interested in human welfare?

This is not merely an idea. Out of this proposal Individual Psychology has made a method. We have established Advisory Councils in the schools where teachers can discuss with an expert the problems of the children in their class, where they are taught how to influence, understand and help the children. Rather than burden the teacher, the Council lightens his task. This is not a burden for the teachers; this is a lightening of his task. He can learn how to help a child in half an hour instead of being bothered by him for a year. This interesting collaboration increases the importance, prominence and value of the teacher. have been doing this work for more than fifteen years. The children improve, the teachers are happy, and the parents are pleased with the results.

Our activity must be based upon the following ideas which I will summarize. All the advantages we enjoy in our present culture have been made possible by the efforts of people who have contributed. If individuals have not been cooperative, have not been interested in others, have made no contribution to the whole, their whole life has been futile, they have disappeared and left no trace behind them. Only the work of those people who have contributed survives. Their spirit continues. If we make this the basis for teaching children, they will grow to have a natural liking for cooperative work. They will not weaken in the face of difficulties, but be strong enough to face the worst of them, and solve them for the common good.

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