4. Redefining Sane Behavior

black Image of scales on white background with the words, "calibrate the scales" overlaid. As with any set of scales, the scales of justice must, from time to time, be recalibrated. Total balance is never achieved, but all in the criminal justice and legal systems must strive for it as much as possible.

What is Sane Behavior? Is criminal behavior sane? Is the guy walking naked through traffic calling out to Jesus commanding that the world is going to end in fire and brimstone sane? What about the woman who chooses to sleep under an overpass rather than face a bad family situation? Is she sane?

By C J Oakes

Law and Human Behavior
Law and Human Behavior (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is sane? What is sanity? Oddly enough, the Psychological community spends far less time explaining sanity than it does insanity. In fact, a search for the definition of sanity provides multiple sources, few of which are shown in Psychological journals.

One definition offers the following three possibilities for sane:


free from mental derangement; having a sound, healthy mind:

a sane person.


having or showing reason, sound judgment, or good sense:

sane advice.


sound; healthy.
Another definition states that sanity is the

Condition of being not lawfully adjudged as mentally deranged and not subject to mental disease or disorder which could impair an individual’s capacity to comprehend their own actions, or their conformity to laws. State of being sound of mind or having appropriate judgment skills.

What is SANITY? definition of SANITY (Psychology Dictionary)

So, about the same thing but much wordier. Note too that the Psychology Dictionary mentions “lawfully” in providing a definition. Why?
This cuts to the heart of the term sane or sanity. Generally, these are legal terms. In fact, even the DSM-5, the Psychologists Bible, does not offer a working definition of “sane” or “sanity.” This is largely because the Psychiatric community largely avoids the term except when called upon to declare someone fit or unfit to stand trial.

So, is it necessary to have a good working definition of sane when discussing human (and criminal) behavior?

English: Meteorology and human behavior
English: Meteorology and human behavior (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is.

When discussing human behavior, a psychologist will often avoid the terms sane or insane. This is in part because these are legal terms but could also be in part because the Psychological community has never been able to agree on a common definition. If it had, there would be such in the DSM-5. There is not. This is also in part because the more PC expression “mental illness” is preferred.
Part of the reason for the failure of Psychologists to define sanity is because for so long researchers have focused on aberrant behavior; it is just much simpler to agree on behavior that seems strange to most. Another reason the field prefers the expression mental illness is that in so doing, it is able to treat psychological disorders as diseases; this allows them to prescribe medications and affords job security. The simple reality is that often, the medications prescribed do little better than placebos.
The failure of psychology to define sanity does millions of people an injustice. Failing to provide people who are suffering from depression, schizophrenia, OCD, bipolar disorder, and more fails to answer a simple question each asks themselves at some point. Pretty much anyone who has ever experienced such a condition has asked themselves if they are sane. Their family has questioned it as well. And Psychologists offer no clear answers while Psychiatrists offer only pills.
In moving forward with this new theory of human behavior, which includes an understanding of criminal or aberrant behavior, a sound working definition of sanity or sane, is in order. This is especially important to students of criminal justice because these work within the realm of law, not medicine. This new theory applies in either case as will become clear in subsequent chapters.

What is Sanity?

In the last chapter, we discussed rational behavior. Is there any difference between “rational” and “sane?” There is. As mentioned in that chapter, rational has to do with logic, reason. Although one of the definitions provided for sane above includes reason, that definition applies to the term when used in an advisory capacity. The better is explained in the definition of sanity, where it describes “judgment skills.”
Judgment is a concept that relies on balance. This is why justice is symbolized by scales. In like manner, sanity relies on balance. How so?
Recall that in Chapter 1, the third working hypothesis states,
“Sanity is a state of equilibrium between needs and values; it is a state of mental and emotional balance.”
This definition is important to grasp but will sound strange to some. It is a fundamental shift from the way sanity is defined today because instead of relying on the objectivity of a Psychological professional who, outside the legal arena will not even use the term, it relies on empirical studies. These studies will be further discussed later in this series, but for now, consider one striking example.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.”

