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Abstract

This paper begins by reviewing research on the cognitive processing used by residential burglars when choosing targets. We then attempt to make links between this processing and the notion of expertise in the broader cognitive literature, to the extent that, in comparison with novices, processing appears removed from explicit deliberation, tasks are carried out speedily and methodically, and recognition of relevant stimuli or cues is extremely fast, if not instantaneous. We then present new data from interviews with 50 experienced burglars. We cover the initial decision to burgle and selection of the target followed by, for the first time in the UK, a detailed discussion of search strategies within the property. Forty-five out of 50 burglars had a predictable search pattern and 37 spontaneously described their searches using terms signifying automaticity-an underlying feature of expertise. We discuss the implications of these findings in terms of primary and secondary crime prevention.
1
EXPERT DECISION-MAKING IN BURGLARS
CLAIRE NEE and AMY MEENAGHAN
1
To appear in British Journal of Criminology. (2006) 46, 935-949.
1
Department of Psychology, University of Portsmouth, King Henry Building, King Henry 1
st
St.
Portsmouth, PO1 2DY, UK.
2
EXPERT DECISION-MAKING IN BURGLARS
SUMMARY
This paper begins by reviewing research on the cognitive processing used by residential burglars when
choosing targets. We then attempt to make links between this processing and the notion of expertise in
the broader cognitive literature, to the extent that, in comparison to novices, processing appears
removed from explicit deliberation, tasks are carried out speedily and methodically, and recognition of
relevant stimuli or cues is extremely fast, if not instantaneous. We then present new data from
interviews with 50 experienced burglars. We cover the initial decision to burgle and selection of the
target followed by, for the first time in the UK, a detailed discussion of search strategies within the
property. Forty-five out of 50 burglars had a predictable search pattern and thirty-seven spontaneously
described their searches using terms signifying automaticity an underlying feature of expertise. We
discuss the implications of these findings in terms of primary and secondary crime prevention.
Introduction
Studies of burglars and burglary over the last twenty years have shed light on the
cognitive processes involved in property selection at the scene of the crime (see Nee
and Taylor, 2000, for a review). Academic and policy-driven interest in situational
crime prevention has stimulated a variety of offence-specific research from the 1980s
onwards. This has resulted in considerable development in both ‘grounded’
methodological approaches and our understanding of the burglar’s behaviour and
decision-making during the criminal event (Nee, 2003). In fact there is now ample
evidence to suggest a model of target appraisal in the burglar, which is rational and
discriminating in nature and involves the kind of ‘bounded’ decision-making
described as expertise in other fields of cognitive science. Our purpose here is to
briefly review some of the salient findings on burglary from a cognitive processing
point of view, and to begin to make links with the broader literature on expertise and
automatic responses to visual stimuli. We then present new data from interviews with
50 convicted burglars. As well as enquiring about their initial decisions to burgle and
their approach to target selection, the innovative part of the study was to focus on
their search mechanisms once inside the target. This is the first time this has been
done in the UK and our findings strongly support our view of the burglar as a rational,
‘expert’ agent.
Cognitive processes in residential burglary
A number of useful American studies of burglary emerged in the 1970s looking at the
burglar’s criminal career and lifestyle (Scarr, 1973; Shover, 1973; Waller and
3
Okihiro, 1978). These studies offered us clues as to the type of information processed
by burglars in their choice of targets, such as the level of access, surveillability and
cues for occupancy, which in turn gave birth to the first study of ‘target hardening’
2
in
the UK (Winchester and Jackson, 1982). The 1980s, however, saw the emergence of
work specifically focussing on the burglar’s appraisal of targets at the scene of the
crime, generating a valuable database on which to build increasingly sophisticated
studies. Maguire and Bennett (1982) interviewed 40 convicted burglars and
categorised environmental cues used by the burglar to discriminate between targets.
Even at this exploratory stage of research, very few burglars reported impulsive,
opportunistic or indiscriminate target selection. The majority appeared to choose their
targets with the skill and expertise that comes from prior experience.
Innovative empirical work (Bennett and Wright, 1984) emerged on the basis
of this research, introducing videos and photographs alongside interviews with
burglars and two important findings were brought more sharply into focus. Like
Maguire and Bennett, around half of the 128 burglars interviewed by Bennett and
Wright utilised a sequential decision-making process or offence-chain, initially
deciding to offend away from the scene of the crime, then travelling to a location with
potential opportunity (noted at an earlier stage or victimised previously) and choosing
a target. Similar to this group, a further 17% had spotted a potential target at an earlier
stage and had returned to explore its viability later. These were in contrast to much
smaller groups of opportunists and ‘planning’ burglars. Secondly, at the final stage of
target selection (i.e. choosing a property), all burglars but particularly this large
‘searcher’ category, were undoubtedly relying on learned responses to visual cues at
the scene of the crime to discriminate between potential targets. These included cues
signifying relative wealth, occupancy, access and security. The burglar was emerging
as a strong example of the ‘rational’ criminal, supporting developing theoretical
notions that most offenders are not driven by an inexorable urge to commit crime.
More likely, they operate using the same bounded, almost habitual decision-making
processes that all experienced individuals use to navigate quickly and effectively
around their world. This does not involve a time-consuming cost-benefit analysis of
the pros and cons of each action, but relies on the use of speedy rules of thumb based
on prior learning. Johnson and Payne (1986) were the first exponents of bounded
2
The use of locks/ alarms etc to reduce the vulnerability of a property.
4
rationality theory in relation to offenders, with more recent iterations by Opp (1997).
