CT Group Tip: How vs. Why

CT TipsAs a general rule in criminal thinking group settings, I stay away from asking “why” questions. “Why” questions usually lead to excuses and additional criminal thinking errors. Asking, “how” or “what” questions is a good rule of thumb.

  1. How is the thinking error we just read harmful?
  2. How have you used the thinking error in the last 24 hours?
  3. What part of the article made sense to you?
  4. How can you use this information to change?
  5. What are some good ways you can deter this thinking error?
  6. How has this thinking error been harmful in your life?
  7. What has the ripple effect of this thinking error been in your life?

Be ready for someone to say they can’t relate to the thinking error. Or they may say it doesn’t make sense or they don’t have this problem. Instead of trying to convince them that they have the error or getting into a power struggle, I would say,

“Wow, this is exactly why this group is important. Everyone has these thinking errors at one or another time in their life so if you can’t see it you are in the right place!”  

I would then ask,“Would you like to know how you have used this error in thinking?” If they say, “no,” I would point the type of error in that thinking, closed channel thinking, and use it as an example of why the group is important to the change process. On the other hand, if they say “yes, I would like to know how I have used it,” I would ask other group members to give an example of how this group member has used the error, and/or give them the assignment to figure it out for themselves by the next group session.

What have you done to help facilitate conversation in criminal-thinking type groups? Visit our website resource pages for ideas and free worksheet assignments related to all the major thinking errors: http://criminalthinking.net/CT/materials.ashx


Effort Vs. Energy

Effort vs EnergyUnderstanding lack of effort as a criminal thinking error involves first defining it in relation to activity and energy. The criminal thinker has unlimited ‘energy’ for the activities they are interested in pursuing. However, they lack effort for activities that they consider boring, unexciting or uninteresting. An effort is the use of energy to complete distasteful tasks. It can often be heard in treatment settings that if the client would spend half as much time working on their goals as they did on complaining about things, they would be well on their way to success.

The criminal thinker expends an enormous amount of energy in self-destructive ways. They will fantasize for hours about how to make their next big score or how to ‘get over’ on someone. They will run around looking for a ‘quick fix’ without regard to time, inconvenience or consequence. But, when they begin the process of changing new activities like going back to school or working a regular job is as psychologically painful as a trip to the dentist! Rationalizations, excuses and mental diversions run rampant in the mind which seeks the enjoyment of another adventure in insanity. The “I can’t” attitude is prevalent in this thinking error and repeatedly surfaces when there is an unwillingness to endure adversity.

A natural deterrent to this destructive error in thinking is to first identify the excuses as they appear and then cognitively challenge them one by one.  Group therapeutic work is valuable when peers can point out the errors in each other and at the same time relate it to themselves. During the early stages of the change process, the changing thinker will often complain of fatigue. Mental fatigue is the result of angry, power-oriented thinking and self-pity. As angry and controlling thoughts are reduced, fatigue is diminished.

Progress for the changing criminal involves assessing the consequences of their lack of effort as well. When working low-paying job results in thoughts of quitting, the videotape of life must be played through to see the eventual consequences of that action. The serenity prayer can help keep effort in proper perspective.

Serenity Prayer
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.

The changing criminal thinker needs to remember that the continued use of effort will build a responsible life. Thinking change is a building process. The more one pushes to do the difficult, the easier it will become to endure and succeed.

Access our free “Lack of Effort” worksheet on CriminalThinking.net.


Injuries Unseen

Injuries UnseenCriminal thinking is a consistent pattern of distorted thinking errors that result in irresponsible and arrestable behavior. One of the most common errors in thinking is the failure to consider the injury to others.

As a general rule, criminal thinkers do not consider the effect of their actions on others. Brief moments of guilt or remorse are quickly replaced with feelings of being a victim themselves or self-righteousness for the harm they have caused. When offenders express what appears to be sincere regret, careful examination will show that these overtures are typically used to tell others what they want to hear.  They are sorrier they were caught than remorseful for the harm they have caused by their actions.

Congruent with failing to consider the injury to others, criminal thinkers also don’t consider themselves bad people. The drug dealer will argue he isn’t forcing anyone to buy drugs. The drug addict will claim she isn’t hurting anyone but herself. The domestic abuser will say he didn’t mean to hurt anyone and the thief will say she has to make a living and insurance will cover it anyway.  When criminal thinkers heed the advice of A.A.’s fourth step and take a searching and fearless moral inventory and honestly think about the injury they have caused, they begin to change their distorted sense of positive self-worth. They can then more accurately conclude that they are a victimizer more than a victim and have deeply harmed others.

