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Feature Articles


May 2016
Paternalistic Psychopathy? The Mafiosi’s Mind

      By Emma Stevens


Emma Stevens is a London based Business and Finance writer.

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Paternalistic Psychopathy? The Mafiosi’s Mind

We all have an image in our heads of a mafiosi. From countless portrayals on television, in movies [1], form video games [2], and thrill-seeking news outlets, we think we know quite a lot about how members of organized criminal gangs present themselves. We also think that we know a fair deal about how the kinds of things they get up to. But do we really know as much as we think we do? How, for example, do organized criminals see themselves? Probably in quite a different light to the way in which we see them. What goes on inside their heads? What makes them do the things they do? Is there a particular mindset which one needs in order to be a mafiosi?

A lot of it, of course, depends upon why the individual mafiosi joined, and what they hope to gain from their mob membership. And this depends upon which particular organised crime group you belong to. Some are about power, others about possessions. Some are about a particular ideal, and some are simply about belonging to a particular culture. The pull of belonging, of being someone, of having your own particular band of brothers (be they ever so criminal) is something with which many of us can identify. It’s the crime element of it which muddies the psychological waters for us.

Al Capone
Al Capone 1930
Murder, extortion, racketeering, intimidation. Violence, and perpetual lying. Surely the kinds of people that engage in these kinds of activities must be mad, or in some way mentally aberrant? What other explanation could there be? Well, as with everything, it all depends upon personal context. In this case, it all depends upon what you define as ‘mad’ or ‘bad’. Were the medieval Inquisition ‘mad’ when they tortured those they believed to be heretics? Were the soldiers in Vietnam ‘mad’ when they napalmed the jungle? Is the state of Texas ‘mad’ when it executes a criminal? Is someone ‘bad’ when they steal food to feed their starving children? Are all lies inherently ‘bad’, even when the liar’s context gives them few other choices [3]? Some may say that, yes, all of these things are ‘mad’ or ‘bad’ - but, for the people and authorities carrying them out, they’re sanctioned, legitimate, normal, and even ‘good’ [4]. The same is true for many members of organized criminal gangs. ‘Normal’ and ‘Good’ are redefined, and the sanction of the gang becomes superior to the sanction of the state. Many mafiosi do not think that they are being particularly villainous when they carry out the deadly instructions of their gang. For them, the good of the mob, and the mob’s own morals supersede the claims of law and order. They can thus present ostensibly atrocious acts to themselves as perfectly justifiable - and even worthy.

Having said this, there are certainly people who are more suited to a life of organized crime than others. Just as not everyone can be a soldier, or a teacher, not everyone can become a successful mafiosi. A certain bravura, intelligence, disregard for the law, and the ability to obey all help - as, naturally, do a willingness to commit criminal and possibly violent acts. Loyalty, and commitment to the Mafia culture are prized - but those who slavishly worship at the feet of the ‘family’ tend not to rise particularly high. While loyalty and cultural integration are great assets which undoubtedly help to bind groups together, those who wish to advance can also benefit from a bit of cunning ambition. Like power-hungry cardinals around a papal corpse, many prominent mafiosi display a complex mix of love, ambition, devotion to their ‘family’, and sharp-toothed self-interest [5].

Paul Castellano
Paul Castalano 1984
While this is a broad statement, to which there are many exceptions, it could be argued that there are certain personality traits which help if you wish to be a high-ranking mafiosi. If you’re looking to climb up the ladder and take high position, it would aid you to have a good degree of narcissism. Conviction in your own righteousness and infallibility is hugely beneficial. You can base this conviction within yourself (narcissism), or within a higher power (religious fanaticism) - the important thing is that you are unswayable in your self-belief. A willingness to do violence and harm to others if necessary is also key. However, perhaps surprisingly, genuine psychopaths do not tend to get far in the Mafia. Remember, the whole point is to lead a group - a group so ostensibly bonded that they think of themselves as a family. The violence you do is not for your benefit - it is for the benefit of the Mob as a whole. Being able to inspire loyalty and real, true love is perhaps the most crucial element of a high-ranking mafiosi’s psychological profile. Research tends to show that, far from the popular perception, Mafia members are very family-focused, demonstrate great sensitivity, and are not selfish [6]. The ability to share for the good of the mob, rather than to hoard proceeds yourself wins friends, favors, and support. Violence, it seems, is often part of the mob culture (and legitimized as such) rather than an indicator of unusual levels of psycopathy.

Key Sources

[1] “Mob Scenes - Pop culture is embracing the Mafia as never before”

[2] “14 Things You Missed From That Ambitious Mafia 3 Trailer!”

[3] “Go Easy on the Liar Label: Try Creating Safety First”

[4] “Capital punishment”

[5] “My father, New York’s most feared Mafia boss”

[6] “Mafia mobsters are more sensitive, family-centred and less selfish than other criminals”


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