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Teaching the Right Thinking Skills Can Reduce Crime

Why do people commit crimes over and over? This is a complex question with a complex answer, but experts know that errors in a person's thinking are a key factor in criminal behavior. The connection makes sense if you think about it. For example, if someone feels cheated by the world, they might be more willing to ignore the law and simply take what they want. That's just one example of how a certain mindset can lead to crime.

Google “criminogenic needs” and you will learn that antisocial values and beliefs contribute to criminal behavior. Where do those beliefs and values come from? Well, life experience can be a factor. So can a person's peer group and family. But, the way a person thinks is still a major risk factor for criminal behavior.

Erroneous thinking leads some people to feel entitled or persecuted or both. Those feelings produce a warped perception of reality, which inevitably leads to some flawed decision making. A degree of paranoia might develop. Innocent behaviors become a threat to a person's safety or self-esteem. Whispered conversations are part of a conspiracy to spread lies. A sense of entitlement can make a person take something they need, because they deserve it. The individual might feel entitled to steal some money from their employer because society has made it impossible for them to earn a great living honestly. Values and beliefs aren't easy to change, especially for people who don't recognize that a change is in order.

Solutions exist though. The key here is introduce a system for thinking about thinking, then use it to adopt new beliefs. You may be familiar with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which we've posted about before. A few months of CBT-based counseling can help a patient understand how they think, challenge their thinking, and change it. Researchers have found that CBT is promising but not proven.

Counseling is one approach to helping people overcome their destructive thinking patterns, but simple training in how to think more effectively might also work. Correctional facilities are using a program called Enhancing Thinking Skills (ETS), which is a British program that's been tested on medium- and high-risk male and female inmates. The National Institute of Justice describes Enhanced Thinking Skills as a “cognitive-behavioral skill program” that focuses on impulse control, flexible thinking, values, moral reasoning, critical reasoning, “social perspective taking”, and interpersonal problem solving. The ETS program uses a stages-of-change model that will be familiar to most anyone who works in counseling. Peer-reviewed research suggests that it does work.

In summary then, it looks like cognitive-behavioral techniques can help offenders overcome the erroneous thinking that leads them to have values and beliefs that make criminal behavioral acceptable.

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