The Charles Manson Killings and the Criminological Theory of Self-Control

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The criminological Theory of Self-Control, also known as the General Theory of Crime, states that the primary cause of crime is a lack of normal or adequate self-control on the part of the person committing the criminal act. This way of looking at the cause(s) of crime, however, assumes that the criminal possesses mental qualities (inhibitions) that would, if present to a greater degree, stop him from committing the crime. It also assumes that the crime is harmful to the criminal as well as the victim and that a rational risk/benefit calculation by the criminal—which he/she is incapable of performing due to poor impulse control—would result in his/her deciding not to commit the crime. These are not necessarily valid assumptions.

Charles Manson was convicted in 1971 of conspiracy in the commission of several murders, including that of pregnant actress Sharon Tate, in 1969. His fellow three defendants, who were convicted of the actual murders, had been members of his Satanic, apocalyptic cult. The series of murders had apparently been planned by Manson in the hopes of thereby instigating an all-out race war between blacks and whites. Manson is still in prison today.

The Theory of Self-Control posits a deficit in a crucial quality necessary to prevent possibly harmful or criminal behavior. This quality is referred to as either self-control or impulse control. The idea is that civilized behavior, as well as non-self-destructive behavior, necessitates continual monitoring of one’s impulses. This could manifest itself in a number of ways, both criminal and non-criminal. Richard Akers (1991) notes that “Low self-control can be counteracted by circumstances and therefore does not ‘require crime.’ Crime and ‘analogous behavior’ such as smoking, drinking, drug use, illicit sex and even accidents are ‘manifestations of’ low self-control” (Akers, 1991, p. 201). In other words, a lack of self-control does not always manifest itself in criminal acts.

The environment of sanctions is often what delineates the difference between a criminal and a non-criminal act in terms of self-control. For instance, a hungry person may steal a package of Twinkies from a grocery store or may order and devour an entire large pizza. These are both failures of self-control, but the former is unlawful while the latter is perfectly legal. The person who chooses to steal the Twinkies is considered by definition to have experienced a greater failure of self-control because he ignores the greater consequences of committing theft.

Evans, Cullen, and Burton Jr. et al., in an empirical study (1997), validated Gottfredson and Hirsch’s General Theory of Crime and affirmed the connection of poor self-control to the propensity to commit criminal acts:

We use analogous imprudent behaviors as outcomes of low self-control and as indicators of low self-control's effects on crime. [...] Consistent with the general theory, we found that both measures of self-control, attitudinal and behavioral, have effects on crime, even when controlling for a range of social factors. (p. 475)

Of course, “imprudent” behaviors include both poor life choices such as smoking, drinking gambling, etc. and the actual commission of criminal acts. The latter generally have more severe consequences than the former, but the difference could be seen as merely one of degree. At some point, the brain says “This is a bad idea.” How loudly it says it and how easy a person finds it to ignore that voice is what confers normal or poor self-control.

In examining the Manson murders case, it is actually not easy to conclude that Manson did suffer from low levels of self-control. Part of the problem with the General Theory of Crime is that a criminal act can be the result of a rational and carefully considered risk/benefit calculation. Charles Manson had a specific agenda: to foment a race war. He laid detailed plans and most importantly, seduced others into doing the actual dirty work. As Charles Bugliosi noted in what has been acknowledged as the most comprehensive overview of the Manson murder case, “Though Manson had sent the killers to 10050 Cielo Drive, he had not gone along himself” (Bugliosi, 1974, p.157). A killer with poor self-control would not have manipulated others into committing murders for him; he would have done the job himself. The fact that he persuaded the actual killers into adopting his ideology and carrying out his plans suggests a cold, calculating, manipulative personality rather than an impulsive one. Of course, in terms of the punishment he received and deserved, given that the crimes were so horrific, it shouldn’t have mattered much whether he was the one actually holding the guns and knives or simply the puppeteer. In terms of the heinousness of such crimes, it could be argued that Manson’s crime was greater than that of the actual murderers since his crime couldn’t be attributed to “the heat of passion” or any other form of loss of self-control. Conversely, the actual killers’ guilt was somewhat lessened by the fact that they had been brainwashed by Manson (this didn’t help them; they as well as Manson received the death penalty). In this and other high-profile crimes of the day, the degree to which a criminal’s self-control may have been lessened by his associations with his fellow criminals was not taken into account; yet, it seems clear that poor self-control should at least somewhat mitigate, if not an offender’s culpability, then at least the punishment he receives.

