Targeting Implicit Criminal Cognition in Policies and Intervention Programs

Criminal cognition outside of conscious awareness or conscious control may be a cognitive marker for criminal behavior. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.


Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2018, Vol. 42, No. 6, 507-519

Implicit Self-Criminal Cognition and Its Relation to Criminal Behavior


Luis M. Rivera, Rutgers University—Newark
Bonita M. Veysey, Rutgers University—Newark


Three studies adopted implicit social cognition theory and methodology to understand criminal cognition outside of conscious awareness or control, specifically by testing whether individual differences in implicit associations between the self and the group criminals are related to criminal behavior. A Single Category Implicit Association Test measured self-criminal associations across 3 adult samples—2 from Newark, New Jersey, a high-crime United States city, and an adult national sample from the United States. Then, all participants reported their criminal behavior in 2 cross-sectional design studies and 1 longitudinal design study. Consistent with an additive model of implicit and explicit cognition, studies generally demonstrated that strong implicit self-criminal associations increased the odds of committing a criminal act, even after accounting for explicit self-criminal cognition, past criminal behavior, and/or criminal-related demographics. This research suggests that implicit self-criminal associations serve as a cognitive marker for criminal behavior. Furthermore, the present research calls into question criminal justice policies and practices that assume that criminal behavior is exclusively driven by criminal intent.


criminal identity, implicit social cognition, criminal justice system

Summary of the Research

“The size of the correctional population in the United States is staggering. In 2013, nearly 6.9 million or approximately 1 in 35 adults were under correctional supervision, including 4.75 million on probation or parole and 2.22 million in prison or local jail on any given day. These millions and all others formerly under supervision represent individuals in the criminal justice system. Factors ranging from social structural at the macro level to genetic at the micro level have been proposed to understand criminal acts. Within the range of explanatory factors, the psychological construct of criminal identity is thought to be one of the drivers of criminal behavior, and the shedding or replacement of a criminal identity is believed to be necessary for long-term desistance. Although
qualitative studies in the criminology literature describe how criminals think about their identity with other criminals and criminal related characteristics, these investigations are limited to criminals’ ability to introspect about and willingness to self-report their criminal cognition. Relying on introspection is limiting because individuals may not be fully aware of the potential impact of committing a criminal act on their self-concept. Equally important, relying on the willingness to self-report may be problematic because being a criminal is generally stigmatized in the United States and thus individuals who commit a criminal act may be motivated to minimize or distance themselves from a stigmatized group like criminals” (p. 507-508).

“Given the previous limitations, the present research adopts implicit social cognition theory and methodology to better understand criminal cognition and its link to criminal behavior. Applying the research on implicit self and identity cognitive processes to the present research, an implicit criminal identity is the association between the mental representations of the self-concept and of criminality that exists outside of conscious awareness or control. Because criminal as an identity is stigmatized, self-criminal cognitive associations linked to criminal behavior may be more difficult to capture if researchers rely only on introspection and willingness to self-report; thus, self-criminal associations that operate implicitly may be a more valid and stronger cognitive marker of criminal behavior than explicit self-criminal associations. The present research is the first test, to our knowledge, of the relation between implicit self-criminal associations and criminal behavior above and beyond any role of explicit self-criminal associations (and after accounting for criminality-related demographics)” (p. 508).

“A single-category [implicit association test] IAT measured speeded associations between the self and criminality across two samples of adults from Newark, New Jersey, a high-crime U.S. city (Studies 1 and 3), and one sample of adults from across the U.S. (Study 2). In Study 1, individuals with strong implicit self-criminal associations were more likely to engage in criminal behavior than those with weak (or no) implicit self-criminal associations. Study 2 replicated these results with a national and more diverse sample in terms of demographics and exposure to criminality in their neighborhoods. Finally, Study 3 extended these studies by employing a longitudinal design and demonstrating that implicit self-criminal associations predicted criminal behavior over a 7–20-month follow-up period. Moreover, and consistent with a prediction of a behavior additive model, across the three studies the relation between implicit self-criminal associations and criminal behavior held after controlling for demographic variables of age, gender, ethnic-racial identification, and socioeconomic status, as well as explicit criminal cognition variables. Most impressive was that across all studies SC-IAT-measured implicit self-criminal associations were the strongest and most consistent predictor of criminal behavior relative to the measures of explicit self-criminal cognition and criminal-related demographic variables” (p. 515).

“The present data have implications for criminology’s approach to understanding the relation between criminal identity and criminal behavior. Criminology research relies on individuals’ ability to introspect about and their willingness to self-report their criminal cognition. Introspection is limited to the extent to which individuals are aware of the potential impact of criminality on their self-concept. Moreover, relying on the motivation to self-report is problematic because criminality is stigmatized in most societies and, therefore, individuals may be motivated to minimize or even deny any criminality thoughts. In our studies, we went to great lengths to promote sincere responses on self-report measures by insuring the protection and confidentiality of our participants’ identity, collecting data directly using a computer-based platform, and by providing participants with privacy during data collection (in Studies 1 and 3; the extent of privacy for Study 2 participants is unknown). Under these conditions, individual differences in participants’ explicit self-criminal associations only covaried with criminal behavior in one of three of our studies. However, SCIAT-measured implicit self-criminal cognition outperformed self-reported explicit criminal cognition when predicting criminal behavior in Study 1 and was the only criminal cognition predictor in Studies 2 and 3. This may be the case because the SC-IAT is an indirect measure of social cognition and therefore relatively effective in bypassing both introspection and willingness when assessing the mental representation of the self as criminal. The extent to which the SC-IAT captures the basic cognitive association between the self and the group criminals outside of conscious awareness or control, we would expect it to exhibit superior predictive validity. Our findings are consistent with this rationale” (p. 515).