From this viewpoint, the previously neglected areas of the situational context and the
role of opportunity became as important in explaining criminal activity as individual
motivations (Cornish and Clarke, 1986).
In the late 1980s, Nee and Taylor presented more compelling evidence to
support this picture through their research in the Republic of Ireland. Undertaking a
series of investigations involving interviews and simulations of residential
environments using slide carousels, they were the first to test how burglars responded
to clusters of different types of cues as they naturally occurred in the environment,
and the first to compare burglars’ (presumably more skilled) responses to those of
non-offenders (Nee and Taylor, 1988; Nee and Taylor, 2000; Taylor and Nee 1988).
In these free-responding settings, burglars spontaneously described the types of cues
identified by Bennett and Wright (1984) in the criminogenic setting, as attractive or
deterrent in their appraisal of each target. In contrast, groups of householder ‘controls’
demonstrated a dramatic lack of discrimination in response to these visual stimuli.
They also took statistically significantly more time in navigating their way around the
simulated environment and took statistically significantly more slides to reach a
decision, using erratic, indiscriminate ‘routes’ to do this. In contrast, their offending
counterparts took one of two modal routes in each simulation. The latter was
remarkable, given the somewhat artificial nature of the experiments and certainly
demonstrated a level of practiced expertise in the burglars compared to non-offenders.
Other work has continued to emerge, via interviews with burglars, in both
Britain and the United States, supporting burglars’ use of cues at the scene of the
crime and the sequential decision-making process resulting in burglary (Bernasco and
Luykx, 2003; Forrester, Chatterton and Pease, 1988; Hearndon and Magill, 2005;
Palmer, Holmes and Hollin, 2002; Rengert and Wasilchick, 1986). However, the
notion of expertise in burglars was significantly moved forward in 1992 by the
pioneering experimental work of Logie, Wright and Decker. In two experiments,
participants were asked to examine photographs of 20 houses and asked to describe
the attractive and deterrent features of each target. Later, a surprise recognition task in
which some of the features of the houses were changed, was used to assess
recognition memory. In the first experiment a group of very young incarcerated
burglars (aged between 15 and 17), like Taylor and Nee’s (1988) burglars,
demonstrated a significantly greater awareness of a variety of cues in comparison to a
5
group of householders, particularly the presence of cars and increased cover. Burglars
were also more conscious of these cues than a third group of police officers. However,
commensurate with the notion of expertise through prior learning, police officers were
more aware of burglary cues than the householder group
3
. The recognition memory
test showed more accurate recognition of earlier photos for a range cues in the
burglars than in the other two groups, though again police officers did better than
householders. Differences between the burglars and householders reached statistical
significance.
Having established superior awareness of cues and recognition memory in
burglars in comparison to ‘novices’, a more rigorous test of offending-related
expertise would be to compare burglars’ target selection with that of other offenders
with no experience of burglary. This might more firmly establish that the burglars’
expertise was rooted in repeated exposure to particular types of cues pertinent to
burglary, rather than to offending behaviour in general. Using a similar methodology
Logie et al. (1992) examined this using another group of young, incarcerated burglars
and a group of matched young offenders with no experience of burglary. In keeping
with the repeated exposure theme, the burglars demonstrated significantly greater
discrimination, being uninterested in an unembellished house (which non-burglars
saw as attractive), being deterred by an alarm (non-burglars were not) and undeterred
by a dog (non-burglars were deterred). On other factors though, the difference in
awareness of cues was less dramatic than for either of the two comparison groups in
the first experiment, suggesting that cues for some of the other crimes that non-
burglars had experience of, such as theft and car theft, might overlap with those of
burglary. On the recognition memory test, however, burglars were significantly better
at recognising earlier pictures than non-burglars.
All-in-all, the experiments strongly demonstrated superior awareness and
memory sensitivity for burglary-related cues amongst very young but experienced
residential burglars in comparison to other less experienced groups. They also rather
neatly demonstrated a sliding scale of expertise of an order which one could predict in
terms of the relevance of the cues identified to each group: with burglars at the top of
3
One would expect police officers dealing with burglary sites on a regular basis to have a heightened
sensitivity to cues in comparison to householders.
6
the hierarchy, followed by non-burgling offenders, police personnel and
householders
4
.
Logie et al. (1992) noted the value of drawing from studies within the mainstream
cognitive psychology world, in this case on expertise, in furthering our understanding
of the offender and developing crime prevention. This recommendation has rarely
been taken up, however, with the notable exception of work on implicit planning and
decision-making in sex offenders (see Ward and Hudson, 2001), and responses to
social cues in violent offenders (see Topalli, 2005). It seems important, therefore, to
look more closely at what studies of cognitive psychology can tell us about expert
decision-making in the broader field, and link this with our knowledge of burglars.
Features of expert decision-making
Empirical studies of expertise, or specifically expert recognition of visual stimuli and
the automatic decision-making and action that often follows, have been conducted on
a wide range of ‘experts’ in many domains including pilots, chess players, doctors,
radiologists, musicians, dog handlers, computer programmers and ornithologists (see
Vicente and Wang, 1998, for a review). In their review of the characteristics
associated with perceptual expertise, Palmeri, Wong and Gaulthier (2004), note that
‘the development of expertise involves a complex interplay of changes in perception,
categorisation, memory, problem solving, coordination, skilled action and other
components of human cognition’ (p. 379). Palmeri et al. (2004), drawing on Logan’s
(1988) notion of automaticity (see below), list ways in which research has shown that
experts can be distinguished from novices, as follows. Expert decision-making seems
removed from explicit deliberation, unlike novices who rely on explicit instruction
when learning a new task. Linked to this, speed of performance increases notably with
expertise, whereas novices are slow and deliberate. Experts can multi-task and engage
in other activities while making expert decisions whereas novices can be easily
distracted from tasks they are unfamiliar with. Recognition of visual stimuli and its
categorisation shifts up a level in speed once one has become expert through repeated
experience, allowing experts to respond to and categorise subordinate level stimuli
almost instantaneously. Experts can generalise their knowledge speedily within a
4
A later study also confirmed heightened expertise in burglars in comparison with students (Wright,
Logie and Decker, 1995).