Meting out the proper punishment for an offender has always been at the heart of criminal justice. The circumstances of a crime, the mindset of the criminal, and his mental health are all aggravating or mitigating factors, resulting in widely divergent sentences for similar crimes. Predisposition due to environment and upbringing has been a factor in sentencing decisions for the last several decades. LaGrange and Silverman (1999) tested the General Theory of Crime in a study of a population of Canadian secondary-school students and found that

Separate psychological factors, including a preference for risk seeking…are used as measures of self-control…Results provide partial support for the general theory, revealing relationships between measures of self-control and delinquency that vary by magnitude across genders and for different offense types. (LaGrange & Silverman, 37)

That the authors found a difference across genders is significant, as well as that they found a difference in types of offenses: both phenomena suggest predisposition. The relative youth of the population studied also suggests that such predisposition occurs at an early age, most crucially, before persons who commit criminal acts are held fully responsible for their actions (juvenile offenders are typically given much more lenient punishments than adult offenders). In the Manson case, though, no such consideration was given; if Manson was viewed as the original bad seed and his followers fatally subject to manipulation that was not seen as a mitigating factor for the latter.

Nonetheless, recent criminology has validated the diminished capacity of free will among the members of cults. While Manson’s vision of the future may have been violent and bizarre, he nevertheless seduced many people into believing in it. If a person succumbs to a charismatic cult leader and forfeits his self-control (to that leader) as a result, there may be an issue of diminished responsibility. Sandra McPherson (1992), in her examination of the cult-related Kirtland killings, noted that “While destructive cult membership has not been accepted in the legal system as a basis for an insanity plea, mitigation from the death penalty or other reduced responsibility outcomes can be justified and was effective in defense of Kirtland cult members” (McPherson, 1992, p. 65). The surrender of free will to the cult leader, in turn, suggests that the question of the offender’s predisposition to do so must be considered. The General Theory suggests that diminished self-control begins at an early age, often because of environmental and upbringing factors. Thus, a cult member could be seen to have joined that cult because of his/her lack of self-control, in that joining a cult that turns out to foster criminal behavior is ipso facto a bad life decision, albeit possibly retroactively, i.e., it seemed like a good idea at the time. Again, this idea mitigates the responsibility of those who did Charles Manson’s bidding and places a heavier responsibility on Manson himself.

Should those who instigate bad acts to be held to be as liable as the ones who actually commit those acts? The intuitive answer seems to be “yes”; the popular view is that there is no essential difference between inciting violence and committing it. Certainly, the Manson case validated that view, in that Manson didn’t kill anyone but was held to be just as culpable as the actual killers. The question for American jurisprudence, then, is whether a person with demonstrated poor self-control can be held less accountable for his actions than a person with adequate self-control. Certainly, the law already allows for the temporary loss of self-control under extreme stress to be a mitigating factor, as in the somewhat folkloric example of the man who comes home to find another man in bed with his wife and shoots one or both of them. Self-control issues, whether from stress or a permanent condition, seem to have been validated by American popular opinion as factors to be considered in criminal prosecutions and punishment.

In point of fact, the necessity of considering the situation in which a crime occurred as well as the crime itself—the context of the crime, as it were—has been noted by many experts in several related fields. The “fundamental attribution error” is when we tend to explain the behavior of others by their inherent traits as we see them, discounting the situations in which those behaviors occur. This is an error because human behavior is, in fact, highly situational. Ironically, we tend to not commit the fundamental attribution error when examining our own behavior. Thus, that guy in front of me is honking his horn because he’s a jerk; I, on the other hand, am doing so because I’m late for work. Riggio and Garcia (2009) referenced the Jonestown massacre—one of the most famous examples of mass surrender of will to a cult leader—in their study wherein they concluded that “Undergraduate students explained the causes of a person's “bad day.” … after viewing a documentary on Jonestown and discussing situational factors in that environment... Participants exposed to the film made significantly fewer dispositional and more situational attributions in explaining the target's bad day compared to control participants (Riggio & Garcia, 2009, p.108). So in this study, students were primed to be less judgmental of others when shown a film that had depicted a strongly situational occurrence. This suggests that we can overcome the fundamental attribution error and that perhaps the murderers in the Manson case actually deserved lighter sentences than Manson himself did.

A review of the existing literature further confirms the validity of the General Theory of Crime, though it should be noted that most researchers have also noted flaws in its attendant assumptions. Grasmick, Tittle, and Bursik et al. (1993) reported that “A factor analysis of items designed to measure low-self-control is consistent with their contention that the trait is unidimensional. […] Inconsistent with the theory are…that criminal opportunity has a significant main effect, […] and the substantial proportion of variance in crime…left unexplained” (Grasmick et al., 1993, p. 5). Pratt and Cullen (2000) verified low self-control as a predictor of crime: The results indicate that, regardless of measurement differences, low self-control is an important predictor of crime and of “analogous behaviors. […] Contrary to Gottfredson and Hirschi's position, however, the effect of low self-control is weaker in longitudinal studies” (Pratt & Cullen, 2000, p. 931). Both the above studies validated Gottfredson and Hirschi but questioned their methodology.

