Psychologists study burglars’ expertise

Their actions are criminal and they cause untold misery, but repeat burglars are skilled at what they do and in that sense they are experts. By studying this expertise we can learn to better secure our properties against the threat of theft, and detectives can learn to spot the signature trail of an experienced robber.

Most previous research in this area has relied on interviews with burglars about their strategies: a limited approach. A new study is more compelling. Claire Nee and her team recruited six former repeat burglars (each had committed hundreds of burglaries) and watched via video camera as they entered and robbed a carefully prepared residential house.

The burglars, all male, were fitted with a head-mounted camera. They all stole into the house via the rear of the property whereas six male postgrads, tested for comparison, all entered via the front. The burglars spent proportionately more time in rooms that contained more valuable items. Half of them began upstairs and worked their way down whereas the students all started their room searches downstairs.

The burglars took fewer items, but they targeted those that were more valuable. In fact, the average haul of the burglars was nearly £1000 more than the haul obtained by the students. There was also a lot more variation in the movements and strategies of the students than the burglars, which shows how the latter were operating in an optimised, less random fashion. The students also tended to miss valuable items such as designer bags containing cash and phones, and the leather jackets in the hallway.

“All in all, the much narrower distribution of response from burglars on almost all measures within this environment … supported the idea of a more discriminate, systematic and practised approach to the tasks at hand,” the researchers said. 

Similar results were obtained when the burglars and students performed the same test on computer through a virtual reality mock-up of the same house (mouse clicks were used to navigate and “steal” items). Nee and her team said this was important because it is obviously much easier to conduct research using a simulated house than to gain permission to use a real residential home. If such an approach proves to be valid with larger samples, they said “a range of simulated environments can be created and used to study a wide range of offending behaviour with both incarcerated and active offenders.”


Nee, C., White, M., Woolford, K., Pascu, T., Barker, L., & Wainwright, L. (2015). New methods for examining expertise in burglars in natural and simulated environments: preliminary findings Psychology, Crime & Law, 21 (5), 507-513 DOI: 10.1080/1068316X.2014.989849

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

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