Inside the Minds of Inmates

Inside the Minds of Inmates

Inside the Minds of Inmates

By going inside the minds of those sitting behind bars, we wanted to know -- might inmates’ mental make-up help us understand how we can reduce the number of people currently incarcerated?

There are over 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in the United States.  Said another way, there are as many people behind bars within our country as there are within America’s fourth largest city – Houston, Texas.  As a nation, the United States locks up a greater share of its population than any other country in the entire world.  Beyond this, research suggests about three out of four inmates will be rearrested within five years of being released.  Considering these shocking numbers, we must ask:  What can be done to help decrease the number of inmates incarcerated and the likelihood of recidivism?

To shed some light on this, we took a deep-dive inside the minds of inmates.  Partnering with an adult detention center in a metropolitan city in the Midwest, we assessed the non-cognitive skills of over 100 inmates – individuals charged with anything from probation violation to first-degree murder.  We utilized the Intrinsic Profile, a psychometric tool used to obtain a snapshot of a person’s non-cognitive skills such as grit, growth mindset, hope, resilience, self-control and other factors we find in research to be related to many positive life outcomes.  To date, we have primarily used this tool to assess the mindsets of high-performing groups by going inside the minds of champions, leaders of organizations, healthcare professionals, educators, and students.  We have not, however, ever assessed a group like these inmates. 

Based on previous research, we hypothesized the inmates would be extremely low in many of the mental skills we measure.  What we found, however, was not quite what we expected.  While the inmates scored below average levels in every non-cognitive factor we assessed, they were not drastically low in everything.  In fact, we came to find out that the inmates’ levels of hope, resilience, and self-awareness were close to average.  Said another way, we learned that the inmates felt they were capable of finding pathways around the obstacles they currently face (hope), could effectively deal with and bounce back from their current adversity (resilience), and felt comfortable and confident in who they are as people (self-awareness).  

We then examined the specific skills where we witnessed notable differences between the inmates and others in our global data set.  The lowest area for the inmates was in their integrity scores.  Like many of the forthcoming factors, we found the inmates had the lowest aggregate integrity score of any group or organization we’ve ever assessed.  In their responses, the inmates conveyed they had little sense of a moral compass, were much more willing to commit criminal acts, and had a much lower standard of ethics relative to others. 

The next area of significant difference was in their levels of self-control.  We found the inmates had a difficult time resisting temptations and delaying gratification.  Relative to others, they do not think through the possible consequences before acting.  They also have a difficult time controlling their impulses.  In addition to having a lack of self-control, the inmates were also very low in their internal locus of control.  The inmates felt their actions had little impact on the outcomes that occur in their life and that any success they might experience was due much more to factors beyond their control such as fate or luck than factors within their control such as their decisions, effort, or hard work. 

Fourth, the inmates appeared to be exhibiting a thinking style characteristic of a fixed mindset.  Unlike others with a growth mindset, the inmates generally felt that who they are has been largely pre-determined at birth.  In other words, there was very little they could do to fundamentally change who they are.  There was a sentiment that they were born to be criminals, and that there was not much they could do to change that. 

Finally, we also found the inmates were very low in their self-determination, which is characterized by pursuing very meaningful goals and having a strong sense of purpose in one’s life.  While the inmates did convey they had a sense of purpose in their lives, they were not pursuing highly meaningful goals that served a purpose beyond themselves - they were not pursuing prosocial goals. 

In analyzing these results when going inside the minds of inmates, a picture began to emerge.  Our data suggests the mental make-up of an incarcerated person appears to involve:

 Believing one’s potential in life is largely fixed and incapable of being changed


 Possessing few, if any, highly meaningful goals that contribute to a cause greater than oneself


 Having little sense that your decisions and efforts will influence the outcomes that occur


  Struggling with resisting temptations and controlling one’s impulses


  Having low levels of integrity


With these results in hand, we were then left wondering: if we could work to cultivate these skills within the inmate population, could this help? 

We believe it can.  And we believe it will. 

As we have shared in previous work, we firmly believe these non-cognitive skills can be cultivated.  They are not fixed facets of human character but instead are skills capable of being developed.  As evidenced by a recent report outlining strategies for reducing failures in self-control, leading scholars such as Angela Duckworth and other colleagues are actively researching how to best do this.  As we continue finding ways to help cultivate these important skills to optimize human performance, it is our hope that these strategies will one day reach the inmate population. 

In conclusion, we set out on this project to learn what makes inmates tick.  With over 2.3 million people currently incarcerated, most of whom will go on to return to jail or prison upon their release, we wanted to know: what is going on inside the minds of inmates?  When doing this, we discovered that inmates were low in many, but not all, non-cognitive skills.  Relative to other people not incarcerated, we found the inmates tended to possess fixed mindsets, had low self-determination, possessed an external locus of control, as well as had very low levels of self-control and integrity.  And together, these factors may help to explain why these people sit behind bars.  By getting a snapshot of the mindsets of these inmates and learning the specific skills in which they are lacking, we hope that professionals serving this population can now take proactive steps in helping inmates cultivate the necessary skills to improve their own lives as well as to help keep our communities safe.    


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