Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Bad to the Bone: All About Criminal Motivation

"Please Teach Me How to Steal!"

"He who dies with the most toys wins," — a popular anecdote seen on T-shirts during the 1990s

In what may turn out to be one of the biggest cases of fraud and illegal stock manipulation in the history of crime, Enron Corporation executives were arrested and charged with a wide array of crimes in 2002 involving the collapse of the company. Tens of thousands of stock shareholders were affected. Pension funds evaporated. Thousands of employees lost their jobs. Sadly, it was just one of many business conglomerates that seemed to have been systematically looted by greedy corporate criminals who displayed little remorse for their crimes. In one instance, an Enron executive constructed a $37 million home in Florida while the company was collapsing around him.

Why do these millionaires, surrounded by wealth and privilege, descend into criminality when they already have most of what American life has to offer?

One theory is that executives learn how to steal from other executives. Sociologist Edwin Sutherland said that people will learn how to commit crimes primarily through close interaction with other groups like themselves. They not only learn how but also develop the attitudes and rationalization to support it. Those that live and socialize within the higher economic classes of American society naturally share the same ethical values. They see real "crime" as something that belongs to a social class other than their own. Corporate criminals see their activities as "business" or "profit-taking." Their motives are often reinforced by the notion that "everyone does it." And when they're caught, they have lots of support from family and friends who perceive their acts in much the same way.

Ford Pinto - 1972
Ford Pinto - 1972's

In 1970, the Ford Pinto scandal rocked the business world and exposed the type of motivation behind white-collar crime. The Ford Pinto was designed quickly by the Ford Motor Company to compete with European cars that were grabbing a larger share of the American dollar. However, the basic design of the vehicle exposed the gas tank to a greater risk of explosion in the event of a rear end impact. Over the next few years, dozens of people were killed when the Pinto gas tanks exploded in fiery crashes. The Ford Motor Corporation was indicted for reckless murder. At a sensational trial in 1974, Ford executives explained their decision to leave the gas tank design "as is" by offering a "cost benefit analysis" (CBA) which showed that it was much too expensive to retool the car, even though it might have saved lives. The total savings for each vehicle was estimated to be $11. Ford accountants saw no problem with the explanation because this was a business decision fully supported by the CBA. Ford was later acquitted of all murder charges on a technicality.

When the powerful commit crimes, they indulge in offenses that are different from "ordinary" criminals. Corporate executives do not hold up bodegas, steal cars, shoplift or commit muggings. Rather, they trade stocks on inside information, take kickbacks, commit frauds and intentionally default on government loans. The impact of their crimes can be enormous. One instance of corporate crime can affect the lives of tens of thousands of people. But the ordinary citizen does not have the knowledge, expertise or opportunity to commit corporate crime. Only certain people can perpetrate these crimes and therefore their motivations are different. White-collar criminals often cite a powerful peer pressure to maintain their current lifestyle as a factor in their criminality. Others say that they are simply pursuing a sort of twisted image of the American Dream: the attainment of material wealth at any cost. To them, it makes economic sense to steal.

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