Replacing the thinking error of failing to consider the injury to others involves becoming aware of the full impact of abusive and criminal behavior.  It is important that one not only look at legally defined criminal behavior, but also examine irresponsible actions such as lying, deceit, conning, game playing, vindictiveness, and other tactics. For lasting change to occur it is essential that criminal thinkers go beyond immediate injury and consider the “ripple effect.”  For example, in the case of property theft, consideration should be made regarding the crime’s affect on the business owner’s attitude, feelings, friends, and family. The affect on the offender’s attitude, friends and family should also be explored along with the ripple affect of the crime in relation to property values, feelings of safety, insurance rates, and a host of other consequences. The purpose of this activity is to aid the criminal thinker in developing, expanding and sustaining a moral conscience. Guilt is only of value if it is used to change undesirable behavior and develop a sensitive, well-formed conscience. Criminal thinkers do have a conscience but render it inoperative through repeated patterns of corrosion and cutoff. Feelings of guilt and remorse are corroded and thoughts about the impact of their behavior is cut off. Regularly and thoughtfully contemplating injury to others helps redevelop the criminal conscience and strengthens it for deterring insensitive and criminal acts in the future.

Offenders, addicts, and even the taxpaying public can benefit from understanding and deterring the thinking errors we all possess at different moments in time throughout our lives. True freedom begins in the mind.


2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper staff prepared a 2011 annual report for the CriminalThinking.net blog.

New Year Stats

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,900 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 48 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.


The Power of Control

Power ThrustThe criminal thinker does not achieve satisfaction from using power responsibly. The responsible use of power is not exciting enough! In treatment programs, when an offender’s thinking or behavior is challenged, the automatic response is to attempt to exert control over the situation. This attempt to gain control and divert attention away from oneself is called a ‘power thrust.’  A power thrust is by definition an irresponsible and harmful thinking choice. Criminal thinkers will regularly fall back on this thinking tactic whether or not there is something to be gained from the situation. Manipulating others and putting oneself in a position of authority comes naturally to the criminal thinker and extends to every aspect of their lives including social, emotional, work, play, sex, crime, financial and even in their views of religion. Religious leaders are typically viewed as con men or fools by criminal thinkers and participation in religious activities is performed as a means to a financial or socially manipulative end.

Conquest predominates the criminal thinkers relationships and sexual thought. Sex is not seen as a form of intimacy but rather as another form of power, conquest, and control. Grandiose thoughts of being the boss, a king or the top dog pervade this error in thinking.  To the criminal thinker ‘leading others’ means controlling or dominating others which is why they often have difficulty in a legal work situation. A compelled need to be in control of every situation is a succinct definition of power and control thinking.

In order to begin the arduous task of replacing power and control oriented thinking with the responsible use of power, the offender must first realize the extent of his or her search for power and control. The numerous avenues that control are exerted over others, and its negative ripple effects must be painstakingly reviewed. The criminal thinker must begin to see that they do not have the right or ability to responsibly control people. In addition, leadership must begin to be seen as a form of servanthood and responsibility. Legitimate power brings with it new problems and burdens. Situations that used to be seen as opportunities to exert control should be viewed as avenues for service to others. Developing the habit of putting oneself in another’s shoes will also help to deter power and control oriented thinking which is critical to the thinking change process.

Access our free “Power Thrust” worksheet on CriminalThinking.net.


Unique and Superior

UniquenessA common perception among criminal thinkers is the idea that they are different and better than others. Even when a criminal is repeatedly arrested for a violation, their ‘uniqueness’ in thinking leads them to believe that it won’t happen to them again. Common sense would dictate that if I am arrested multiple times for the same situation I should learn from those arrests and stop violating the law. However, uniqueness dictates that I am better than the average person who gets arrested and I can still beat the system.

Instead of using the arrest as a wake-up call to lead a responsible life, criminal thinkers see it as a violation of their personal space and freedom. Even when they are caught in the act of committing a crime they focus on the feigned brutality of the police or the lack of responsibility of their victim. I have heard it said by an offender that “if she would have held on to her purse tighter it wouldn’t have been stolen. I was doing her a favor by taking it so she will be more aware of her own personal safety.” In this scenario, the victim is to blame and the offender is providing a public service! It is no surprise that repeat offenders with this type of thinking continue to fill our jails and prisons.

The language criminal thinkers use to describe situations also flows from distorted thinking. Instead of an offender saying that they did something wrong that harmed others, they will say they got “caught up.” This type of language cognitively minimizes the role they played in the situation. Criminal thinkers believe the rules of society do not pertain to them and they think they are fully justified in their irresponsible actions. Self-esteem is not something the criminal thinker lacks.

