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'The line between good and bad people can be thinner than you think'

Psychologist Ian Gargan says knowing what we are capable of, not being fearful of the darker sides of our personality and embracing the differences is important.

Ian Gargan

WHAT DOES IT take to make good people do bad things?

This is the question at the heart of my book The Line: What would take to make you cross it? Based on the most compelling cases I have worked on during my career as a forensic psychologist, often working with society’s most violent offenders, my intention was to bring the reader inside the criminal mind and, in so doing, expose just how fragile our notions of good and bad, right and wrong really are in an attempt to unravel the tangled threads of circumstance and dysfunction that can propel ordinary people to the brink of horrifying acts … and beyond.

Chilling and revealing as it is of the criminal mind, I think what is scarier still is how close we all can be to crossing the line.

What motivates criminals to entrench themselves in violent, sadistic, sexually masochistic or downright manipulative and dangerous behaviours? From juvenile delinquents to psychopaths and sex offenders, it is usually a combination of environmental factors, life history, medical past and genetics which contribute to such criminal behaviour.

But it may surprise people just how ‘normal’ some of these people often are. The most frighteningly thing I have learned through my work, is how all of our behaviours are shared and, in fact, we are all capable of crossing the line into criminal behaviour in some way, whether with intention or by accident, premeditated or not.

Disordered thinking isn’t that uncommon

The common thread among the people I have worked with who have crossed the line – and often who have been convicted for doing so – is disordered thinking. But it would not be correct to say that the rest of us are possessed of perfectly ordered thinking. The truth is that we could all be placed somewhere on the spectrum of disorders.

That might be a sinister thought for some, but at base it underlines our shared humanity, our shared flaws, the fact that any one of us could fall foul of a disorder of the mind that could lead to disordered behaviour. That could lead, in other words, to us crossing the line into socially unacceptable or even criminal behaviour.

It is too easy for us to point towards the ‘bad people’, the criminals, the negatives, the people who have dodgy psychology that is so different from ours and that sets them apart from us. We draw a line between criminals and ourselves, deriving comfort from its presence and using it to justify how we treat criminals.

The truth is that a distinct line does not exist – it is much more a matter of grey areas. You may never have broken the law, but have you ever cheated on a partner? Shoplifted? Siphoned off money from your employer? Kept money you saw fall from the pocket of the person walking down the street in front of you? Been in a fist fight? Insulted someone so vehemently you made them cry? Have you ever slapped your child? Spread a rumour or gossip you knew to be false? Kept the extra change the shopkeeper mistakenly
gave you?

The line isn’t a fixed space that you are not capable of crossing, it is far more fluid than that – there are many ways to hurt, to belittle, to cause emotional distress and we are all probably guilty of those behaviours at some time in our lives.

Does everyone have a darker side?

When I was a younger psychologist, at the start of my career, I was fascinated with the criminal but even more fascinated with why someone would choose to engage in a behaviour that would cut them off from the population and lead to grave punishment.

Did everyone have a darker side? Was it okay to want to do things that were wrong? But the fundamental of what I wanted to know about the line and criminal behaviour was to gain insight into what motivated others to entrench themselves in violent, sadistic, sexually masochistic or downright manipulative and dangerous behaviours.

I have learnt much more since then, both from people I have spoken with and from the stories I have heard and, at times, witnessed, but there is still so much more to hear and write, so that I can continue to understand what lies at the extremes of our psychology, what ingredients constitute the line and is it possible, even healthy, that we traverse both sides of it?

The fact is that the line is constantly shifting, being narrowed or widened as culture allows. All of the behaviour we witness in this age has been witnessed before – none of it is new. We are appalled by acts of terrorism, genocide, random and senseless murder, paedophilia and domestic violence, but these things have always been with us and what is considered ‘socially acceptable’ is open to reinterpretations by each successive generation.

Knowing what we are capable of, not being fearful of the darker sides of our personality and embracing the differences is, to my mind, important.

Common traits 

Even though it does appear that we all have the potential to cross the line, there also appear to be some very common and consistent traits among those who end up in prison, such as chaotic family backgrounds, mental health challenges and very poor parenting, as well as a genetic predisposition to engage in behaviours that can be self-destructive as well as damaging to the community at large.

However, there are also those in society who are high functioning, live in a much brighter place and still feel the need to engage in illegal behaviour, whether that need stems from bio-chemistry, genetics or unique episodes in life where they have experienced damaging learning.

It may not be as common for this population to be convicted of crimes, but equally anyone can argue that those with a good level of education can often avoid being caught by the law even if they are doing harm to others.

What makes my work as a forensic psychologist so fascinating is that, as chilling and revealing as it is about the criminal mind, it’s scarier still is how, given the right set or circumstances, any of us could easily cross that line and quickly find ourselves in similar circumstances.

There is no ‘us and them’ when it comes to the criminal population – there are just humans who are at different points on the psychological spectrum and who have different ways of dealing with the challenges they face.

There is agency and choice, but circumstance, nature and nurture all play a huge role, and those are things we have very little control over.

Dr Ian Gargan, BSc, MSc, MB BCh BAO, MBA, Reg Psychol AFPsSI (PsSI), CPsychol FBPsS (BPS), is the Clinical Director of Imagine Health, a Dublin-based medical and psychology clinic. He is the author of The Line: What would it take to make you cross it? A discussion to mark the launch of the book takes place at The Dean Hotel on Tuesday evening.

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