Behaving “badly” for a good reason: is this true?

The other day I saw a Facebook post by a well known Hypnotherapy trainer that stated, “remember: No matter how bad or damaging someone’s behavior might be, the intention behind it is always positive”. This is one of the main presuppositions from the field of NLP and Ericksonian Hypnosis and is used as foundation for the therapeutic protocols and within these related disciplines

Not surprisingly many fellow colleagues commented and a discussion began as to the veracity of this statement, as although used as a staple in the profession, many have an issue with this.

Comments such as “I didn’t realize rapists and paedos were just trying to be positive … silly me”

I get this entirely. As a therapist seeing people who have suffered deep trauma and abuse at the hands of another, it’s extremely hard to rationally believe that somewhere behind these behaviors the person is shooting for a positive outcome.

This deserves a deeper understanding in my opinion and comes down fundamentally to the issue of ethics and free will. The issue is that the offender had a choice to do the right thing and instead chose out free will to commit a horrendous crime.

Coincidentally the same day I was listening to a podcasts “The Joe Rogan Experience” where the interviewer was discussing this exact matter with famed Neuroscientist Sam Harris. Harris mentioned the case of mass murderer Charles Whitman who in 1966 murdered his mother and wife in their homes, then went to the University of Texas at Austin where he shot and killed three people inside the university’s tower. He then went to the tower’s 28th-floor observation deck, where he fired at random for some 95 minutes, killing fourteen people and wounding thirty-one before being shot and killed by police

Later, a suicide note was found by Whitman who stated that he had uncontrollable rage and was compelled to do these acts even though he loved his wife and mother and suggested that an autopsy should be done on him afterwards as he knew something was not right with him. When the autopsy was performed, a “pecan-sized” brain tumor was discovered in the area of the amygdala, an area associated with emotional control. Harris suggested that knowing what we know about the Brain and it´s effect on behavior, Whitman (had he survived would not be considered as wholly responsible for his actions as his very ability to control the were impaired, therefore he could not will himself not to do them).

Harris also stated that, knowing what we know about the phenomenon of Neuroplasticity , our own Neurological environment, the very topography of our brain is similarly responsible for our behavior out of our conscious control.

So from simply a scientific, rational mindset a murderer or pedophile may have anomalies in their Neurology causing them to do things to seek relief in some way. Is this a behavior seeking a positive outcome? Indeed, recent studies using MRI scans have shown that Pedophiles who act on their impulses are different from those that do not . Are there other anomalies that science has yet to find out?

While it is totally understandable to respond to such behaviour with disgust and horror, it is also a common impulse to then retributory punishment. I remember while living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, groups of British “Lads” scouring the city looking to beat up infamous paedophile Gary Glitter , who was rumoured to be in the country at the time. This behaviour is normal, human emotional, non-rational AND has a positive intention (to remove a child abuser from circulation).

The ethical waters I am treading in now is likely to fire up some people, but as Sam Harris suggested, perhaps these people are not in full control of their behavior. This is why Chemical castration is often practiced on offenders; in the thinking that they will never be able to be reformed or have the will to never reoffend.

In another personal case, when my other (a Medical Anthropologist) worked with a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea, there was the case of a man who killed his family (his wife and several children) except for one whom he named “Andacori” (death adder). As custom in the Hagahai tribe, when this man died, his remains were put on display for the elements to “do their thing” and afterwards his bones were put into a tree, the traditional cemetery. My Mother and a another doctor were able to examine his skull (in depth) and they found many lesions that were indicative that his had suffered from Yaws and that it had eaten into his brain. Yaws is a chronic infection that affects mainly the skin, bone and cartilage. The disease occurs mainly in poor communities in warm, humid, tropical areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Was this man responsible for his actions? Was he responsible for the bacteria that had invaded his system and most probably caused him to do those behaviors? What could have he been thinging, believing, feeling o lead him t do that?

As Clinical Hypnotherapists, we are well aware of the power that thoughts, beliefs and perceptions have on behaviors. What if his behaviors sought to address these in some way? Could they have had a positive intention?

The truth is seldom black and white and our responses as therapists have to be nuanced and take in the whole picture as much as possible.

Does every behavior have a positive intention? I’m not totally sure about that , but it seems to me that to act AS IF this true yields the best results in therapy because it opens to possibility that it just might be.