7
limited range and can categorise unfamiliar objects relevant to their expertise very
quickly in comparison to novices.
Taken as a set of core features of expertise, Palmeri et al’s (2004) distinctions
could suggest that these provide a convincing explanation of the verbalisations and
manifest behaviour of burglars in the studies reviewed earlier, especially in relation to
burglars’ superiority over novice groups. In particular, burglars in the Nee and Taylor
experiments (2000, and Taylor and Nee, 1988) selected their targets with the ease,
speed and consistency characteristic of an expert. In comparison, householders were
slow, haphazard and inconsistent both in their search for a target and in their
verbalisations about the task. Logie et al.’s (1992) burglars were superior in both their
recognition and memory for visual stimuli related to successful burglaries in
comparison to three other experimental groups including non-burgling offenders.
Palmeri et al.’s (2004) description of speedier recognition of visual stimuli through
repeated experience and the ability to generalise knowledge quickly (and thereby pick
targets from an array of previously unseen properties) seems to explain this plausibly.
Moreover, our new data below seems to demonstrate the ability to carry out other
tasks while making ‘expert’ decisions during burglary.
Mechanisms underlying the development of expertise
Logan (1988) suggests that novices addressing an unfamiliar task will do so relying
on explicit rules or instructions. With repeated practice, representations of past
solutions build up into ‘exemplar memories’. Over time and experience, exemplar
memories will be retrieved (in favour of using explicit rules) with increasing speed
until they become instantaneous. Palmeri et al. (2004) suggest that perception and
memory become more sensitive over time with representations becoming more finely
tuned. This, in turn, reduces perceptual ‘noise’ (Ashby, 1992) or distractions during
tasks, allowing our burglars to make instant responses to environmental stimuli.
Logan (1988) notes that this automaticity, which comes with experience, is
autonomous, without intention, without control, effortless and unconscious. In short,
automatic responses will inevitably be triggered when the relevant stimuli are
presented. Of particular relevance here is Ward and Hudson’s (2001) work on sex
offenders. Their suggestion that the features of automaticity seem to characterise the
early decision stages of the offence chain in serial sex offending has been an
important contribution to the forensic field. Again based on repeated practice (which
8
increases ‘habit strength’ and the likelihood that the behaviour will occur in future
(Ouellette and Wood, 1998)), Ward and Hudson (2001) note that these decisions often
appear to be unintentional and unconscious responses to environments strongly
associated with past habitual (i.e. rewarding) behaviour. Though only dimly aware of
these early decisions
5
, they often result in offenders finding themselves in highly risky
situations, which trigger further automatic mental scripts (known as ‘obligatory
processes’ by Logan, 1988) resulting in offending behaviour. They give the example
of an offender who makes the decision to take some exercise and seemingly
unintentionally takes a walk close to a school at the end of the school day. The
offender subsequently finds himself in a high-risk situation, which requires conscious
effort to abandon. Conscious effort, however, may be inaccessible, or even actively
masked. If we accept the unintentional, habitual nature of the early stages of the
offence chain, this has very serious implications for intervention and crime
prevention. It may also be paralleled in many different types of offending behaviour,
such as burglary, and needs further exploration.
Returning to the world of burglary, Wright and Decker (1994) have also
described what they regarded as expert, cognitive scripts used by burglars to navigate
targets, once inside. Using arguably the most superior methodology ethically
possible
6
, they interviewed over 80 active burglars at the scenes of recent crimes who
reported using strikingly similar cognitive scripts to execute the burglary with
maximum gain and minimum time, effort and risk. Ninety-three percent went straight
to the master bedroom to locate cash, jewellery, guns and other small valuable items,
methodically searching dresser, bedside table, under the bed and wardrobes usually in
that order. They then engaged in a very short, superficial search of the downstairs
rooms and left the house within minutes. The same practised, routine approach, seen
earlier in target selection, was again in evidence in the efficient search of the target.
A detailed examination of the behaviour and decision-making of the burglar
once inside the property has not been carried out in Europe until our present study.
We felt such a project would represent an important opportunity to extend our
comparative understanding of the cognitive processes involved in the burglar’s
appraisal of the property, and how these relate to those involved in target selection.
Thus, we set out to replicate this aspect of Wright and Decker’s study, in a different
5
Ward and Hudson (2001) refer to them as SUDS – seemingly unimportant decisions.
6
Bar accompanying a burglar on an actual burglary.
9
country, using a semi-structured interview with a prison-based sample of burglars. We
predicted, on the basis of Wright and Decker (1994), that burglars would report the
same kind of routine and expert decision-making once inside the property as
previously noted in their selection of properties.
Method
Participants
Fifty experienced residential burglars were recruited from two closed training prisons
in the UK. All were male and aged from 21 to 60. Twenty participants were under 30,
19 were between 31 and 40, eight were between 41 and 50, and three between 51 and
60. Given the wide age-range, several checks were made during analysis to look for
differences in the nature of responses between younger and older offender groups. No
notable differences emerged in relation to any part of the interview and therefore data
from all participants was included.
