How Childhood Experiences Shape Belief Systems: Psychology behind the Ritchie case
Megan Roques (@meganroques)
When coding cases, we examine multiple cases with various motivations in order to determine if they fit the inclusion criteria. Lately, most of the cases that I have found have been the result of scraping documents and databases. Therefore, coding these cases leads to many surprises ranging from fugitives to crazy domestic plots. When I came across the Ritchie case, I was intrigued about how it escaped the project’s radar for so long and why it took our justice system 17 years to process a racially motivated murder. For those unfamiliar with the Ritchie case, Richard Phillip Ritchie and a co-defendant named Kelly Jean Sorrell murdered 32-year-old Howard McClendon so Sorrell could receive “lighting bolt” tattoos.
Lighting bolt tattoos are given to individuals as a badge of honor for white supremacists who murder African-Americans. Ritchie and Sorrell are facing a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole and 29 years to life, respectively.
Since the crime occurred almost two decades before it got prosecuted, there was not a lot of news coverage about the case. However, Sorrell has done multiple interviews about how deeply she regrets her crimes that resulted in her prison life. After watching some of her interviews, I was interested in the reasoning behind young individuals committing violent crimes when it comes to racial bias. Although one’s beliefs have an impact on their daily lives and motivate some of their actions, they are not static. Studies have shown that one’s childhood interactions and memories can guide their beliefs, but the idea that beliefs cannot change is erroneous. In fact, we can change our beliefs and in turn change what aspects of our lives are integrated with our sensory information (Sathyanarayana et al, 2009).
If it’s known that our beliefs may change after we grow up, why did Sorrell and Ritchie risk a life of prison for them? After World War II, the world questioned German soldiers why they committed highly violent acts against Jews. Yes, some may have committed these acts because they were simply following authority but others have quirks in their personality that made them, later on, develop authoritarian traits. These traits are developed along with their childhood values, so they are rooted in their prepubescent personality (Adorno et al, 1950). The outcome of these childhood experiences leads to people treating others how their parents treated them. In this way, they are more likely to be prejudiced against the inferior and weak members of society such the physically impaired, mentally ill, minorities, etc… (Levin and Levin, 1982).
Although authoritarian traits may not be exhibited on a daily basis, social conditions that make an individual feel threatened leads these individuals to adopt more conservative values. Some of the conditions that could have led someone such as Sorrell to feel threatened are the progress of minorities, a shift to multicultural curricula, or an increase in activist groups. If we keep in mind that the attack happened in the ’90s when both defendants were in their 20’s, it is probable that the period of social progress was perceived as a threat that could have been the source of their rage.
If individuals have prejudiced tendencies because of their “belief” system based on childhood experiences, what drives the push to actually committing acts of violence in the name of their belief system? According to Reckless (1961), bonds in society can be broken with deviations in their inner and outer containment. Inner containment is our self-perception, such as our ego, self-control, and tolerance. Meanwhile, outer containment is the social influences or the institutions that teach us our sense of right and wrong. Studies have shown that individuals who joined skinhead movements (which have similar values as the white supremacist group that Sorrell and Ritchie were in), have weak inner and outer containment (Borgeson and Valeri, 2017). Therefore, these individuals are searching for a sense of belonging or something powerful that makes them stand out in society’s eyes. The increase in self-confidence and the feeling of belonging strengthens their inner and outer containment and decreases their morality, blurring the lines of the illegality of an act. Inner containment is further increased because having the choice of causing harm or not makes them more powerful and gives them control they lacked when growing up.
I believe that there are no excuses for committing violence because of a belief system. However, studying the “why” of these crimes and the correlation between the level of violence with the intensity of the belief system may provide clues on how to reduce the number of crimes committed per year. Our internal battle with our insecurities is not an excuse to project that anger unto society. Hate has been embedded as the norm for our country but as mentioned above, belief systems can change – and it is up to us to make those changes.
Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, N. H. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper and Row.
Borgeson, K., & Valeri, R. (2017). Skinheads: History, identity, and culture. New York: Routledge Press.
Levin, J., & Levin, W. (1982). The functions of discrimination and prejudice. New York: Harper & Row Publishers.
Reckless, W. C. (1961). A new theory of delinquency and crime. Federal Probation, 25, 42-46.
Sathyanarayana Rao, T. S., Asha, M. R., Jagannatha Rao, K. S., & Vasudevaraju, P. (2009). The biochemistry of belief. Indian journal of psychiatry, 51(4), 239–241. https://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5545.58285