Cognitions are the third “C” in the conceptualization of the criminal lifestyle. Specifically, cognitions refer to the thinking style that we develop in response to the early conditions we experience, or are exposed to, as well as the choices we make in relation to these conditions. Cognitions are, fundamentally, the foundation of all behavior, criminal or noncriminal (at least if you are a cognitive therapist!). Therefore, it is important to view how individuals think as the foundation of their overall lifestyle. With respect to offenders, their thinking patterns are, at root, inter-related to what is viewed as a criminal lifestyle.
And, in fact, what is being addressed in these posts is a lifestyle, the “career criminal” if you will. But it is even more than that, as so often criminality is conceptualized, either from a psychological, sociological, legal, etc. perspective, as a unitary construct. With respect to the lifestyle criminal, however, the choices and cognitions that dominate their interaction with the world, whether directly related to the commission of a crime or not, are generally criminal in nature. In other words, even if the lifestyle criminal is not committing a crime per se, the thinking and choices they make (from how they treat family members, to work habits, etc.) are determined from a pattern of criminal thinking and decision-making. This is why even a term like “career criminal” is inadequate; it suggests that a criminal’s actions are limited to the area of “employment.” In reality, the lifestyle criminal’s choices and cognitions impact most, if not all, areas of their life.
It is important to note that what is being referred to here is the true lifestyle criminal. An individual who has engaged in an isolated incident of criminality should not be labeled a lifestyle criminal. However, in these cases it is likely that, even if the thinking that led to the commission of the crime is not pervasive, it was present prior to/during the commission of the offense. In these cases, though, the criminal thinking was not simply part of the individual’s general pattern of functioning. It is even possible to have the aforementioned “career criminal,” though again, the criminal thinking patterns will be more prevalent than in the case of the isolated incident, and will also be more likely to “spill over” into other areas of the career criminal’s life.
With regard to these observations of various levels of criminal activity, it is important to note, that even with lifestyle criminals, the degree of criminality may be viewed on a continuum. While in treatment we do not rate various crimes on a continuum (for reasons cited here), but it is necessary to be aware that anyone is capable of exhibiting a criminal thinking pattern, even if it does not lead to a criminal behavior. No one, even the most “honest” among us, is “off of the continuum” (if you’ve ever justified or rationalized driving five miles over the speed limit, raise your hand!). What is important to note, however, is that the frequency and intensity of the criminal thinking is so much higher for the lifestyle criminal, and the resulting behaviors so much more egregious (again in terms of frequency and intensity) that there is, ultimately, a fundamental difference between the lifestyle criminal and those in the general population. The focus of treatment is often on the lifestyle criminal, because even though they may not make up a particularly large section of the population, or even the offender population, they certainly leave the greatest wake of criminal, interpersonal, etc. damage. In addition, addressing the criminal choices and cognitions of the offenders who are not lifestyle criminals is still a requisite part of their treatment, and so the constructs will be the same, even if the application may differ somewhat.
Next up - definitions and examples of specific criminal thinking errors, and how they impact offender behavior.