Participants were identified according to a current or previous index offence of
residential burglary (n=33); via a recruitment letter placed on their prison wing
(n=12); or through recommendations of other participants (n=5). Preliminary
discussions were used to ensure that only those who had committed at least 20
burglaries in the last three years were included
7
. Over half had committed more than
100 (and this was not related to age, with many of the younger participants having
extensive experience). The average age for first involvement in burglary was 13. Of
those whose current index offence was not burglary (n=36), 22 were serving a
sentence for armed robbery, and ten for other violent offences. The remainder had
index offences for drugs, firearms or commercial burglary. No relationship was found
between age and index offence, or between index offence and responses to any of the
main areas covered by the interview. Nearly two thirds of the sample (32) had a
substance misuse problem during recent spates of burglary (usually heroin and/or
crack), though only two reported spending most of their proceeds on their habit,
suggesting the latter was an aspect of lifestyle rather than the driving force behind
their criminal activity. Substance misuse was not related to age or index offence.
7
Ten further potential participants were excluded due to relative lack of experience.
10
Materials
In their review of methodologies used in burglary research, Nee and Taylor (2000)
noted that the more sophisticated experimental and ethnographic designs had served
mainly to validate and triangulate the interviewing methods used in earlier research,
and the findings were generally consistent. Given the resource constraints on the
current research, interviews were chosen as the most cost-effective but reliable
method. The one-to-one interviews were semi-structured and largely based on
previous research in the area. Although the main aim of the interview was to explore
patterns in searching inside the property, it seemed sensible to gather further data on
the whole process, from initial decisions to burgle and target selection, to disposal of
goods as it had been some time since this had been explored in a British context. We
began the interview by asking about background factors such as age, criminal history
etc. Then the burglars were asked to talk us through a detailed description of a recent
typical burglary beginning with the initial decision to commit the burglary, through
target selection (if these two processes were separate), to gaining entry and searching
of the property, to departing and disposal of the stolen goods. An innovative part of
the interview took place during questions about the search inside the property. We
asked participants to gauge their level of concentration whilst searching a recent,
typical burglary target in an attempt to assess levels of expertise and the automaticity
of their strategies. It was difficult to find a valid way to estimate this within the
scenario of an interview, but we settled on a scale of one to ten, where ‘one’ was
‘nearly asleep – no concentration at all’, ‘ten’ was ‘really focussed, for instance, when
doing your driving test’ and ‘five’ was ‘doing something that doesn’t require too
much thought such as washing up’. If automatic ‘cognitive scripts’ were in use, we
predicted that most of the sample should score around 5.
Interviews took around an hour to complete and were tape-recorded. The data
was then coded onto an SPSS spreadsheet and subject to descriptive analysis
8
. Written
informed consent and full debriefing procedures were undertaken with all participants
using British Psychological Society guidelines.
8
Though some crosstabulation was undertaken using chi squared tests to look for relationships
between various findings and age, index offence, drug misuse etc.
11
Results
Initial decision to burgle and target selection
Supporting the research above, over three-quarters of the sample (39) said the need
for money was the primary motivating factor in the initial decision to burgle, with a
minority mentioning excitement
9
(6) or the influence of others (5) as most important,
with money second. All but three made this decision away from the scene of the
crime. These three were opportunists, usually responding to environmental
opportunities immediately. All three were heavy drug users and aged from 21 to 49.
Three-quarters of our sample (38) typically made the initial decision to commit a
burglary away from the scene of the crime and then searched around in a suitable area
until they found a target, once again indicating that ‘searching’ was the most
common method of target selection in residential burglary. Two thirds reported
deviating sometimes from their usual target selection method, particularly when
having received a tip about a property, or if presented with an irresistible opportunity.
Nine of the sample were categorised as ‘planners’, i.e. having some prior knowledge
of the target, its occupants and/or potential profit. Only two of these, however,
meticulously prepared for burglaries for a number of weeks. The remainder had prior
information of particular contents inside the target and watched occupants for a
number of days.
Features of attractive targets
Concurrent with numerous pieces of work reviewed above, our sample were making
similar checks for relative wealth, occupancy, access and security reported above (see
Palmer et al, 2002, or Nee and Taylor, 2000, for a summary). Despite searching in
relatively affluent areas, or working on a tip-off, substantial effort was devoted to
assessing the relative profitability of the target. Various aspects of this were
mentioned 57 times, most commonly: general upkeep and décor (21), visible,
expensive items (15) and type of car parked outside (11).
More important though, were layout cues (with various aspects being mentioned 87
times during interviews), particularly regarding weighing up the degree of cover (47),
access and ‘get-away’ routes (23). The particular style of housing (e.g. detached,
9
Although not statistically significant (χ
2
(4,N=50) =7.84; p=0.09), more burglars with a current
conviction of armed robbery mentioned excitement as a primary motivating factor (n=5 as opposed to
n=1).
12
semi-detached) was less important than access and potential profitability
10
. Three-
quarters (38) preferred the property to be unoccupied, with two-thirds checking this
by knocking on the door or ringing the bell. Other checks included: no lights on (7),
car on driveway (5) and milk on doorstep (5). Ten preferred occupancy as long as
occupants were asleep, because in this case they knew where the occupants were, and
most valuables such as wallets, handbags and jewellery would be in the house.
