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Good criminal, bad criminal?

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This week's blog for Advancing social psychology (DD317) considers the relevance of a key psychological concept, the essential person, for a recent tv series about the new face of international crime.

A recent BBC drama depicted the takeover of global crime networks by new 'Harvard-educated', business-focussed criminals. It was about how the graceless thugs who have previously run profitable markets in drugs and trafficked sex slaves, are being deposed by smooth, good looking men (they were all men) in suits. The older generation of criminals were presented as emotionally volatile and extreme, so finally less effective than their smoother and more controlled successors.

The series was gripping, although it could of course be criticised (for example, for the 'us'/ 'them' depictions of particular nationalities, and also for the representations of women, who mostly accepted the role of obedient helpmate). My interest here is in how the drama centred on one of the most enduring ideas bridging psychology and common sense, that of the essential person.

A simple, seemingly logical idea is that people have an essential character that they express through their actions. In other words, there is a causal relationship between the actor and the action – good people do good things, bad people bad, so a good person can be trusted to behave well, and a bad person will never be reliable. Most people would consider that account of the essential person over-simple, but for social psychologists working In a discursive and narrative tradition, the interest is not in the 'truth' but in how the idea itself persists and has consequences.  

For example, the idea of the essential person underlies the continual search for evidence, formal and informal. Cvs and other records, appraisals and psychology tests, and our own 'gut feelings' – all of them are valued for what they supposedly reveal about a person's essence, because this is assumed to predict future behaviour. Is this someone to be trusted and to deal with in the future?

It is also an assumption that carries huge emotional or affective loading, as can be seen in everyday arguments about motive and intention, even in trivial situations. Think of the indignation that people express when they think that their actions have led to their being 'wrongly' understood. Think of their strong need to explain that what actually happened was not what they wanted or intended: 'Do you really believe I'm the kind of person who would do that on purpose?' The causal link has been broken so a convincing argument must be made to reclaim a positive essential character.

Oddly enough, this defence is often made through reference to previous good behaviour, returning yet again to the idea of essential character and attempting to re-establish the causal link that has been broken ('he gave a lot of money to charity'). Most of us are accustomed to talking about ourselves and telling the circumstances and events which 'explain' who we are so we can adapt that narrative account to a particular purpose, such as an interview for a new job, and we can also invoke it to defend our essential good character if it seems to be threatened.

We use the idea of the essential person even though, ironically, we are also very ready to question it. For instance, we probably accept that appearances can be misleading, that the inner essence can be masked by a lying exterior. It's easy to believe that a charismatic, apparently honest politician can turn out to be 'rotten to the core' or, perhaps less frequently, that someone unprepossessing can be a 'rough diamond' with a 'heart of gold'. However, we tend to reserve particular indignation for people who do bad things and confuse the connection between character and behaviour, as with formerly respected ('good') celebrities who end up discredited or even in jail. Perhaps this explains the force of the tv series. The new global 'mafia' were shown as misleading us about their essential characters. They look better than the old-style criminals but actually carry out even worse crimes because they are more effective and powerful as a result of their business training.

Many other points could be made about the series. (For instance, it was definitely exciting, and well-acted. It was well-researched but, at a time when so many legitimate businesses do not seem to be functioning very well, we could ask if it overstates the capabilities and threat of those Harvard-educated criminals.) The focus of this blog has been that, first, it centred on questions which are central to psychology, including the nature of the person and its connection to behaviour, and second, how those questions are not only 'academic' but also part of our everyday sense-making around both fiction and fact.

Critiques of the concept of the essential person are discussed in the Level 3 module Advancing social psychology (DD317). ADD learn more about the module, you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk You can also look at the new Open Learn course course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0

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