Impulse Control Disorder and Criminal Behavior

The DSM-IV TR identifies many impulse control disorders. Some of them involve self defeating, strange, socially unacceptable, or self destructive behavior. Others involve legal, but socially unacceptable acts which escalate to an inability to comply with the law when impulses take over. Whether the law is very complex or whether the law is obvious and known to all, a serious impulse control disorder will be commonly associated with criminal acts.

A simple definition of an impulse disorder is one where the individual cannot resist an impulse to behave in a certain way  or cannot stop repeated behavior, even when they know that the behavior must stop. In some cases, the individual has repeatedly tried and failed to stop the behavior. In many cases, the behavior can go on for years without diagnosis or capture. The categories can be simply defined as violent, fire starting, self harming, sexually inappropriate or illegal, stealing or gambling.

With fire starting for example, the impulse can cause individuals to start fires in ways that cause property damage and death. In these cases starting fires is either for personal gratification or tension relief. In some cases the status of “hero” or center of attention accrues when the firesetter responds to the fire in a professional capacity. In this case, the term “arsonist” is both descriptive of  a psychiatric disorder and a legal criminal classification. But not all arsonists have the impulse control disorder and will set fires for psychologically unrelated reasons, such as revenge, as an act of terrorism, or for monetary gain.

Fire starting is one of the common behaviors in the profiles of serial killers, who generally have other psychiatric disorders along with the impulse control disorders.

Kleptomania is another term which is used interchangeably in the psychiatric and legal fields. Kleptomania is the act of stealing as the result of an impulse to steal things without paying for them, whether they are valuable or not. Stealing is against the law, therefore, kleptomania sufferers are criminals, whether they are caught and prosecuted or not. In some cases, especially where the theft is minor, individuals are caught and processed without the legal system being aware that they suffer from the impulse control disorder. In other cases, the behavior is so profound that a forensic psychologist is ordered to evaluate the individual. In still other cases, the thefts are “enabled” by friends and family members who refuse to confront the individual.

Gambling is not used interchangeably in the psychiatric and legal fields, except as a legal or illegal behavior, depending on where the gambling is done. When excessive and problematic gambling develops into an impulse control disorder, there can be restoration of financial losses through criminal acts. Embezzlement, theft, check kiting, professional malfeasance,illegal loan sharking, and other crimes are a result of gambling losses that become catastrophic because the person cannot stop gambling. These activities can have been identified as problematic and can go on for a time before the person is caught and the disorder is related to the crime. 

While addictions, substance abuse or other psychiactric and personality disorders are not impulse disorders, they are related to criminality in the same way as gambling impulse control disorder: the sufferer will do anything, including committing crime, in order to get to the act or substance that they are compelled to have.

Explosive control disorder is a non interchangeable term where physical violence to persons or property are the criminal acts that are the very nature of the disease. In explosive control disorder, there is simply a lack of control over temper, whether the eruption is over something minor or is something that occurred at another time. In these cases, physical violence and property damage are considered to be of such serious harm to the community and to individuals,that the law is compelled to act quickly and aggressively to deal with the individual. As a result, the criminality that relates to explosive impulse control disorder can cause the identification of the problem to happen more quickly than in other impulse control disorders.

Stephen J. Hucker, Forensic Psychologist, “Impulse Control Disorders”, 2003, 2004, 2005