Impulse Control & Crime by Christopher G. Moore

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Two unrelated Thailand crime stories shared a common theme this week—impulsive, violent behavior. In one case, a sixty-two year old mother confessed to the police that she had shot he daughter dead with a .38cal handgun. The killing occurred in the bedroom of the family house, and was, according to the mother, caused by her sudden anger over her daughter’s outstanding debts totaling a million and a half baht. According to the Thai press reports, after killing her daughter, the mother said that she turned the gun on herself, fired but missed.

In the second case, a 26 year-old katoey had gone on a surprise visit to her lover but he wasn’t at home. Frustrated on her return, at 5.30 a.m. she came across a paralyzed 72 year-old grannie. The katoey told police she felt an irresistible urge to have sex and was also drunk at the time. The katoey’s attempted rape of the grannie was interrupted when the grannie involuntarily evacuated her bowels.

The sudden impulse of the killer mother and drunk rapist katoey propelled them to commit violent criminal acts. The killer mother told the police that she’d been overcome by a-rom chua-woop or a sudden impulse to explain her action. My Thai sources tell me this phrase is commonly found in local crime reports.

To what degree are cultural issues useful to understand psychological conditions?

The criminal justice system, whether in the West or the East, often faces offenders who claim a mental disorder. The way we process reality and control our impulses, at least in part, have a cultural foundation. How the Chinese and Thais view of gambling as part of their culture, will translate into the attitudes that people and authorities have towards casinos, lotteries, and slot-machines. There are two related issues: mental disorders such as impulse control and cognitive traps or illusions which handicap rational choices. In other words, we can be irrational over a range of activities; some of those activities involve crimes.

Starting with the cognitive process, Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow divides our thinking self, the one that reacts, contemplates, considers what someone has said or done, an event caused by man or by nature, or the thousand and one small decisions we make everyday such as where to have lunch, hitting the ‘like’ option on FaceBook, choosing a movie to watch or book to read. This is fast thinking for many. This is representative of System 1 thinking that happens in an instant.

System 1 is our automatic, auto-pilot decision-making process which requires little or no deliberation such as when we see 2 + 2 = (  ). Leaving aside the political implication of Orwell’s 1984, we don’t have to think; we ‘know’ the answer is 4. System 2 is a deliberative, slowed down decision-making; it is hard, takes up time and mental resources and most people avoid it in favor of the easy-rider feeling of System 1.  A System 2 example is 29 x 347 = (  ). There are people for whom this is a System 1 equation but for most of us, we have to do sums  and make a calculation. Or open the calculator app on our computer or cellphone to come up with the answer: 10063.

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System 1 Thinking

Both System 1 and System 2 are normal tools we apply throughout our day. The first is unconsciously decision-making, and the second is conscious, calibrated decision-making. There is another system that is pathological, and considered a psychological disorder—Impulse Control Disorder. It is a psychological disorder listed in the 4th Edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The lack of impulse control unleashes aggressive conduct that features in many areas of criminal behavior. The offender either easily loses control or lacks control over his emotions. Law enforcement officers are called to the scene of a crime to confront someone who has destroyed property, physically assaulted or killed another whose resorted to violence or aggression. Other criminal areas where this type of offender turns up is theft, gambling and arson.

A person with such a personality is often called, in the West, a ‘hot-head’ or in Thai jai rong (‘hot heart’). Though the mental condition may be something a person chooses. Some scientists have traced the disorder to neurological and environmental causes. Others are more skeptical as to the underlying cause found in mood disorders, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, substance abuse and personality disorders. “It can become clinically difficult to disentangle them from one another, with the result that the impulsivity at the core of the disorders is obscured.”

A person with this disorder usually blames the victim for doing something to cause the act of violence. It is rare such a person would accept responsibility. They believe they were right in their response and feel no guilt for the suffering or harm they’ve caused.  People with this disorder are disproportionally represented in domestic violence and rape cases. They lose control and in an irrational mental state harm others.

Criminal charges and penalties often are determined by whether the crime was ‘planned’ or ‘premeditated’ as opposed to impulsive or spontaneous. The difference between a hit man and a wife killer often turns on judging whether the offender had planned the murder or it was an explosive, irrational act.

We hold people who plan and use logic to commit a crime more blame worthy. These are the System 2 deliberate thinking criminals who calculate the odds of the crime, weigh the risk against the benefits, and contemplate the optimal time to strike. Our criminal laws reflect an assumption that people who are planners are more easily deterred by a heavy penalty. Conversely, as manslaughter counts indicate, there is an assumption that someone with an impulse control disorder, wasn’t in full control of himself and wouldn’t have been deterred.

While the death penalty might deter the planners it will be useless to stop those with a personality disorder, where logical, rational thinking is disabled. These assumptions take us into the realm of ‘free will’, ‘self-control’ and ‘personality disorders.’ The authorities select out those whose crimes are the of ‘unplanned’ and ‘spontaneous’ behavior as suffering from decreased responsibility for their acts.

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There are limitations on this analysis in Asia where culture is a factor in assessing what in the West is viewed as a personality disorder. For example, there was a 2008 study of Thai lottery gamblers. One group was guided by superstitious methods such as obtaining a ‘lucky’ number from a temple or divining a number by dripping candle wax into water. The other group didn’t report using superstitious methods. The use of superstition was found to increase the probability of the ‘gambler’s fallacy’, creating an illusion of predictability and control. The study indicates that one shouldn’t assume that cognitive problems and psychological disorders, as defined in the West, are applicable in places like Thailand.

The System 2 type of thinking also has a large cultural component reflected in the educational system. Hard or difficult thinking is nurtured in schools and universities where critical thinking is valued and promoted. Rote learning is a way to reinforce System 1 automatic thinking. This isn’t to suggest that System 1 translates into impulse control disorder. They are different concepts and involved different mental processes as well as different underlying causes. Where a culture promotes superstition, magical-thinking, and prophecy, people educated in that culture will have an increased probability of failing to recognize circumstances where their beliefs have created cognitive illusions. That way of thinking colors the approach to impulsive control disorders. The way of dealing with the disorder is less based on science than on the belief that non-scientific exorcism will solve the problem.

The next time you read one of the ‘strange’ crime stories from another country, you may have stumbled upon an example of why it is strange to you. The way thinking is taught, rewarded, honored is different, and the way of dealing with mental disorders reflects a different way of thinking. In Thailand, should you encounter someone in the throes of a-rom chua-woop, clear away the knives and guns, hide your daughters and grannies, and quickly run for the exit. You won’t have much time.

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