Interestingly, security cues were mentioned least frequently (39 times in total),
with twenty-two mentioning they always (11) or sometimes (11) avoided dogs, or that
they always (9) or sometimes (8) avoided alarms. Thirty said they were not deterred
by either alarms or dogs and some mentioned that they were attracted by double-
glazing (8) typically thought to be a deterrent to burglars by the general public. Just
under half of our participants (21) had noticed a significant improvement in security
in the past 10 years (as opposed to 28 who had not). In any case, all participants felt
security features were rarely enough to deter them, due to a lack of vigilance in
locking up on the part of home-owners. The most common reason for abandoning a
recent burglary was because they had been disturbed (22) rather than being deterred
by insurmountable security (14).
10
Though obviously more separated houses are likely to have better access.
13
Types of goods
All participants stole cash, jewellery and documents
11
. A further 27 took ‘middle-
range’ portable electrical items such as TVs, DVDs, laptops, mobile phones, digital
cameras and camcorders. However, 11 of these also stole items associated with more
high-level burglary. Unlike earlier studies, there was no real relationship between
types of goods targeted and level of planning. In our small sample of planners, only
half (5) typically stole specialist goods such as antiques, silver, glass, china and
paintings and used a specialist receiver to dispose of these. Many of these items were
also stolen by ‘searchers’, a third of whom used specialist fences too, which suggested
a general increase in sophistication in the disposal of goods and a blurring of the
former categories of ‘middle-range’ and ‘high-level’ burglar
12
(Maguire and Bennett,
1982).
Accomplices
Two thirds (29) of participants always (15) or usually (14) worked alone preferring
not to split the proceeds or risk partners identifying them to the police. The remaining
third worked with one or two others preferring to have additional help with the
burglary. Nearly half (23) said they had burgled people they knew (mostly
acquaintances but in five cases, family). Reasons given were opportunity (13) and
revenge (10). Twenty liked daylight, 23, darkness and seven did not have a
preference.
Having chosen a target and assessed occupancy, methods of entry varied
depending on the opportunities that presented themselves. Methods included: forcing
a vulnerable door or window (20); getting in through an open window or door (14);
and dismantling the double-glazed patio doors or windows (12). Once inside, nearly
half (22) locked the front door to prevent access for returning householders.
Searching the target
Two thirds (32) of the sample reported using the same search pattern for every
burglary. A further 13 said they had specific search patterns that varied slightly
11
Such as credit cards, cheque books, passports etc.
12
In their classification, middle-range burglars stole portable, easy to dispose of goods. High-level
burglars planned their offences, often stole to order and targeted valuable, easily identifiable goods,
needing a specialist receiver to dispose of them.
14
depending on the type of property they had entered. Only five changed their pattern
every time to prevent the police linking their crimes. Of the 45 with a predictable
pattern
13
, eight were not prepared to divulge it. However, two thirds (31) utilised an
identical search pattern, searching the master bedroom first, followed by any other
adult bedrooms and then the living area including living room, dining room, study (if
there was one) and kitchen
14
. We called this Search 1. Four reversed Search 1, dealing
with the living areas first, followed by bedrooms (Search 2). Finally, search pattern 3
(n=2) involved searching the living areas without the kitchen, followed by the
bedrooms, and only going back to the kitchen if there was time. Young children’s
bedrooms were rarely bothered with and 26 said they actively avoided them as they
were rarely lucrative. No relationships were found here with age, index offence or
addiction to drugs.
‘Automaticity’ of search
Only thirty participants were willing to use our ten point scale, preferring to give a
description of what went on and, at first glance, the results from the scale were
disappointing. Only six (out of the 30 who used the scale) rated their level of
concentration at six or below, with 18 rating it at eight or higher (and ten of these
rating it a 10 – the highest level of concentration). However, forty-seven respondents
gave a description of their typical levels of concentration, and this was more
illuminating. Only ten described their search as highly focussed. Over three-quarters
(37) described their search as relatively routine in terms of the levels of concentration
required, with many (15) actually using terms such as ‘automatic’, ‘routine’, ‘second
nature’, ‘methodical’ and ‘instinctive’ in their descriptions. Further, 15 of this group
of ‘automatic searchers’ (n=37) reported that while searching relatively automatically,
their senses were very focussed on listening for noises signifying the return of
occupants.
Scores on the scale bore little relation to actual levels of concentration.
Thirteen of the 18 who had scored 8 or more on the scale of concentration were highly
focused on noises as opposed to searching which was relatively automatic. The
following selection of quotes typify the majority that searched automatically.
13
34 of the 38 participants who were categorised as ‘searchers’ in relation to target selection fell into
this group, the remaining four not wishing to divulge their pattern.
14
Two of these searched the room of entry first, but we included them here as the rest of the search was
identical to Search 1.
15
‘People leave things in the same basic locations...could have done it with my
eyes shut. I’m very, very diligent, efficient.’ P43
‘…..got to be totally focussed on outside noises, sometimes sixth sense, the
search is automatic.’ P25
‘After so many years you know where you’re heading straight away…senses
on overdrive.’ P24
If you're concentrating too much you can't see, most stuff is on the sides.’
P19
‘I'm a relaxed person, know what I'm doing but on edge for sounds, know
where to look.’ P14
‘You do the search without realising it, look everywhere, most people leave
things in similar places.’ P26
‘…sometimes find stuff where you’re not expecting, but usually you know
where it will be. Most attention is on listening...searching's the easy part.’