In further reviews, the situational nature of crime is examined. The classic trio of motive means, and opportunity is used by law enforcement to solve criminal cases. In cases where an unusual opportunity and/or a strong motivation present themselves, those factors may trump any predisposition factors such as lack of self-control. Robert Agnew (2005) gave this significant weight in noting that “crime is most likely when the constraints against crime are low and the motivations to commit crime are high” (Agnew, 2005, p.3). Also, Vazsonyi, Pickering, and Junger et al. (2001), in a four-nation comparative study, questioned Grasnick et al.’s assumption of unidimensionality but also tended to discount situational and societal context: “The investigation provides further support for the multidimensional self-control measure and its relationship with deviance independent of national context” (Vazsonyi et al., 2001, p. 91). The stronger the case for considering crimes (and all human behavior) in context, the weaker the argument for taking predisposition due to poor self-control into account; many, probably most people with self-control issues remain law-abiding. They may make poor life decisions, but that does not necessarily mean that those decisions will include engaging in criminality.

There is indeed an established correlation between poor self-control and criminal behavior. This conclusion, however, has little practical value aside from identifying potential at-risk populations; after all, law enforcement can’t, nor should it, monitor those with demonstrated poor self-control more closely. The Manson cult exhibited some very bizarre behavior prior to their murder spree, and the fact that the cult had formed in the first place suggested that a group of people with a dangerous lack of self-control had concentrated, but there is little to suggest that anybody could or should have taken any steps before the fact. Our society doesn’t punish a predisposition to crime, only actual crime. Therefore, the only real consideration should be whether we treat actual, not potential offenders with poor self-control differently than we do those with adequate self-control.

Again, the fact that a crime has been committed is not proof in and of itself that the offender has lost self-control. An act of crime can, in fact, be coldly calculated and executed, and with great deliberation. In fact, some of the most infamous crimes in history, such as robberies and terrorist acts, have been meticulously planned, even over a period of years. In American jurisprudence, the passionate or dispassionate nature of a criminal act has a large impact on the punishment that act receives: there are great differences in the eyes of the law, for example, between first-, second-, and third-degree murder. The law also takes into account diminished capacity, such as not guilty (or less guilty) by means of mental defect or temporary and/or permanent insanity. It seems clear, then, that there was a significant difference in culpability between that of Charles Manson and that of his followers. In particular, the three men convicted and sentenced to death along with him should have received lesser punishments.

In American criminal justice, the question has arisen to what extent people in coercive environments can be held to be responsible for their actions. The question that follows is whether people with poor self-control who join cults are thereby less culpable for their criminal acts than others. This is not to excuse the Manson murderers but rather, to acknowledge their diminished capacity under the aegis of a charismatic cult leader. Those who lack self-control due to a poor upbringing or environment should likewise not be excused from criminal behavior, but the diminishing of their free will should be noted and in the interests of justice, be used to mitigate their punishments. Conversely, those such as Charles Manson who exploit such persons’ vulnerabilities to coerce them into committing criminal acts should be locked in a very deep, dark dungeon and the key is thrown away. Certainly, that is what happened to Charles Manson. The notoriety of his case ensured that he received the maximum punishment. But in the future, we may underweight the crimes of ringleaders who coerce others to commit violent acts, particularly if those persons suffer from low self-control. That would be a grave mistake.


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Akers, R. L. (1991). Self-control as a general theory of crime. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 7(2), 201-211.

Buglioski, V. (1974). Helter skelter: The true story of the Manson murders. WW Norton & Company Incorporated.

Evans, T. D., Cullen, F. T., Burton, V. S., Dunaway, R. G., & Benson, M. L. (1997). The social consequences of self‐control: testing the general theory of crime. Criminology, 35(3), 475-504.

Grasmick, H. G., Tittle, C. R., Bursik, R. J., & Arneklev, B. J. (1993). Testing the core empirical implications of Gottfredson and Hirschi's general theory of crime. Journal of research in crime and delinquency, 30(1), 5-29.

LaGrange, T. C., & Silverman, R. A. (1999). Low self‐control and opportunity: Testing the general theory of crime as an explanation for gender differences in delinquency. Criminology, 37(1), 41-72.

McPherson, S. B. (1992). Death penalty mitigation and cult membership: the case of the Kirtland Killings. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 10(1), 65-74.

Pratt, T. C., & Cullen, F. T. (2000). The empirical status of Gottfredson and Hirschi's general theory of crime: A meta‐analysis. Criminology, 38(3), 931-964.

Riggio, H. R., & Garcia, A. L. (2009). The power of situations: Jonestown and the fundamental attribution error. Teaching of Psychology, 36(2), 108-112.

Vazsonyi, A. T., Pickering, L. E., Junger, M., & Hessing, D. (2001). An empirical test of a general theory of crime: A four-nation comparative study of self-control and the prediction of deviance. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 38(2), 91-131.