How Offenders’ Distorted Cognitions Cause Hate Crimes

By | November 8, 2023
How Offenders’ Distorted Cognitions Cause Hate Crimes

America has witnessed a surge of mass shootings, other homicides, and violent felonies in the last two years (e.g., CBS). In this context, reports of hate crimes against Asian Americans increased steeply, along with a rebound of anti-Semitic violence (e.g., Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism).

However, aside from some legal responses intended to deal with the issues, few attempts have been made to analyze the causes of hate crimes and to identify the solutions from a psychological perspective.

Most news reports and some research organizations (e.g., Pew Research Center, April 2021) seem to regard hate crimes as explained by the victims’ identities or categories — that is, hate crimes are seen as motivated in reaction to the victim, rather than as the offender-initiated aggression. This view confuses two different entities: the subjective criminal intent and the reality of the victims (see Sun, 2006). This misunderstanding is also associated with the belief that the criminal intent results from the offender’s deficient moral regulation. But relevant political and community efforts condemning hate crimes have not shown a noticeable impact (e.g., NPR).

The current analysis intends to clarify some confusion in examining causes of and solutions to hate crimes by extending previous research (Sun, 2006) elaborating on why the use of the victims’ categories to explain hate crimes misconstrues the legal definition of the criminal intent or motivation, inadvertently misattributing the causality to the victims. Additionally, it is the perpetrator’s prejudice and other types of distorted cognitions about evolving human reality as well as exposure to disinformation in the pandemic context that administer and aggravate the motivation for hate crime and violence.

Criminal intent does not fully explain hate crimes

First, the legal description of the criminal intent (mens rea) for hate crimes is never intended or able to answer the “why” question from a behavioral science perspective.

According to criminal law, a defendant is guilty of a crime only when the offender’s criminal commission or omission that harms the legally protected interests occurs with a simultaneous mens rea, or criminal intent. Specifically, the statement in hate crime law that “the defendant attacks a victim, because of the actual or perceived identity or category of the person” only describes and defines the required criminal intent (mens rea) of the offender (Sun, 2006). However, the criminally subjective state — that is, intentionally selecting the victims — by no means suggests that the victims, who are objectively independent of the offender, play a causal role in the aggression.

Additionally, the legally defined hate motivation is not qualitatively different from the law-required mens rea for most felonies, such as physical assault, murder, robbery, sexual assaults, arson, burglary, and larceny-theft. Offenders must all intentionally and knowingly attack specific types of victims to be convicted for different offenses. The existing specific intentions do not imply that the victims (e.g., women, children, or banks) cause the crimes.

In short, according to criminal law, it is the offenders, not the victims, who cause the crime. Law only has the caliber to define what is legal or illegal, but it is never intended or able to offer scientific explanations about a cause-and-effect relationship for any crime, including hate crimes. In addition, it seems expedient for some individuals to apply morality to explain an offender’s hate motivation, which is morally reprehensible, but its moral evaluation is still descriptive rather than explanatory (see “The Limits of Morality in Explaining and Solving Conflict”).

The following discussion focuses on how offenders’ misperceptions of human reality generate and sustain their motivation for a hate crime.

Misperceptions lead to hate

Second, hate motivation is preceded and caused by the offender’s distorted cognitions of human reality, including misperceptions of the victims, the self’s transgression, and mental rules governing human interaction.

1. Hate offenders’ misperceptions of their victims are not the reality of the victims. As shown in various news reports about anti-Asian violence, hate offenders tend to use superficial and phenotype-based categories to select their victims, totally blind about the great variations in such domains as geographic origins, genotypes, cultural and learning experiences, political orientations, histories, multiple identities, and other dimensions of the categorized individuals, much less the criminals’ ignorance about each and every victim’s mental structures and processes, their needs, feeling, views, and interactions with other people and the world.

Although all individuals have limited understandings of human reality, there is a difference between normal persons and prejudiced individuals. All individual cognitions of evolving human reality, including others, self, rules governing human interactions, situations, and physical worlds operate on a varying degree of accuracy and developmental stage, which serves as the guidelines and rules for encoding, evaluating, explaining, regulating, and decision-making in the mental and interpersonal domains (e.g., “The Limits of Morality in Explaining and Solving Conflict”). Most persons normally recognize their cognitive inadequacies and are willing and able to revise their misperceptions of the world when interacting with a new reality. However, prejudiced individuals not only believe their limited, ill-learned, distorted, overgeneralized, or false mental representations of reality as complete truth, but also impose their misconception on others and environments (e.g., Sun, 1993, 2013, 2014).

2. News reports on hate offenders in the last two years have shown that their distorted cognitions about themselves include their denial of individual responsibility for their crimes and misconduct by justifying their offenses through the process of viewing the victims as the source of their aggression or projecting their hostility to the victims, and/or misattributing their wrongdoings to situational or other external factors, rather than admitting they themselves are the cause of their violence. But it’s not just for hate crimes; it is well documented in criminological research that offenders use the techniques of neutralization as a cognitive justification for engaging in crime, including denying individual responsibility, finding excuses, and blaming others/situations for their transgressions (see Sun, 2013).

3. Hate crimes cannot be understood and stopped as isolated incidents without understanding the offenders’ patterns of violence and their mental addiction to brutality as the way for control. As revealed in reports of arrested hate offenders in New York City and California (based on this author’s recent Google search), all the offenders had extensive arrest records and previous violent crimes with few exceptions. One of the main cognitive factors generating and sustaining interpersonal violence involves the misbelief that fear and violence control and regulate human interaction (see “Why Are Some People Habitually Aggressive?”).

Disinformation spurs anti-Asian violence

Third, disinformation-generated aversive learning during the pandemic has aggravated anti-Asian violence.

Long before the pandemic, Asian Americans had been the victims of various crimes, particularly by strangers (see Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2009). However, anti-Asian prejudice and violence during the pandemic have been aggravated by a type of emotionally charged disinformation that implicitly uses the principle of aversive conditioning or learning (in addition to the cognitive route).

As reported by some videos on YouTube and news about anti-Asian violence in New York City and California, one of the excuses the offenders used for their aggression involved blaming the victims for coronavirus. The mental association obviously came from their exposure to disinformation on some popular media. In the early period of the pandemic, some popular media carried so-called news that paired an image or description of a disgusting, obnoxious, and ugly animal with an Asian population in spite of the fact that the alleged animals had never been found at the seafood market in question before or during the pandemic.

Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of psychology can recognize what was going on in this type of news: By repeating the association of a neutral stimulus such as a category of people with an aversive event or image, it can make the target people become a conditioned stimulus that will cause the negative and repulsive reactions.

Not only that, but a previous study by Molapour, Lindström, & Olsson (2016) has shown that after neutral faces were paired with an aversive stimulus such as electric shock for the participants, they not only showed the largest skin conductance responses to the faces but also became more aggressive toward the faces paired with the most number of shocks. Furthermore, the aggressive traits of the participants, when interacting with aversive learning experiences, enhance the likelihood to act anti-socially toward others.

In short, the victims are not a causal factor for hate offenders’ criminal motivation and crime. Hate crimes and hateful intentions derive from the perpetrator’s prejudice and other types of distorted cognitions about evolving human reality, as well as disinformation in the pandemic context that administers and aggravates the motivation for hate crimes and violence.