Displaying items by tag: Burglar's psychology

Thursday, 17 February 2022 09:25

In the burglar's mind

Throughout time and culture, human beings have always had the urge to take goods that are not their own. Entire civilisations of the past have based their existence and success on this attitude. It is thanks to laws, moral codes, and the judgement of our peers that this instinct is, for most of us today, repressed and does not manifest itself.

This perspective might be annoying, but after all, criminal behaviour is only one of the many ways of acting and behaving in society. Therefore, in order to know, prevent and combat crime, it is necessary to know the social factors, the psychological dynamics, and the interrelationships between individuals, groups and the environment that underlie human behaviour.

In particular, if we deal with home burglaries and their dynamics, we have to consider that the burglars have every interest in keeping us in a condition of irrationality when we think of them and their activities. Dehumanising[1] them, blurring them into an indistinct outline or into the undifferentiated, generic, and not too veiled racist categories of 'foreigner', 'outsider’, 'gipsy', 'junkie' prevents us from focusing on their way of thinking and acting and distances us from actual solutions. It’s true, some individuals belonging to these categories are often perpetrators of predatory crimes - sometimes disorganised and with uncertain outcomes - as they are the individuals who do not belong to these categories, but this is not the point. Instead, we need to re-establish the human dimension of the predatory act. We need to humanize the offender (not for do-goodism, a category unknown to criminological disciplines) but because this is the only way we will be able to understand how to counteract their activities.

Burglars are human beings who act rationally, and we can, therefore, interpret their way of thinking and prevent their actions. Imagining them as an invisible and idealised enemy only puts us at risk of underestimating their rationality, and therefore their expertise.

Burglars try to achieve their goals by investing the minimum amount of resources and taking the fewest possible risks. Their logic is not dissimilar to that of an entrepreneur or consumer: 'get the most for the least'. This does not mean that every burglary is based on a careful consideration of risk and reward, but it does imply that the burglar’s choice of target is not random, but influenced by cost and benefit considerations.

Despite individual preferences (often governed by changing environmental factors), decades of research have shown how recurrent are the modus operandi of burglars with respect to the sequence of the decision chain, the nature of the environmental signals used to search for the optimal target, and the method of search within the property.

The studies carried out so far by specialists (criminologists, sociologists, and psychologists) show us less impulsive burglars, governed by a certain rationality, who uses a heuristic approach (a procedure that makes it possible to predict an outcome, which must then be validated) based on the decisions and actions they have carried out in the past. They depict a typical burglar as someone who typically makes the initial decision to commit a burglary and then embarks on a series of chain decisions until the burglary is accomplished.

The instrumental need for money is overwhelmingly the main motive for committing a burglary, but many studies have also highlighted the role of an increased sense of physiological arousal that the burglar experiences before, during and after the burglary. Although burglary remains primarily an instrumental crime (as opposed to expressive crimes, such as crimes of passion or sexual assaults), it would be a mistake to underestimate the role played by emotions in the burglar's cognitive processes.

Scholars are unable to determine whether the burglars consider the harm to their victims when choosing their target. In most cases, this concern seems to be absent (depersonalisation of the victim). If some sort of empathy is present, it is likely that the burglars will implement some sort of self-censorship in order to be able to accept the fact that they will commit the predatory act even if it will cause problems to others.

It should be borne in mind that more experienced and better organised perpetrators of property offences often tend to minimise the consequences of their offences, so that in the event of arrest and judicial involvement, they would be able to benefit from a less severe sanction than it would be the case for an aggravated offence.

It is equally probable that in the burglar’s mind techniques of neutralization are set in motion, such as the "minimization of the damage" (D. Matza, 1969)[2], in order to allow the burglar to relieve themselves and to silence their possible feelings of guilt.

The understanding of the functioning of the burglar's mind around and within the scene of the burglary is based on experimental research carried out over the last 30-40 years. These have highlighted the presence of unconscious processes in the burglar's mind, which become automatic over time, through practice and recognition of environmental signals, together with more deliberate and conscious decisions and behaviours. These are processes very similar to the ones of other categories of people and professions.