P37
‘The search becomes a natural instinct, like a military operation, becomes
routine to concentrate on what’s going on around you and where to find
things. Most concentration is on the risk of someone coming back - search is
natural.’ P47
In terms of how automatic searching inside the property mapped on to levels
of planning in target selection, there was a very high overlap between searchers in
terms of target selection and automatic search once inside (28 out of 36 who gave a
response, or eight out of every ten). Six out of the eight ‘planners’ responding,
described doing automatic searches, as did all three opportunists. No relationship was
found between automaticity of searching and either age or index offence.
About half (22) of the entire sample said they started searching with the
drawers in each room and then carried on the search ‘everywhere’. Although all could
list the areas/furniture they would search, they found it hard to articulate a particular
pattern within rooms.
Seven out of ten spent twenty minutes or less inside any given target, with a
range extending from one minute for one planner to 120 minutes for two searchers.
There was no overall relationship, however, between length of time searching the
16
property and prior knowledge of goods (which planners usually had), or between time
spent searching and age.
Leaving the property
The most common decision to leave the property was when burglars decided they had
got ‘enough’
15
(18), or when they felt they had found everything of value (14). A
further 13 relied on ‘a feeling’ that they had been in the property too long and three
others actually used a watch to monitor this.
According to our sample, the average amount gained from a typical burglary
was around £800, with planners that stole to order achieving between £1000 and
£10,000. Of the 46 who answered the following question, 28 sold their goods
immediately after the burglary, 10 hid them in a safe place to sell later, and eight hid
them at home.
Discussion
Target selection
This research provides further evidence that the majority of burglars typically use
sequential, ‘searching’ strategies when choosing a target, as opposed to knowing their
target and planning ahead, or impulsively responding to potentially lucrative
opportunities when they come upon them in the environment. Our burglars’ accounts
also support earlier theoretical explanations of the bounded rationality offenders use
when responding to environmental cues for potential burglary targets in a routine,
experienced way (Nee and Taylor, 2000). Again, burglars discussed a wide variety of
cues to do with relative wealth, layout, access and security in choosing targets that the
householder still appears to be unaware of, or does not appear to process in the same
way. Their reports, in turn, support our current theoretical explanation that this type of
behaviour is an example of expertise in the broader sense, particularly in relation to
the instantaneous recognition of familiar visual stimuli (Palmeri et al, 2004).
Many authors (Logan, 1988; Logie et al, 1992; Palmeri et al, 2004; Ward and
Hudson, 2001) have noted that experts have an increased sensitivity and willingness
15
This would vary according to their immediate needs and the frequency with which they committed
burglaries.
17
to recognise relevant cues in their environment that they have associated with past
success. Further, some have noted that the instantaneous recognition of these cues
leads to the playing out of seemingly obligatory, unconscious responses and
consequent behaviours that have produced rewards in the past (Logan, 1988; Ward
and Hudson, 2001). In sex offenders, Ward and Hudson (2001) have explained this
increased sensitivity through the formation of implementation intentions. This
involves the mental rehearsal of desired behaviour, which further strengthens the
mental representation of the anticipated situation and behaviour, thus making
individuals hypersensitive to the relevant offence-related cues in the environment
(Gollwitzer and Schaal, 1998). As far as we are aware, research on implementation
intentions has not been carried out with any other type of offenders and is certainly an
area for further exploration with burglars.
Target search
Our sample provided some interesting insights into the search process. As predicted, a
remarkable 45 out of 50 described a predictable search pattern once inside the
property, in line with Wright and Decker (1994). The ‘scale of concentration’ we used
to tease out the difference between focussed attention and more automatic methods of
searching did not provide reliable ratings in itself
16
. It did, however, prove very useful
in stimulating coherent and consistent descriptions of the automaticity of the search,
without any prompting. Over three-quarters of the sample spontaneously described
their searching methods as automatic in nature, indicating that strategies were not
reliant on explicit deliberation and satisfying one of the central criteria associated with
expertise in the broader literature. Participants’ verbalisations suggested their search
was extremely speedy, while remaining methodical and efficient (Palmeri et al, 2004).
Of particular interest was the spontaneous description by fifteen participants of multi-
tasking during the search. They described using their focussed attention on listening
for auditory cues, which might signify the return of occupants or others, while
simultaneously searching the property systematically but without thinking about it.
This may be an example of Logan’s (1988) proposition that automatic processes use
little or no cognitive processing capacity leaving it more or less fully available to
perform other tasks and again needs further investigation with other samples.
16
As noted earlier, only 30 out of 50 felt able to use the scale and there was little correlation between
ratings and the subsequent description of the levels of concentration used in the search.
18
The evidence of expertise found in the burglary work reviewed above,
alongside the emerging sex offender research and other studies involving ‘novices’
(such as Topalli’s (2005) work on violent street offenders) are strongly supported by
our new findings regarding automaticity in the burglars’ search of the property.
Moreover, they are in direct contrast to the longstanding argument by Hirschi (1986)
that offenders demonstrate little skill and are incapable of gaining skills over their
careers. All-in-all, the processes involved in executing a burglary worth several
hundred pounds in around 20 minutes, strongly suggest the use of expertise in the
burglar, especially if one were to envisage a novice attempting the same thing. It is
therefore crucial to include the instantaneous and skilled appraisal of criminogenic
opportunities and environments in our understanding of the commission of crime, as
they could play as big a role as individual risk and need factors.
Implications for situational crime prevention
Like other recent research (Hearndon et al, 2005; Palmer et al, 2002), the news
regarding the vigilance of householders in relation to security issues in our research is
not favourable. Typical methods reported to enter properties (through open windows
and doors, or forcing vulnerable windows and doors) do not bode well for the use of
target hardening as the first defence against burglary and require renewed efforts from
crime prevention analysts to find ways around the naturally lax attitude of
homeowners in this regard. Novices need to become closer to the expert in the way
they process cues symbolising target vulnerability. Perhaps there is a case for
householders to practice burglaries in a simulated setting.