An example of an item from a cognitive abiliti...
An example of an item from a cognitive abilities test used in educational psychology. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is an oft-stated remark today and on the surface, it sounds logical. If it is true, then the converse must also be true. This would define sanity as “doing something different to get different results.’

So, let us assume that a guy works a good job but gets laid off and is about to lose his car, house, and maybe even his family. Years earlier, he faced the same situation and took out loans, three part-time low-paying jobs, and cut way back on expenses. In fact, the bills he currently has are the result of that decision. Based on the logic just described, doing the same thing this time would be insane. So, he decides to rob a bank. Sanity? A sane choice? One could argue that the choice would only be insane if he got caught.

I used this example to demonstrate something very important to the concept of sanity. Some readers will automatically say that the choice to rob a bank is insane, despite earlier agreeing that he cannot do the same thing and expect different results. Why the quick judgment of less-than-sane behavior for breaking the law by stealing?

Largely because most people believe that stealing is wrong, morally reprehensible. Thus, to violate their morality is to leave the realm of sanity. In other words, this example shows us that notions of sanity cannot exist outside the values we hold.

But whose values count when determining sanity?

We are again brought around to the law. Sanity is a legal term and as such, it is used to determine according to the law who may or may not stand trial. In most jurisdictions, the term is supposed to apply to people who are developmentally disabled. This is a large reason the United States Supreme Court placed a ban on executing anyone with an IQ so low they would be considered, to use the past, non-PC term, retarded.

In fact, values play no role in determining sanity. To a large extent, this makes sense because then the prosecuting authorities would find themselves swamped with arguments related to religion versus state. Indeed, because the idea of sanity plays so strongly to belief systems, the only safe way to apply the concept is through the use of intellectual capabilities. Until now, that is.

The Key to Sanity is Finding Emotional and Intellectual Balance

As will be discussed in future chapters, everyone has needs. All have felt that gnawing, that hunger, that drive to obtain something or someone. All know that feeling of craving attention, love, hope. All understand that if they are in danger, there is an urgency to become safe. Anyone who feels powerless will seek to gain more control over their life. A person who feels trapped in the wrong body will seek to reform his or her identity. Someone who has been unjustly treated will seek to right the wrong.

Yet, in every instance, a person will act according to their own values, their own beliefs and in so doing, they are acting sanely. In the case of many, the action to resolve these needs will reflect social norms, societal values. But as a society becomes less homogenous, what is considered sane lessens. The more homogenous a society, the more agreement regarding sane versus insane behavior; the less homogenous, the less sane others appear.

When considering criminal behavior, this is even more pronounced.

Because those who engage in criminal acts often associate with other criminals, crime is considered sane, normal. So, whereas non-criminal persons in society will view their actions as other than sane, the view of the hardened criminal is that society is not sane.

This illustrates the subjective nature of sanity.

So, although society as a whole faces the separation of church and state as a hindrance to defining sanity as it really is and the issue is largely subjective, does this mean that no common definition can be had?

Absolutely not.

For any nation which is not a theocracy, redefining sanity is just a matter of using the science of human behavior. Much is already known and understood. All that is needed is to bring the disparate schools of thought, the varied social disciplines, together to create one coherent, cohesive concept. In other words, a unified theory of human (and criminal) behavior.

That is the goal of this book.

But enough about sanity. Before moving into the needs that all possess which drive decisions, it would be valuable to further clarify sanity by taking a closer look at behavior which is clearly insane. In other words, what is insanity? What causes insanity? Better still, can an insane person recover from insanity?

Keep reading…

If you have not yet read the previous sections of this book, return now to

Human Behavior Introduction

1. A New Way of Looking at Human (and Criminal) Behavior

2. Understanding the Role of Motive in Human (and Criminal) Behavior

3. What is “Rational” Behavior?