Indeed, there is no reason to think that burglars should differ from the rest of the human beings in terms of the decision-making experience.

The empirical model postulated by Nee and Ward[3] comprises four stages of the decision-making process occurring in the days, hours or minutes prior to the commission of the burglary:

  1. Automatic, unintentional, pre-conscious assessment of the environment;
  2. Automatic recognition of environmental cues related to the intended crime during target selection;
  3. Activation of complex cognitive patterns, built up through practice, which allow instant and compensatory access to a rich number of examples and a heuristic procedure (which does not follow a clear path, but relies on intuition and the temporary state of circumstances). This in turn leads to:
  4. Quick responses to environmental cues that have worked in the past, in the form of execution of a script based on proven methods, allowing for a relatively automatic commission of the predatory act.

During their daily activities (work or leisure) burglars may have noticed the high market value of a location associated with elements of vulnerability. Their superior situational awareness and selective attention to signals associated with predatory activities will automatically and unconsciously attract their attention.

Burglars go to a specific area that they consider favourable to burglary and based on their experience look for a suitable target that will allow easy gain at low risk. Burglars may also intentionally go to an area where they have already committed other burglaries, knowing that other accessible opportunities will present themselves in that area. In both cases, when they are at the chosen location, they will evaluate the combination of different environmental cues in order to choose the most favourable target.

The idea that burglars scan the environment as part of their routine activity has been known since research on predatory offenders began.

In 1984, researchers Bennet and Wright[4] coined the term 'seeker' to indicate that burglars choose their target using previously learned environmental cues that indicate that the property being attacked has vulnerabilities. That indicates that the burglar, in most cases, does not have an opportunistic or impulsive approach.

Typically, the decision to commit burglary emerges before the choice of target. Different aspects of the observed properties may attract or deter the burglar (the assessment is made automatically and instantaneously as soon as the burglar arrives in a vulnerable environment).

If burglars are discouraged, they will look for an easier and equally profitable target nearby. In the new location, burglars may detect new targets that meet their needs or that could yield better results. This encourages them to undertake new explorations.

Exploring unfamiliar areas is a little riskier and burglars will take care not to appear out of place and will try to feel comfortable with passers-by and residents who may be watching them (especially if a Neighbourhood Watch programme is in operation in that area), passers-by and residents that the burglars will monitor throughout the search for the target.

The more experienced the burglars, the less discouraged they are by the security features of the property. They have higher levels of skill and greater self-efficacy. They feel safer exploring unknown territories further from their home than their less experienced counterparts. As a result of their increasingly rich and interconnected cognitive patterns, they can draw useful inferences even from small amounts of information with which they are partially familiar. This explains the (often excessive) confidence seen in experienced burglars.

Features assessed by burglars include property furnishings and valuables that can be seen both inside and outside the property, as well as vehicles. These considerations, along with those of accessibility (detached property, semi-detached, side or back access, dense vegetation in or around the property, etc.), will allow for a better assessment of the property and increased opportunities for entry and exit. The most common method of access to property by a burglar, however, remains through an open window or door.

There is an abundance of information and signals in the environment that burglars interpret as attractive or deterring when assessing their potential targets. Scholars wondered whether particular signals or classes of signals have more influence than others on the burglar's decision-making process. The answer was no. It appears that the decision-making process of the burglar is complex and dynamic, and it is a process in which different signals in the environment combine and compensate for each other (suggesting dense, interrelated patterns). The meaning of these signals from the environment may also change based on time, or there might be multiple ones at the same time. For example, the presence of many trees and vegetation in a garden may increase the perception of the overall value of the property, but will certainly also reduce its security, allowing the burglar to hide and assess the potential target more accurately on entry points and the presence of the owners without being seen. A back and side access similarly often indicates a larger and richer property, but also increases the opportunity to enter it from different points.