Re-victimisation of previously targeted properties is very high with around
two-thirds of burglars admitting to it in other studies (Hearndon and Magill, 2005;
Palmer et al, 2002). Indeed, in Palmer et al’s (2002) study, familiarity with the layout
and type of property was reported as an important attractiveness cue to burglars and
supports both Pease’s (1998) and Townsley, Homel and Chaseling’s (2003)
‘contagion’ hypothesis for victimisation of properties near a recently burgled
property. These findings may well link with the ability of our burglars to navigate
around properties virtually automatically. There may be some situational crime
prevention mileage in confounding burglars’ expectations by altering the usual
internal layout of properties. Expert burglars appear to be highly habit driven, and
crime prevention specialists should capitalise on this.
19
Unlike earlier studies (Maguire and Bennett, 1982; Taylor and Nee, 1988)
there was less of a relationship between types of goods targeted and level of planning.
In our small sample of planners, only half (5) typically stole specialist goods such as
antiques, silver, glass, china and paintings and used a specialist receiver to dispose of
these items. Many of these goods were regularly stolen by the much larger category of
‘searchers’, a third of whom used specialist fences too. This needs further
investigation as it seems to suggest a general increase in sophistication in the disposal
of goods and a blurring of the former categories of ‘middle-range’ and ‘high-level’
burglar (Maguire and Bennett, 1982) in relation to goods taken. This suggests that
strategies such as property marking are not working to deter burglars. In fact, Palmer
et al. (2002) also found an increased level of planning in their sample (50%) in
comparison to earlier research and it is interesting that many of our searchers planned
somewhat more meticulously at times, if they had been given a tip off about the
contents of a house.
Secondary crime prevention
Areas of particular concern that could be exploited in the rehabilitation of persistent
offenders are: (i) the ‘seemingly unimportant decisions’ made at the beginning of the
offence chain; (ii) the automatic processes and behaviours triggered off in presence of
offence-relevant stimuli, and; (iii) the heightened ability to recognise these stimuli.
All of these have already been noted in sex-offenders (Ward and Hudson, 2002).
There is strong evidence that our burglars and many burglars in previous studies (e.g.
Nee and Taylor, 2000; Wright and Decker, 1994; Logie, Wright and Decker, 1992)
have heightened recognition ability, and the current study suggests automaticity in
burglars, at least in their actual offending behaviour. Further research needs to be
done on the earlier parts of the decision-chain with burglars. It may be that the initial
decisions are only semi-conscious. If this is the case, it adds a new level of challenge
for intervention programmes in teaching offenders to recognise these early decisions
(and fostering motivation to change). Naturally, this research should not ultimately be
restricted to the offence of burglary.
Crucially, the playing out of over-learned behaviour in an absent-minded way
(also known as ‘action slips’ (Sellen and Norman, 1992)) is more likely occur when
an individual is tired, distracted or stressed by cognitive overload or a strong
20
emotional event (for instance, relationship problems or drug withdrawal). Given the
often more chaotic nature of offenders’ lives and, therefore, the increased likelihood
of these stresses occurring, practitioners should be aware that offenders may be at
increased risk of acting out these automatic, over-learned behaviours, if they are to
intervene effectively.
Conclusions
The findings reported here are based on interviews with a sample of persistent
burglars of various ages, in a custodial setting and involving some innovative methods
of questioning. Our conclusions must obviously remain tentative at this stage.
Nevertheless, we believe the interviews have produced some reasonably persuasive,
preliminary data suggesting that burglars’ thought processes during parts of the
offence chain may be analogous to those of an expert in any other domain, especially
in terms of instantaneous recognition of cues, speed and automaticity. The next stage
will be to replicate these findings with other samples of burglars, and with more
refined methods of gauging expertise - particularly the automatic and potentially
obligatory aspects – perhaps using simulations and ethnographic interviews, and
involving novices as a comparison group. The earlier part of the offence-chain in
burglary, particularly the initial decision to offend, needs further investigation.
There is certainly room for a clearer and more detailed understanding of the
cognitive processes involved in carrying out a whole range of crimes, as we are
attempting to do here with burglars. Such research will have important implications
for intervention with offenders and may well offer us fresh environmental strategies
for the reduction of crime in our communities.
21
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... These findings became the foundation for subsequent research investigating burglars' target selection (Bennett & Wright, 1984;Logie, Wright, & Decker, 1992;Nee & Meenaghan, 2006). ...
... This line of research informed the notion that burglars develop a form of expertise through their repeated offending, and that even those who do not offend, but frequently work with burglary (e.g., police officers), become knowledgeable and evidence partial expertise (Logie, Wright, & Decker, 1992;Retamero, & Dhami, 2009). In their conceptualisation of burglary expertise, Nee and Meenaghan (2006) proposed that repeat burglars develop a form of automatic recognition for 'attractive houses' and other burglary-relevant cues. ...
... Recent research has focused on how burglary offences are conducted within a domestic property (e.g., Meenaghan et al., 2018). From conducting interviews with burglars, Nee and Meenaghan (2006) found that cash, jewellery, and personal documents were the most common items stolen. Additionally, most of the sample reported using a specific search pattern during their offences. ...
