Theories of Cognition
Yolchelson and Samenow, Kohlberg,
Gudjohnsson and Bownes.
The theory of cognition.
• The basic assumption with
cognition is that criminals think in a
fundamentally different way to law-
abiding citizens. They must be able
to rationalise their own behaviours
and decide that the risks involved
are worth the possible gains.
• The biggest problem here is that
we can never accurately know
what another person is thinking.
Yolchelson and Samenow
A study of thinking patterns in
• The evidence base for criminal thinking patterns
as been heavily influenced by the work of two
doctors working with criminals in a mental
• Yolchelson and Samenow profiled and
counselled male offenders using psychodynamic
• To understand the make up of the criminal
• To establish techniques that could be used to
alter the personality disorders that produce
• To encourage an understanding of legal
• To establish techniques that an be effective in
preventing criminal behaviour.
• 255 male participants.
• From a variety of backgrounds; black, white,
inner cities, suburbs, wealthy, poor, etc.
• They were all evaluated.
• Composed of those confined to the hospital and
had been found guilty of their crimes because of
• Another group of roughly equal numbers who
were not confined to the institution.
• Most dropped out of the study, with only 30
• Longitudinal study over 14 years.
• A series of interviews conducted over 7 years.
• According to the results, criminals:
– Are restless, dissatisfied and irritable.
– While at school, considered requests from their
teachers and parents as impositions.
– Continually set themselves apart from others.
– Want to live a life of excitement, at any cost.
– Are habitually angry.
– Lack empathy.
– Feel under no obligation to anyone to anything except
their own interests.
– Are poor at responsible decision making, having pre-
judged the situation.
• Yolchelson and Samenow suggest that criminals
have quite distinct and erroneous thinking
patterns which differentiate from non-criminals.
• They further suggest that offenders have
cognitive processes which lead to a distorted
self-image and result not only in crime but in a
denial of responsibility.
Findings: The criminal personality:
• They described the criminal personality as being
categorised by 40 thinking errors which fall into 3
– Criminal thinking patterns; characterised by fear
and a need for power and control. A search for
perfection, lying and inconsistencies in thinking.
– Automatic thinking errors; A lack of empathy and
trust. A failure to accept obligations and a perception
of themselves as the victim.
– Crime related thinking errors; optimistic fantasising
about specific criminal acts with no regard to
• Criminals are essentially in control of their lives
and their criminality is the result of choices made
from an early age.
• Criminals are not necessarily impulsive, they
have planned and fantasised about their actions
and it is these thinking patterns that need to be
confronted and treated.
Note to consider:
• As stated earlier, of the 255 participants, most
dropped out of the study, with only 30
completing the whole series of interviews.
• It was also noted that only 9 genuinely changed
as a result of the study.
• No control group
– It is difficult to say that the identified thinking patterns just belong
• Social desirability
– Interviewing participants could lead to them lying and giving
answers that they believe make them seem less or more of a
– A wide range of backgrounds means that it can be applied to a
wider range of criminals.
– Only 30 out of 255 completed the study
– Gender bias
– Only used convicts that pleaded insanity.
– An all male sample
• Free will vs Determinism
– Your thinking patterns make you a criminal
• Morals are a set of norms and values, usually
learnt from our parents about what is right and
• In the UK, the age of criminal responsibility is 10
as it is this age where they are deemed to
clearly know the difference between right and
• Kohlberg was heavily influenced by the work of
Piaget and believed that childrens cognition
developed in stages.
The Heinz Dilemma:
• Heinz’s wife was suffering from terminal cancer.
In an effort to save her, he went to a chemist
who had developed a cure which might help her.
Unfortunately, the chemist wanted much more
money for his cure than Heinz could afford and
refused to sell it for any less. Even when Heinz
borrowed enough money for half the cost of the
drug, the chemist still refused to sell it to him.
Having no other means of getting the drug,
Heinz broke into the laboratory and stole it….
Think about it….
• Should Heinz have broken into the lab? Why?
• Should the chemist have insisted on the inflated
price for his invention? Does he have the right?
• What should happen to Heinz?
• What if Heinz did not love his wife? Does that
• What if the dying person was a stranger? Should
he have stolen the drug then?
• The Heinz dilemma is one of Kohlberg’s main
dilemma which he showed to his participants to
ask questions such as these too.
• Discuss your answers with the class, how do
• To find evidence in support of progression
through stages of moral development.
• 58 working and middle class boys from Chicago.
• Aged 7, 10, 13 and 16 years.
• Each boy was given a 2 hour interviews with 10
different dilemmas that they had to solve. Some
of the boys were followed up at 3 yearly intervals
until the age of 30-36.
• This made it a longitudinal study.
Findings- Morality stages:
Stage 1 Punishment and obedience-
Doing what is right because of fear of
Stage 2 Hedonistic orientation- Doing
what is right for personal gain, perhaps a
Stage 3 Interpersonal concordance-
Doing what is right according to the
Stage 4 Law and order orientation- Doing
what is right because it is your duty and
Stage 5 Social contract- Doing what is
morally right even if it is against the law
Stage 6 Universal ethical principles-
Doing what is right because of our inner
• Younger boys tended to perform at stages 1 and
2 with older boys at 3 and 4. This suggests
support for development through stages.
• These patterns were consistent in the cross-
cultural studies, although progression was
slower in industrialised societies.
• No support was found for stage 6 in this sample,
Kohlberg later revised his reviews and agreed
that there may not be a separate stage 6.
• The evidence does support the idea of a stage
theory and the idea that people commit crimes
because they lack moral reasoning.
• More recent research by Thornton and Reid with
criminal samples suggest that criminals
committing crime for financial gain show more
immature reasoning than those committing
– Gender bias
– Social desirability as not wanting to be seen as
– A 2 hour interviews on young boys- 7- may lead to
demand characteristics as they get bored and start to
give answers for the sake of it.
Gudjohnnson and Bownes
The attribution of blame and type of
• We all justify and explain our behaviours using either
internal or external attributions.
• An internal attribution is when a person accepts full
responsibility for their own behaviour and sees the cause
as being within themselves.
• An external attribution is when a person sees the cause
of their behaviour as being an external factor- “I was
provoked, it’s his fault I hit him.”
• A criminal is considered rehabilitated when they can fully
accept responsibility for their crime and accept their guilt.
• To examine the relationship between the type of
offence and the attributions offenders make
about their criminal acts.
• 80 criminals who were serving sentences in
• Divided into groups;
– The first 20 had committed violent offences including
homicide and GBH- mean age 29.
– The second group had 40 sex offenders including
rapists, paedophiles and sexual assault- mean age
– The final group of 20 committed property offences
including theft and burglary. Mean age 29.
• All asked to fill out a 42 item Blame Attribution
Results- Mean scores on GBAI:
Violence 8.1 5.3 5.8
Sexual 12.7 5.7 2.4
Property 5.5 .0 3.0
• Those who committed sexual offences showed more
remorse about their behaviour, this was followed by
those who had committed violent acts against a person.
• Very little difference was found in the mental element
scores for all offenders.
• With external attribution, the highest scores were found
for violent offenders and the lowest for sexual offenders.
• When comparing the English findings from this study
with violent Irish prisoners, the Irish violent prisoners
showed a lower mental element, lower guilt and higher
external attribution scores.
• The findings show a strong consistency with
earlier findings across the offender groups,
suggesting that there is a strong consistency in
the way offenders attribute blame for their
crimes across the two countries.
• The only real difference was in the violent
prisoners which may have resulted from the
violent prevalent in Northern Ireland.