Burglars return to the location where they spotted a vulnerable residence noticed during a routine activity (e.g., during a work or leisure activity) using environmental cues (wealth, accessibility, etc.). They are highly likely to make several visits to better assess the target and decide the best time of day to carry out the heist.

Burglars also steal on commission. Once the goods to be stolen have been identified, other indications (such as the presence of the owners, accessibility, and security systems) are used to decide when to actually commit the burglary. Once the target has been chosen, its characteristics will determine which way the burglar will enter.

In accordance with the mental processes used to assess the target from the outside, during the burglary the burglars will undertake a 'habitual, proven search', a hybrid of what has worked in the past, which has given them higher results at lower risk, i.e., allowing them after the burglary to leave the property unscathed as quickly as possible. It seems reasonable to assume that burglars continue to use superior schematic knowledge to get out of the property and away from the burglary site, on foot or by other means.

Searching then becomes a natural instinct, a routine that allows them to concentrate on what is happening around then and, at the same time, look for objects to steal. Most of the concentration, however, is on the risk of someone finding out.

Internal layouts that are obvious and familiar, or even properties that they have already plundered (or similar to those), and the adoption of the heuristic of 'tracing', will facilitate their research and learning process.

Based on research carried out by the researchers, hundreds of convicted burglars interviewed stated that they would target the master bedroom first, then the other bedrooms and finally the rest of the house if they had the time.

Several studies also report that most burglars prefer a target that is not occupied by residents. The same sources report that burglars only enter occupied properties if no other target is available and provided that the occupants are asleep, but always taking care not to encounter their victims. The presence of residents is one of the strongest deterrents. Residents, if they realise that a burglar is trying to break in, can react and/or call the police. Confronting the owner is an experience that burglars want to avoid like the plague and may force them to retrace their steps.

Studies carried out in 2014 in the UK and the USA by criminologist E. Taylor[5], involving 40 convicted burglars, found that some burglars refrain from choosing their targets if there are children or elderly or disabled people in the home. However, the researchers were unable to demonstrate that some homes are spared because burglars demonstrate empathy [an affective response derived from an understanding of another emotional state or condition] for these specific categories of victims. This is a topic that deserves further investigation.

Burglaries and robberies

Every now and then there are reports of burglars breaking into houses armed to steal. In these cases, it is a robbery. Let us assume, based on what has been said so far, that the advantage the robbers think they will gain from it outweighs the high risk they are taking. In such cases, therefore, it is better not to run into them, because if robbers accept the risk of running into their victim, it is never good news for the victim.

Robbers are often people with no scruples and no empathy for the victim. We cannot exclude that we are in the presence of an antisocial personality disorder[6]. Their lack of empathy fosters their antisocial and criminal behaviour, allowing them to ignore the harm done to their victims by opening the door to socially and humanly unacceptable actions. Robbers usually move around in fast cars. They are commuters who move from county to county or even from country to country. They prefer to target isolated houses in the countryside, suburbs, or hamlets, preferring those close to the road to ensure an easy escape route. They almost always break in at dinnertime to take the whole family hostage, using violence on their victims to force them to reveal where the safe or money is hidden. They often have their faces disguised, wear gloves and leave few traces. In such cases, the best strategy is to reduce the damage by not making the criminals nervous and by putting protection of life before protection of property.

Experienced and inexperienced burglars

“Experienced burglars”, whose modes of operation are all similar, tend to steal fewer but more valuable items. Less experienced burglars, on the other hand, grab whatever seems valuable to them. In an experiment conducted in the UK in 2006 by psychologists Nee and Meenaghan[7], involving 50 prisoners convicted of burglary, the researchers found that more experienced burglars had a greater ability to recognise high-value goods. For example, they avoided electronic gadgets that depreciated quickly and focused on smaller items such as jewellery, drugs, electronic gadgets that did not depreciate quickly and cash. In the same simulation, burglars spent significantly more time in areas of the house where they could find higher value items. Goods such as silver, porcelains, antiques and works of art (with a higher commercial value) are stolen much more rarely because it is too risky to get rid of them, indicating that the burglar uses a clear strategy to avoid being identified after committing the burglary.

