The Impact of Shame and Intrusive Memories in Adult Men with Criminal Justice Involvement

The Impact of Shame and Intrusive Memories in Adult Men with Criminal Justice Involvement

Almost half of the individuals in a Canadian sample of justice-involved adult males described experiencing intrusive memories of committed crimes, particularly for crimes with reactive elements. Notably, shame was significantly correlated with intrusive memories over and above other variables included in the analyses. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in The International Journal of Forensic Mental Health. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | International Journal of Forensic Mental Health | 2021, Vol. 20, No. 2, 198-211

Emotionality during and after the Commissions of an Offence: A Look at Offence-Related Shame and Intrusive Memories in Justice-Involved Adult Males


Annik M. Mossiere, University of Saskatchewan
Tammy Marche, University of Saskatchewan


The limited research concerning trauma secondary to committing crime in justice-involved persons has been restricted to male forensic psychiatric and violent offender populations. We aimed to extend this by examining justice-involved persons’ memories about their crimes, and exploring factors involved in intrusive memories across offence types. One hundred justice-involved adult males completed a questionnaire package examining offence related shame, guilt, instrumentality-reactivity, and memory characteristics. Forty-three percent reported intrusive memories of a crime they committed. These were experienced across all crime types, especially those with reactive elements. Shame was found to be the most significant correlate of intrusive memories over and above all other factors. While further research is needed (e.g., with justice-involved women), results are in line with theoretical foundations of posttraumatic stress disorder and shed light on psychological consequences of offending. The findings have implications for clinicians and researchers alike, in that intrusive memories and shame may be precipitating factors for related risk factors and would relatedly be worth considering when evaluating patterns of violence and creating relapse prevention plans.


Justice-involved adult males, offence-related intrusive memories, offence-related shame, reactive crime, trauma secondary to committing crime

Summary of the Research

“Memories about the crimes committed by justice-involved persons, in general, tend to only be of interest for risk assessment, trial, determinations of criminal responsibility, or accountability purposes…The idea of offence-related intrusive memories is a relatively new topic of interest. Much of the past research on intrusive memories or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms secondary to perpetrating crime in justice-involved persons has been conducted in largely male forensic psychiatric samples…This literature hints at the idea that factors such as shame and the instrumentality-reactivity of the offence may be relevant to whether justice-involved persons experience intrusive memories; however, this has not been explicitly examined to-date…” (p. 198).

“A primary aim of the current study was to expand on the previous offender research that was limited to forensic psychiatric, younger offender, and violent perpetrator samples by assessing the prevalence of offence-related intrusive memories in a broader and more inclusive sample of adult justice-involved persons (i.e., by including various types of offences, not just violent offences, and in a non-psychiatric population). We also sought to address gaps in the literature by exploring the psychological (offence-related emotions such as shame) and criminological factors (offence characteristics) that may be involved in the experience of offence-related intrusive memories in justice-involved persons…” (p. 201).

“The study sample consisted of justice-involved males who were provincially sentenced…and who were serving their time at provincial correctional and community institutions in a Canadian prairie province…The prevalence rate of intrusive memories in this sample of justice-involved persons was consistent with rates of intrusive memories and of PTSD symptomatology found in previous research conducted on mostly male forensic psychiatric patients…and serious violent offender populations…As expected, shame was found to contribute the most unique variance in the prediction of intrusive memories, over and above guilt, stress, and the reactive nature of the offence…” (p. 201-206).

“The negative self-evaluation involved in shame (e.g., being a bad person), and its related pathogenic and destructive nature, is likely what makes shame stand out compared to guilt, which only accounts for the actions…results indicated that crimes that were more reactive in nature, and that specifically involved dysphoric emotions felt at the time, were related to both higher levels of offence related shame and the presence of intrusive memories. It was expected that anger also would be related to intrusive memories, however, the absence of this finding when accounting for dysphoric emotions may provide further support for the relevance of these underlying emotional components that are distinct to the individual, above and beyond anger…” (p. 207).

Translating Research into Practice

“As noted, the reactivity of the offence related to intrusive memories; however, reactivity also related to feelings of shame. While it was beyond the scope of this paper to explore therapy effects, the role of shame may speak to the emotional needs of these justice-involved persons…individuals who commit reactive violence seem to have greater needs in emotional and interpersonal areas, whereas individuals who commit instrumental violence have greater needs in the areas of criminal associates and attitudes. The current findings, therefore, suggest that shame may be one of the emotion-relevant treatment needs for justice-involved persons who committed more reactive forms of crime…shame may not be something often openly disclosed or expressed – and may instead be expressed through avoidance, anger, or sadness…Therefore, an awareness of the potential presence of shame would be important for clinicians and correctional staff to consider in order to target the appropriate needs” (p. 207).

“Both intrusive memories and shame are areas of mental health that receive little attention in current offender management. Addressing these symptoms as relevant responsivity factors may therefore serve to enhance rapport with these individuals, and to bolster their motivation for change. Future research should consider whether accounting for these responsivity factors enhances programming and rehabilitation efforts (e.g., affecting rapport, coping abilities, and motivation and engagement levels). Intrusive memories and shame may also be relevant to keep in mind for risk management, specifically these symptoms may be precipitating factors for related risk factors (i.e., substance abuse, aggression), and may be worth considering when evaluating patterns of violence, and creating relapse prevention plans, both in the institutions and in the community…That said, whether or not we should target offence-related intrusive memories and shame directly remains a clinical and empirical question and more research is needed in this area…” (p. 208).

“…Future research examining whether shame and intrusive memories lead to increased requests for rehabilitation programming, treatment engagement, and recidivism or desistence when looking at long-term outcomes, would be important next steps. In the meantime, it is important for those working with justice-involved persons to be at least aware of the potential for this population to experience intrusive memories and shame related to their crimes, and to keep that in mind when interacting with them, and when developing conceptualizations of them and their behaviors…” (p. 208).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“…The finding that intrusive memories were more likely when the victim was known to the perpetrator was not found in prior research with justice-involved youth…but is consistent with recent research with violent justice-involved adult males…The reason for these differing findings is unclear, however, it may relate to more developed life narratives and sense of self in adults compared to young-adults/adolescents…It may have been true that, for our adult sample, doing a bad thing to someone known to them was likely to be more shameful and schema-deviant than the more removed nature of offending against a stranger…” (p. 207).

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Authored by Amber Lin

Amber Lin is a clinical psychology doctoral student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her research interests include forensic assessment, competency to stand trial, and the refinement of instruments used to assess the psychological states of criminal defendants.

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