Excitement, not profit, drives young burglars to crime

Young burglars are driven more by excitement than anything else when committing their first crimes, a new study finds.

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The authors wanted to highlight the role emotions, namely positive emotions such as excitement, play in the initial decision to commit a crime. This initial decision is very important, they explain, as the experience they gain until the rush fades off makes it more likely that individuals will turn to habitual offending.

Do it for the vine

“It’s important to understand under what circumstances young people make that initial decision to commit a crime, so we can think about intervention,” says Dr. Claire Nee, Reader in Forensic Psychology, who led the study.

“The role of emotion in driving the desire to commit crime is a much neglected area and our research indicates it could be key to stopping it in its tracks. The excitement drives the initial spate of offending, but skill and financial reward quickly take over resulting in habitual offending.”

The team worked with a group of young burglars (average age 20) and an older, more experienced group of residential burglars (average age 39). The participants were asked to carry out a virtual burglary, a simulated environment in which they had to pick and break into a property. The team asked them to ‘think aloud’ during the exercise, and later interviewed each participant on his decision-making process and actions. They were also asked about their experiences in the days or hours before their real-life burglary to see what process led them to commit the crime.

The team found that nobody was actually intent on being a burglar; the participants simply drifted to the ‘profession’, they didn’t rush headlong for it. Yet, offending was often considered an integral and almost inevitable part of participants’ lifestyles. One young burglar said that “where [he’s] from, that’s what it’s like, it’s crime, like, that’s the norm.” An older burglar also recounted that he “was just born on the streets” and “that’s what people do [on the streets]”.

“What really struck me about the research is how young offenders can’t identify a clear initial decision to commit a burglary — it’s just part of the ‘flow’ of what they’re doing with their adolescent comrades,” says Dr. Nee.

The authors say that their results suggest that the initial burglaries are linked with the desire for excitement; it’s a thrill the first couple of times, they explain, but this fades away with repeated offenses. After this point, the participants were more motivated by the prospect of making quick, easy money; one participant recalls “thinking, wow, is this what 10 minutes of work is?” after a burglary.

Better knowing how people turn to crime and what motivates them at various stages can help us design better intervention procedures to prevent or cut short a career in crime.

The paper “Expertise, Emotion and Specialization in the Development of Persistent Burglary” has been published in The British Journal of Criminology.

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