Article
This paper discusses research and theory on the psychology of domestic burglary. Burglary is one of the most common offences in the U.K. and has a great financial and psychological effect on the populace. First, we examine research exploring the choices made during the burglary of a domestic property. Second, we discuss research investigating the actions performed within a house during a domestic burglary. The implications of this research are highlighted throughout. Finally, we discuss how to move forward and tackle the resurgence in burglary offence rates by focusing on rehabilitation, not just prevention.
... In recent years several researchers have examined the decision-making processes of offenders in relation to several different crime types to better inform the crime reduction / prevention strategies employed by crime / community safety agencies. One of the crime types that has received attention from researchers is that of domestic burglary and the decision-making processes undertaken by those that commit burglary (Nee & Meenaghan, 2006). In this paper, the authors examined the decision to burgle and the search strategies employed once inside the house by both 'expert' and 'novice' burglars. ...
... This volume provides an overview of the link between situational crime prevention and its implementation, and the Problem Oriented Policing approach that remains a popular method of defining a problem and targeting police resources effectively. In addition to the theoretical work referenced above, published work on crime prevention appears to be classified in terms of references for specific crime types, for example burglary (Johnson & Bowers, 2004;Nee & Meenaghan, 2006;Tilley & Webb, 1994); or situational approaches that can be deployed with the intention of disrupting a wider range of criminal or anti-social behaviour e.g. Closed Circuit Television systems (Welsh & Farrington, 2002) or changes to the physical environment (Casteel & Peek-Asa, 2000;Cozens, et al., 2003;Cozens, 2002). ...
Thesis
Full-text available
This thesis takes an interdisciplinary approach to the study of the impact that constructions of meaning and personal identity have upon the processes of professional decision-making, in the delivery of community safety services. The research draws upon the previous work undertaken in the fields of psychology, sociology, social anthropology, criminology and community safety. The research was composed of five separate studies. Study one was a Delphi exercise to determine consensus of meaning for different community terms in common usage for policy makers, practitioners and academics. The research was able to define consensual meanings for ten of the thirteen terms presented, including crime prevention, crime reduction and community safety. Consensus was not achieved for the terms community engagement, respect and quality of life and suggestions are made which may account for this result. Study two utilised repertory grids to investigate the ways that community safety professionals might construe the decisions that they have to make as part of their duties. Studies three and four utilised bespoke ISA/Ipseus instruments, whose structures were informed by the results from Study Two. These instruments were used to further explore the construals and worldviews of a variety of community safety professionals through six process postulates. It was found that whilst an individual’s initial job role or gender did not have significant impact upon their professional decision-making, the training that they had received in community safety and the time that they had spent working in the field did have a significant impact upon their professional decision-making. It was also found that the groups of community safety professionals differed in their attitudes towards those members of society who are the target of community safety activity. Study five involved the generation and piloting of a survey instrument whose various sections were designed to validate the findings generated from the previous studies, as well as providing further data on the decision-making processes of those working within community safety. The final chapter presents the Warren Person Process Priority (WaPPP) layered model of decision-making that was derived from the data collected to inform the current thesis. The outer Person layer is defined by the four-way typology derived from the Procedural / Free-form and Cautious / Adventurous bi-polar constructs of identity types that were identified from the ISA/Ipseus studies. The middle layer of the model describes a number of different decision-making processes that professionals may follow when making a judgement or coming to a conclusion. The order of the processes was given by the results of the survey pilot. The central portion of the model presents a number of factors that may impact upon professional decision-making, determined from the ethnographic work that informed the ISA/Ipseus studies. The order of these factors was determined from the preparatory data collection instrument that was used with the ISA/Ipseus studies and confirmed by the results of the survey pilot. Suggestions are made for further research that may expand upon the results presented in this thesis. These include a larger version of the Delphi, with an international panel of experts; correlation of the ISA/Ipseus instruments with other validated instruments for the measurement of personality, identity and decision- making and an expansion of the survey pilot.
... Since then, other researchers have taken up the challenge of studying criminal expertise. Some have continued to focus on burglars (see e.g., Nee & Meenaghan, 2006;Garcia-Retamero & Dhami, 2009;Bernasco & Luycx, 2003); comparing their assessments of defensible space to those of police officers (Ham-Rowbottom, Gifford, & Shaw, 1999), assessing their use of spatial dimensions in target searches (Hakim, Rengert, & Shachmurove, 2001), comparing the proficiency of incarcerated burglars in selecting appropriate targets (Nee & Taylor, 2000), explaining burglars' and other offenders' "deterrability" (Nagin & Pogarsky, 2001;Pogarsky, 2002;Piquero & Pogarsky, 2002), and whether they are able to translate their burglary skills into breaking into cars (Michael, Hull, and Zahm, 2001). Additional work on expertise has moved beyond burglary to examine sexual predation (Ward, 1999), and the ability of offenders to detect law enforcement (Jacobs & Miller, 1998) and snitches (Jacobs, 1996). ...
... Similarity is found in studies of target selection among free and institutionalized burglars. For both types of offenders, the majority of participants demonstrate consideration of target characteristics and use of expertise at the scene of the crime; decisions to offend occur before proceeding to the scene of the crime; they ease the effort by stealing common and portable valuables that require few technical skills (Nee, 2003); they speak to how experience has taught them to scan the environment for beneficial yet "safe" opportunities to steal (Taylor & Nee, 1988;Shover, 1996), placed them in touch with street-networks for disposing of goods, and shaped preferences for entering and searching effectively (Maguire & Bennett, 1982;Nee, 2003;Nee & Meenaghan, 2006;Wright & Decker, 1994). There are other similarities between active and institutionalized offenders. ...
Chapter
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