Robert Pickton – Differential Association Reinforcement Theory
Robert Pickton, born 24 Oct 1949, a pig farmer from British Columbia was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2007 for the murder of six women whose remains were found on his farm. The figure may be much higher, estimated at between 50 to 60. What led a man to rape, torture and kill his victims, then feed their bodies to his pigs?
The answer might be partially explained by Differential Association Reinforcement Theory (DART). American Criminologist, Edwin Sutherland, believed the likelihood of criminal acts increased if the social setting cast crime in a favourable light. Fellow American Psychologist, Burrhus Frederic Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning argues that we learn by association through punishment and reward. Psychologist Donald Akers, who developed DART, drew on the work of both Sutherland and Skinner to formulate his theory that criminal behaviour is based on what has been learned. He believed that the behaviour of an individual is shaped by the nuclear family, so early interactions formulate the basis for a person’s understanding of the norms and values of society.
While not convicted criminals themselves, Pickton’s tough mother and uninvolved father had a strong influence. His mother ran the pig farm with a ruthless hand. When he was 12 years old, a pet calf that Pickton had been raising was taken from him and butchered. This taught him that compassion was not a value to be nurtured. The loss of the pet may have caused a deep-seated anger against women, which manifested later in life, when he targeted prostitutes.
The only place Pickton felt accepted was on the farm, where he was surrounded by what was familiar – the slaughterhouse. A slow learner (the defense stated that his IQ was 86), he spent much time in special education classes and then hung around the pig slaughterhouse after school. He is reported to have even hidden inside the carcasses of the large pigs. Since he smelt of the slaughterhouse and didn’t like to take showers, people tended to avoid him. He was teased by peers and quit school early.
Later, he took over the family pig farm with his brother Dave, but didn’t take the step to killing women until 1997 when he was 48 years old. Pickton used what was familiar to kill and butcher victims, as a lifetime of working with pig meat meant he was expert at hacking up flesh and putting it through a mincer. He used what was familiar – wire and handcuffs were used to restrain victims – just like pig carcasses are hung up on wire hooks and their feet shackled – a process he had been involved in since childhood. This is where conditioning can explain some of Pickton’s behaviours.
Human life was treated with little value by his mother. When Robert’s elder, 16 year-old brother returned home to report that he had hit a 14 year-old with the farm pick-up, Pickton’s mother went to the scene of the accident and rolled the injured boy into a deep water-filled ditch alongside the road. The coroner determined that the boy would probably have survived his pelvic and cranial injuries, the cause of death actually being drowning. To an impressionable younger brother (Robert was the middle child of three), this would have sent the message that it was acceptable to dispose of a person in order to avoid trouble with the law.
According to a report by Ministry of Children and Youth Services, Ontario, Canada, “Imitation, as its name implies, is the notion that individuals engage in behaviour that they have previously witnessed others doing.” The extent to which behaviours are imitated is determined in large part by the “characteristics of the models, the behaviour observed, and the observed consequences of the behavior” (Akers and Sellers, 2004: 88).
The literature has indicated that witnessing the actions of others, in particular people that are close to us, can affect our participation in both conforming and non-conforming behaviours (Donnerstein and Linz, 1995). There were no consequences to his mother’s actions, who has the leading figure in his life, giving a young Pickton reason to conclude that if you disposed of a person efficiently you would not be held accountable; after all, his mother was not sentenced for the crime.
Pickton is serving a life sentence in Federal Prison, Canada.