Uniqueness is also a personal belief in the offender’s superiority which dominates their thinking. They do not believe they need to work hard to attain success. Even when a criminal thinker is experiencing the dreaded, but fleeting, zero-state of thinking, i.e. a feeling of complete worthlessness, their belief that no one has felt as down or depressed as they have is another example of the uniqueness thinking error.

The changing thinker must begin to see the commonalities they share with others. When others are sharing their own thoughts and problems they must listen and relate those stories to their own life. Feelings of uniqueness must be looked at from the natural consequences that have resulted in an offenders life. The healthy opposite of uniqueness is seeing how we are similar to others and not superior. The development of humility is a natural deterrent to thoughts of uniqueness and superiority. By replacing the thinking error of uniqueness the changing person will begin to develop a sense of belonging in a responsible society.

Access our free “Uniqueness” worksheet on CriminalThinking.net.


Fear Factor

Fear FactorOur stereotypical view of a “hardened” criminal is that they are fearless. Criminals are portrayed in the media, and often in movies, as callous, reckless, quick-tempered, ready to fight and angry. In reality, criminal thinkers have many fears. The primary fear is actually a fear of fear itself. Admitting fears would mean that the criminal would have to acknowledge they are not in control which is antithetical to their of view themselves and their way of life. Criminals have a compelled need to be in control of every situation including their emotions. In their mind, allowing fear to be present would mean they are vulnerable, weak and out of control.

In order to remove fear, the automatic response of a criminal thinker is anger.  Anger and bravado is a common mask for fear and the criminal thinker will go to many lengths to hide fears that are always bubbling under the surface. Fear of being put down or belittled is one of the most common observable fears in a criminal. Turning the other cheek is not an option for the fragile ego of an offender. Enduring putdowns reduces the fragile perception of themselves as all-powerful and in control. Since the criminals distorted self-perception is based on the illusion of being powerful and in control, being put down is an affront to their very existence.

A criminal lifestyle is filled with danger and the risk of being detected so the emotion of fear is regularly cut off or stifled. Alcohol and drugs are commonly used to reduce feelings of fear. Many rapes, robberies, and assaults happen under the influence of drugs since those chemicals reduce one’s natural inhibitions and fears that would normally deter the crime from happening in the first place. Cutting off and corroding fear does not mean it is not present. Cutting off fear is a distorted thinking habit that results in the continued victimization of others and ongoing risky behavior. If a criminal allowed him or herself to be influenced by their fears they would find it increasingly difficult to continue committing crimes, violating others and using or selling drugs.  For this reason, it is critical that the criminal thinker begin altering their thinking habits and beliefs about fear.

Fear is a natural emotion that results from the logical assessment of a risky situation. Instead of cutting off or reducing feelings of fear, the changing criminal must use fear as a guide.  That uneasy feeling we have just before doing something wrong is natures way of warning us to reconsider what we are about to do. When a criminals self-worth begins to shift away from distorted ideas of power, control, and superiority, fear will become more of an ally than an opponent.

Access our free “Fear of Fear” worksheet on CriminalThinking.net.


Objects to Possess

Under New OwnershipIn school, children learn the difference between a noun and a verb. Most of us will easily recall the grade school mantra of a noun as a ‘person, place or thing.’ For the criminal thinker, the definition attributed to the noun takes on a new and more distorted meaning.  Criminal thinkers perceive people, places and things as objects to possess. They have little to no regard for the ownership rights of others and minimize or ignore the negative ripple effect of their behavior.

Counselors regularly hear examples of this ‘ownership attitude’ in therapy groups when offenders describe their crimes of theft. They believe they have the right to take things that don’t belong to them because they “have to make a living somehow.” They fantasize about the big score and plan out in detail how they will “get their money.” Once they take an object or steal money they consider it theirs. Some will even go as far as to make a report to the police if the stolen money is stolen from them! This type of double standard is unwittingly played out in many areas of a criminal life. A criminal thinker will steal for a living but complain when something is stolen from them. They will belittle and decry the crimes of a sex offender, but minimize or ignore the hundreds of victims they have created themselves. They point out the inconsistencies and unfairness of probation and parole rules while breaking their own promises and the rules of a civilized society.

The attitude of ownership extends far beyond money and goods. Criminal thinkers also view other people, and especially sexual partners, as property. This type of thinking is codified into well-known rules of engagement for many outlaw biker gangs. Biker gangs are well known for their abuse of women. In some gangs, women are actually bought, sold and traded which is the epitome of an ownership attitude.