Selection and resale of stolen goods

The size of the stolen goods is related to the ability of the burglars to transport them. Isolated houses (perhaps without neighbours who may be aware of their presence) and the possibility of approaching by car, together with an easy escape route, will allow the burglars to transport larger items. In other cases, they will aim for small, easily transportable items.

Scholars know almost nothing about the cognitive and emotional processes that take place in the hours or days following the burglary, apart from the way in which the burglar disposes of the stolen goods. It would therefore be useful to gain a better understanding of what goes on in the burglar's mind, not only during the time of the burglary itself (planning, preparation, execution), but also afterwards, when the stolen goods are disposed of.

Let us empirically assume that after the burglary the priority in the burglar's mind is to convert the stolen goods into cash as quickly as possible (it is therefore not surprising that burglars pay special attention to who they sell the stolen goods to). We also assume that few of them keep stolen goods (perhaps weapons are an exception) so as not to be linked to the burglary in case of a search. It would be interesting to better understand when and why the burglars use the stolen goods for himself or when they decide to put them on the informal and clandestine market. From this choice it could be inferred whether the offender is more or less occasional or more or less organised. It should also be borne in mind that, in the latter case, there may be the possibility of finding the same goods again through other channels, which will lead to the commission of other forms of crime, such as laundering or self-laundering.

Most burglars do not make much effort to obtain better prices from fences, accepting offers that meet their immediate needs. Experienced burglars, on the other hand, tend to bargain for more acceptable prices from fences and are much more careful in choosing to whom they sell their stolen goods. They rarely sell to friends or family members.

A study by J. Clare (2011)[8] suggests that for many burglars the ways to avoid being caught after a burglary may be much less developed and sophisticated when compared to the superior skill demonstrated during the execution of the burglary itself.

We should capitalise in terms of prevention on the fact that we know that burglars entering a home expects an environment with which they are 'familiar'. An environment in which their routine and expert behaviour works well without having to think too much about it.

While the burglary is in progress, sudden and unexpected events may lead the burglar to give up due to cognitive overload and the resulting anxiety. This seems to be a potential deterrent that is not yet sufficiently exploited in predatory crime prevention techniques.

Presenting the burglars with unexpected environmental layouts[9] or sudden noises and voices could deter them and destabilise the overconfidence they have in themself based on their accumulated skills.

Leonardo Campanale - EUNWA President



[1] It is a radical form of devaluation that consists in the denial of the other's humanity. On this subject, see Deumanizzazione,  Chiara Volpato, 2011 Laterza.

[2] Matza D., Becoming deviant, New York, 1969.

[3] Ward, T. & Nee, C. (2009). Surfaces and depths: evaluating the theoretical assumptions of cognitive skills programmes. Psychology, Crime and Law (special edition on Offender Cognition and Emotion), 15, 165-182.

[4] Bennett, T. &. Wright. R. (1984). Burglars on burglary: prevention and the offender. Aldershot: Gower.

[5] Emmeline Taylor (2014). Honour among burglars? How morality and rationality influence the decision-making processes of convicted domestic burglars. Sage Journals. Volume: 14 issue: 4, page(s): 487-502.

[6] Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition [DSM-5]

[7] Nee, C., & Meenaghan, A. (2006). Expert decision-making in burglars. British Journal of Criminology, 46(5), 935-949. doi: 10.1093/bjc/az1013

[8] Clare, J. (2011). Examination of systematic variations in burglars' domain-specific perceptual and procedural skills. Psychology, Crime & Law, 17(3), 199-214. doi: 10.1080/10683160903025810

[9] For example, darkening the room by setting off alarms, which are already widely used, filling the house with smoke.


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