“As noted previously, individual differences in explicit self-criminal cognition was associated with criminal behavior in only one of three present studies. In addition to the limitations of self-reported criminal cognition measures, another plausible reason for this inconsistent finding is the nature of the samples across the different studies. The relation was evident in Study 1, which recruited participants from Newark, New Jersey, a city with one of the highest crime rates in the United States and is often ranked as one of the country’s most dangerous cities. Given its high-crime profile, its citizens are frequently exposed to crime directly in their immediate neighborhoods and indirectly via local media coverage, which in turn can have a potent role in shaping criminal-related cognition and behavior. This would be consistent with the criminology basic hypothesis that community-level factors are a source of offending. By comparison, the relation was not evident in Study 2, which recruited participants from communities that varied considerably in crime rates, suggesting that many participants had low direct and indirect exposure to crime in their neighborhoods. (We caution to speculate on Study 3 because, as noted below, the sample size was relatively small.) However, this explanation is speculative and the present research design and data are unable to test a cause-and-effect hypothesis. Regardless, from our perspective, the inconsistent relation between explicit self-criminal cognition and criminal behavior across three studies speaks to the importance of considering the role of implicit self-criminal cognition. Indeed, all studies in the present research consistently show that individual differences in implicit self-criminal associations explain which participants committed a criminal behavior” (p. 515).

Translating Research into Practice

“Much of the current thinking on effective interventions for desistance and crime reduction focuses on changing aspects of individuals’ lives (including cognitions and identities), opportunities, and contexts, in particular the “turning points” that change the trajectory of an individual’s life from a criminal pattern to a prosocial one (i.e., a desistance process). Most relevant to the present research are intervention programs that focus on human agency because they rely on an individual’s willpower to desist from criminal behavior. However, self-control efforts can fail when other factors are competing for cognitive resources. Indeed, offenders who are reentering society are faced with staggering challenges such as the constant attempts to distance themselves from the stigma of criminality, obtaining employment and housing opportunities, and achieving and maintaining good physical and mental health” (p. 516).

“Our research suggests that one alternative way to reduce criminal behavior recidivism is to attenuate implicit self-criminal associations. A robust line of social psychological research demonstrates that reminding individuals of important and positive parts of their lives can set off a host of psychological and behavioral benefits. Consistent with self-affirmation theory, individuals have numerous sources of self-worth such as values and traits tied to their personal and group identities. When self-image is threatened by behavior in one domain, an individual may draw from an alternative source of self-worth to restore the integrity of their overall self-concept and well-being. In the case of justice-involved individuals, a self-affirmation can be operationalized by providing them with as many opportunities to build, strengthen, and maintain values and characteristics unrelated to criminality. For example, Rivera and Veysey (2015) suggest that enhancing relationships with important others such as friends, parents, siblings, and children may be one important value for justice-involved individuals to focus on when seeking a successful transformation. If self-affirmation strategies are incorporated into community and correctional programs, they have the potential to attenuate implicit self-criminal cognition and help increase the chances of a successful transformation to a prosocial citizen” (p. 516).

“Finally, an implication of the present research for criminal justice policies and practices is that it calls into question the extent to which criminal behavior is linked to consciously known or intended criminal cognition. An individual may actively disavow criminal cognition, but it can still be linked to criminal behavior outside of conscious awareness and control. Criminal justice policies and practices should consider the insights of implicit social cognition theory and evidence as applied to criminal identities and behavior by pondering two basic questions. First, do criminal justice policies and practices consider the constraints of intention, awareness, and control on criminal cognition and behavior? Most recently, legal scholarship and judicial opinions have deliberated over the impact of implicit social cognition research on the law, in particular, challenges to the prevailing assumptions underlying criminal intent (what implicit social cognition theory refers to as motivational control). This leads to the second question: how do current criminal justice policies and practices consider the possibility that offenders behave criminally without their conscious awareness or control? This issue has direct implications for the practice of exclusively relying on offenders’ self-assessments. Revisiting criminal justice policy and practices with these two questions in mind may yield objectives that can potentially improve the criminal justice system in general and address one of its often-forgotten objectives, to rehabilitate offenders” (p. 516).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“The present research was partly based on the fundamental hypothesis in psychology and criminology that individuals who commit a criminal act should yield a mental association between their self-concept and criminality, and that self-criminal associations should serve to promote and maintain future criminal acts. This hypothesized bidirectional relation, however, still raises the question whether self-criminal cognition is the antecedent to or consequence of criminal behavior. To the extent that self-criminal associations underlie a criminal identity, which in theory should drive criminal identity-based behaviors, they may be a precursor to engaging in criminal acts. The data in Study 3 were longitudinal and provide some preliminary evidence for this hypothesis, but they should be interpreted with caution because the data are correlational and the sample size was relatively small. Future research using longitudinal studies with larger samples and that follow individuals over time are necessary to unequivocally support the assumptions underlying past and present identity and behavior research” (p. 515-516).

“As an alternative, engaging in criminal behavior can lead to self-criminal cognition, which is consistent with the social psychological research on the role of behavior shaping beliefs. Some individuals engage in criminal behaviors because of situational factors (e.g., response to physical threats from an offender, thrill seeking) or simply because of “bad luck” (being “in the wrong place at the wrong time”). According to implicit social cognition theory, one or a combination of these experiences can lead to the association between the mental representations of the self and the category criminal outside of conscious awareness and conscious control, a process underlying an implicit criminal identity. From this perspective, committing a criminal act is the antecedent to developing an implicit criminal identity” (p. 516).

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Authored by Amanda Beltrani

Amanda Beltrani is a current doctoral student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her professional interests include forensic assessments, professional decision making, and cognitive biases.

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