The expert mind of the burglar

image by kylemacThe way burglars select houses to target, and how they search once inside, reveal evidence of an expert mind at work. That’s according to Claire Nee and Amy Meenaghan who say the finding has implications for crime prevention.

Nee and Meenaghan interviewed 50 jailed burglars, all of whom had committed at least 20 burglaries in the last three years; half had committed more than 100.

In more scrupulous walks of life, a person is recognised as an expert when they no longer need to deliberately concentrate on what they’re doing – instead their performance becomes automatic and fast, freeing their mind up for other things. The researchers found this matched the way many of the burglars described searching inside houses. Over three quarters of them described searching as relatively routine, and 15 of them actually used terms such as ‘automatic’ and ‘instinctive’.

“People leave things in the same basic locations…could have done it with my eyes shut”, said one burglar. “…got to be totally focused on outside noises, sometimes sixth sense, the search is automatic”, said another. Two thirds of the burglars described the same search pattern, beginning with the master bedroom and finishing with the kitchen.

There was also evidence of expertise in the stereotyped way the burglars reported checking for relative wealth, occupancy, access and security when selecting houses to target.

“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”, the researchers concluded. They added that recognising this fact could help burglary prevention. “There may be some situational crime prevention mileage in confounding burglars’ expectations by altering the usual internal layout of properties”, they said. “Expert burglars appear to be highly habit driven, and crime prevention specialists should capitalise on this”.

Nee, C. & Meenaghan, A. (2006). Expert decision making in burglars. British Journal of Criminology, 46, 935-949.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

5 thoughts on “The expert mind of the burglar”

  1. The study does appear to show evidence for habituation to repeated tasks (burglary) but how “expert” were these burglars really, since all participants had actually been caught?

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