5. Redefining Insanity

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.

If we can accept that the psychological community has no definition for sane, we should also be able to accept that there is also no definition of insanity.

Sure, Bill Clinton is credited with saying that “insanity is doing the same thing again and again expecting different results,” but what many do not know is that those words have been floating around AA, NA, and SAA (sex addicts anonymous) groups for decades. Mr. Clinton did not coin the expression; he merely borrowed it from one of these groups — given his peccadillos, likely the latter. In any case, that is not the definition of insanity either.

In fact, that definition of insanity sounds great for speeches and fun quips, but does nothing to advance the mental health and stability of anyone.

Another point worth noting is that just as sane is a legal term, insane is a legal term as well. Regardless, it is not a term that should be avoided by the psychological community. It is a term that most people use and sometimes overuse. It is a term that is used to describe Uncle Freddy, cousin Jill, or that guy down the street no one speaks to. Insanity is a term that is here to stay and finding a useful definition is important to understanding human behavior, especially criminal or aberrant behavior.

For the student of criminal justice, having a good working definition of insanity can better equip one to combat the insane persons sure to be dealt with during their career.

In fact, many students of criminal justice should find this information useful because in the course of their career, they are likely to come across many who are legally labeled “insane” (legally) but not called “insane” by their treating psychologist or psychiatrist.

Everyone knows what insane looks like but few can agree on the definition.

What IS Insanity?

Is there a better Definition of Insanity for the Criminal Justice Professional?

Recall in Chapter One that the 4th premise in the Theory of All Behavior stated,

“4. Insanity is merely a state of mental confusion that occurs when a person either

  • a) fails to meet all their needs,

  • b) attempts to meet needs in a manner contradictory to their own values, or

  • c) does not have a clear set of values.”

Furthermore, the 3rd premise stated,

“3. Sanity is a state of equilibrium between needs fulfillment and values.”

Consider these two premises (hypotheses) in light of the notion of insanity.

The fellow who is naked, clucking like a chicken, walking in traffic is not insane. He is disconnected. Better stated, there is a disconnect between the values society claims and the values claimed by the naked chicken man.

Society says that clucking like a naked chicken in traffic is nuts…crazy…insane. Most would say that the fellow needs professional help. Problem is, to the naked chicken man, his actions are perfectly rational, perfectly sane.

How do we reconcile these two opposing beliefs?

First, the naked chicken man does need help, but what form that help should take is the question. The psychological community has over 250 schools of thought to presumably help this man, but ask this…

Will he ever be “cured?”

He WILL attend sessions for years — provided he can afford to pay. But regardless, he will never reach a point in his life were he is “cured” of whatever diagnosis he is given.

THAT is Insanity!

The fact is that more than likely, this man will become involved with law enforcement and when that happens, he will likely be sent to prison. Prison systems have mental health services, but these are woefully inadequate for meeting the needs of mental health inmates. In fact, in most prisons, those who enter with mental illnesses either never leave or when they do, they are worse than at the start.

So, What is Insanity?

Insanity is the term that the man getting arrested for clucking like a naked chicken in traffic will likely be labeled by the legal system. He will then be warehoused such that he is never likely to get help.

Yet, insanity need not be only a legal term to put people away. Insanity can be a proper term used right.

If we assume that the purpose of any word is to convey meaning, to be understood, then we can state that the average person believes that some among us are insane. In other words, most people believe in crazy.

Return now to the two premises mentioned at the start.

The “state of equilibrium” that a person experiences when meeting their needs in harmony with their values eliminates mental stress. Doing the opposite results in more mental stress.

Mental stress manifests as irrational, or crazy…insane acts. Yet, these are only irrational because we do not understand what is going on. On the surface, one cannot judge why the naked chicken dancer. To understand why he does what he does, we would need to dig deep — he is not likely to know exactly what values are triggering the action — but we could understand and to be sure, he will see the act as rational, sane.

Needs and Values Shape Choices… Choices Reflect Our Mental State

What could be termed insanity in a non-legal way can best be described as actions which make a person seem less than rational. Such actions stem from dissonance between filling needs and adhering to social and personal values. When there is a conflict between these, people tend to become mentally stressed.

Mental stress causes irrational thoughts and behaviors.

Yet, it is one thing to make such claims…quite another to prove these claims.

To understand why needs and values play such a role in behaviors, criminal or not, we must understand how each of these concepts fit in our lives.

Values will be addressed starting with Chapter 11. Chapters Six through Ten address the role of needs in shaping human (including criminal) behavior.

Recall the chart introduced in Chapter 1. The next chapter will discuss the first portion of that chart, the three facets of human motivation.

Continue to Chapter 6: The Three Facets of Human Motivation