On October 27, 1994, Susan Smith watched her burgundy Mazda Protege roll into the watery depths of John D. Long Lake carrying her two sons, Michael, 3, and his 14-month-old brother, Alexander Henderson and Fields 1995). One can only wonder what could have caused a mother to intentionally murder her two beautiful baby boys. The motive seemed to be that Susan Smith’s wealthy boyfriend did not want the children. She also stated in her handwritten confession that she knew he would never love her (Smith 1994).
I can only speculate that she meant he would never love her as long as she had children. However, I believe that Susan must have been deeply disturbed to commit such a horrible In order to better understand this unthinkable act, I chose to use the psychoanalytic theory from the psychological perspective. I think this theory can describe Susan’s behavior better than the cognitive consistency theory because the id, ego, and super-ego seem to observe mental processes more than the cognitive consistency theory does. Using the cognitive consistency theory would make it more difficult to observe the mental processes of Susan Smith that I believe are necessary to understand this crime (Lecture notes, psychological perspective, cognitive consistency theory). I will also use the social learning theory under the behavioral perspective because I believe positive and negative reinforcement can make it more clear as to why Susan Smith killed her children.
I chose not to use the social exchange theory because, in this case, Susan Smith is not negotiating anything as social exchange theory explains. It also tends to be a hedonistic view of the human (Lecture notes, behavioral perspective, social exchange theory, 2000). The last theory that will be discussed from the sociological perspective is the role theory. I believe that it is a most obvious concept that Susan Smith defyed her status and role of being a mother that our society accepts. Role theory will be more helpful than symbolic interaction theory because I believe that Susan Smith had a great deal of role conflict between being a mother and a girlfriend. Symbolic interaction theory does not deal with roles, and focuses more on symbolic communications (Lecture notes, sociological perspective, symbolic interaction theory, 2000).
The psychoanalytic theory helps us to better understand personality development of individuals. According to Freud, we have a bio-sexual origin of personality that consists of two components. The first is called the Eros, and it is our life instinct. It is our will to stay alive under any circumstances. The second component is the Thenatos which is our death instinct.
These are motivators for our social behavior (Lecture notes, psychological perspective, psychoanalytic theory, 2000). Susan Smith stated that she wanted to roll into the river along with her two children, but she decided against it (Smith). Perhaps her Eros was much more powerful than her Thenatos, or she would have followed her death instinct and killed herself also. The psychoanalytic theory also states that we have three components that make up our personality. First, there is the id which contains our drives, wants, and needs that we are born with (Lecture notes, psychological perspective, psychoanalytic theory, 2000). The id is sometimes thought of as our unconscious thoughts that we are unaware of.
The second aspect to the personality is called the super-ego which holds our moral beliefs and norms that are developed through parental socialization (Lecture notes, psychological perspective, psychoanalytic theory, 2000). In other words, the super-ego is not something we are born with, but it contains morals and values that are taught to us by our parents. The third aspect to the personality is the ego. This is perhaps the most important part of the personality because it attempts to satisfy the id’s desires. It is a neutral mechanism that could be thought of as the conscious decisions we make on a daily basis (Lecture notes, psychological perspective, psychoanalytic theory, 2000).
For instance, Susan Smith’s id wanted to be with her wealthy boyfriend. This was her main desire that she was concerned with. She knew that he did not want children. Her super-ego knew that killing her children was very wrong. Therefore, her ego tried to help out her desire to be with her boyfriend, and her id took over her personality because she eliminated her children from the picture. Thus, Susan’s super-ego Social learning theory has operant conditioning aspects to it that looks to behavior being motivated by rewards and punishments.
It states that our behaviors are motivated to avoid punishments and optimize rewards. We theoretically do this to gain positive and negative reinforcement (Lecture notes, behavioral perspective, social learning theory, 2000). Positive reinforcement is any pleasant event that we receive by performing a certain behavior. On the other hand, negative reinforcement has to do with receiving a reward by removal of an aversive stimulus (Lecture notes, behavioral perspective, social learning theory, 2000).
We learn what behaviors elicit rewards and punishments by our own behaviors. Susan Smith learned that removing her children from her life became negative reinforcement. She believed she would gain positive reinforcement which would be the love of her boyfriend. However, along with reinforcement, there usually comes punishment.
Positive punishment consists of applying unwanted stimuli, and negative punishment can be defined as the removal of wanted stimuli (Lecture notes, behavioral perspective, social learning theory, 2000). Susan Smith’s punishment began as soon as she realized what she had done. Her confession clearly states how she was terribly guilt-ridden and had felt miserable about killing her children (Smith 1994). This could be a form of negative punishment because her children were permanently removed from her life forever.
After her confession, she was sentenced to life in prison. This can clearly be seen as positive punishment because her freedom was taken away from her forever. Role theory is a theory that helps us to better understand our social behaviors. We all have roles and statuses in our everyday lives that pertain to how we live on a daily basis.
However, some people do not follow socially accepted roles and norms. Among the roles that we have in life, there can also be role conflict. Role conflict is when our different roles are not compatible with each other because of the different statuses that a person occupies (Lecture notes, sociological perspective, role theory, 2000). Susan Smith obviously had great conflict among her status as a mother, and her status as a girlfriend. She became caught up in making a choice to be a mother or a girlfriend. She most definitely made the wrong decision, one that she will have to live with forever.
Statuses are what we are in life, and roles are what we do in life (Lecture notes, sociological perspective, role theory). For instance, one of Susan Smith’s statuses was being a mother. What is a mother? A mother is supposed to love, care, and protect her children before anything else in her life. Susan Smith’s role as a mother was definitely not normal.
Perhaps she was confused about what her role as a mother should be. She deviated from her role as a mother so dramatically, and it is almost impossible to understand how a mother could watch her children die. I believe that she knew perfectly well what her role as a mother should be, but she chose to be extremely selfish. There are two types of statuses that go along with role theory. Ascribed statuses are those that are given to us without a choice, and achieved statuses are those that we choose or achieve (Lecture notes, sociological perspective, role theory, 2000).
Since being a mother is an achieved status, it is even more difficult to understand why Susan Smith changed her mind about this status that was achieved and killed her children. It is hard to believe that a mother would choose a man over her own children permanently. All three of the theories discussed previously have been successful in analyzing Susan Smith’s awful crime. However, I believe that the social learning theory can best explain this heinous incident because it seems that Susan Smith was only concerned with optimizing her rewards. This theory works better than the others because the other theories were not as clear on what motivated Susan to commit such a crime.
She was so motivated to receive her boyfriend’s approval and love that she removed her precious children from her life. In the end, she only received horrible punishments. Punishments that will be neverending. Not only will she never be free again, but she is hated among almost everyone that has heard this horrific story. I believe that Susan has definitely learned a great lesson by being punished to life in prison. She did not receive any rewards by killing her children.
This is a story that will make one’s stomach turn, and every loving mother embrace their child. I don’t think anyone will ever know what Susan Smith was really thinking as she watched her children slowly immerse into the murky waters of John D. Long Lake that autumn day. It seems too difficult to try to understand why a mother would kill her own children. Hopefully some day we can fully understand the nature of this crime, and crimes related to it, so that we may put a permanent stop to innocent children being murdered by the person that is supposed to protect them the most.
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