Changing an ownership oriented pattern of thinking involves discovering the consequences of ownership-oriented behavior. Crimes of theft need to be examined for the negative ripple effects they cause in the lives of victims and the also the victimizer. The criminal thinker must begin to look through the eyes of their victims and contemplate the injury they have caused others in their lives. Victim awareness must become a new habit in the life of the changing thinker. Ownership thinking creates endless examples of the double standards prevalent in a criminal’s life. Changing this way of thinking will result in a single standard of respect and acknowledgment of the human rights we all possess.

Access our free “Ownership Attitude” worksheet on CriminalThinking.net.


The Solitary Confinement of Responsibility

Solitary confinement of responsible livingResponsible living to the criminal thinker is akin to solitary confinement. The perceived boredom and lack of excitement in a responsible life are worse than the possibility of jail or prison. The Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that most criminals continue to re-offend after release from prison. This fact gives credence to the assertion that responsibility is an arduous pursuit. Criminal thinkers are unwilling to do anything they perceive as boring or disagreeable and responsible living is high on the boring list! The criminal thinker has a lifelong history of avoiding activities that require effort. Their aversion to delaying gratification is similar to the addictive behavior of an addict.

In treatment programs, where responsible behavior is expected and rewarded, the criminal thinker will continue their irresponsible thinking and behavior even towards responsible goals. A criminal thinker will cheat on tests while attempting to complete a GED. They will cut corners on house chores and attempt to manipulate staff even when there is no apparent reason to do so. If there is no immediate benefit for doing the right thing, positive behavior will be abandoned in favor of whatever is most expedient.

Changing the long pattern of irresponsible living is one of the most challenging aspects of recovery from criminal thinking. In order to begin living responsibly, the criminal thinker must act-as-if they want to live a responsible life. The act-as-if mode is a pattern of behavior that is required for changing several key thinking errors. Since there is no initial internal motivation to live responsibly, it is most effective to take on the attitude and behavior of someone who does want to change. The resistant offender will complain that we are suggesting that they “live a lie” with this approach. But, it is better to live a lie and do no harm than to live the truth [of criminal thinking] and return to jail!

Although the cognitive-behavioral approach to change implicitly begins with thoughts influencing behavior, behaviors can also influence thinking especially when one is not intrinsically motivated to do the right thing. By changing one’s behavior to coincide with a responsible life the benefits of change will eventually be revealed.

Access our free “Lack of Interest in Responsible Performance” worksheet on CriminalThinking.net


“I can’t” means “I won’t”

I can't = I won'tThe criminal thinker is unwilling to do anything that is boring or disagreeable! This statement is considered an axiom among corrections professionals. The criminal thinker has boundless energy and interest in activities that are exciting, interesting or fun. But when it comes to basic responsibilities and actions that don’t result in an immediate payoff they lose interest or give up. The words “I can’t” become the mantra for the criminal thinker.

  • “I can’t get a job because I have a record.”
  • “I can’t stop using drugs because I already tried a hundred times before”
  • “I can’t go back to school because I’m too old”
  • “I can’t do these assignments because they are too hard”

In reality, “I can’t” means “I won’t.” In correctional treatment programs we often hear from offenders that they tried to stay sober, or they tried to get a job or they tried to finish a task on time, but something or someone prevented them from accomplishing the task. Our common response to criminal thinkers who “try” to do something is to stop trying and start doing.  Stop trying to get a job and do whatever it takes to get a job. Stop trying to stay sober and do whatever it takes to stay sober. Do whatever it takes to complete the responsible task at hand. And, by the way, you don’t know what it takes to live responsibly so ask for help and follow advice!

Pushing oneself to do the difficult is the key to criminal freedom. In fact, the best advice for someone early in the criminal thinking change process is to focus on the actions that they like the least.  If getting up early and doing house chores is the most disagreeable task at hand, that should be the first thing on the list to complete!  Criminal thinking change is an exercise in opposites.  A criminal thinker must begin to turn their thinking around 180 degrees. Instead of blaming others for their plight, they need to blame themselves. When doing something responsible seems boring, that is the time to perform the task.  Instead of saying “I can’t” say “I must.”  We don’t need to feel like doing something in order to do it. Responsibility, maturity, and growth are about taking consistent action especially during those times when we don’t feel like doing them. A babies behavior is based entirely on its feelings, mature men and women’s behavior is directed by responsible thinking and rational beliefs.  “Tell me you don’t feel like doing something right now and I’ll tell you that now is the time to do it then!”

Once a habit is formed by doing the disagreeable it becomes easier to do. If we make a consistent effort towards a responsible goal, its achievement begins to become a reality. The serenity prayer is a good source of inspiration for this thinking error of Lack of Effort.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Visit the CriminalThinking.net website for a free worksheet on correcting the thinking error “The “I Can’t Attitude.”


"An approach to the treatment of offenders which emphasizes the role of altering thinking patterns in bringing about change in an offender's life."