Prevention Through Understanding

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A very interesting article titled "The Strange Expertise of Burglars" explores the "flow state" of professional burglars -- how they remain calm enough during break-ins to locate, evaluate, and abscond with valuables.

"In the past, people thought of offenders as impulsive, indiscriminate, opportunistic -- they didn't think they were very clever because they usually aren't well educated," [forensic psychologist Claire Nee] says. And that has been a mistake. Nee has found that burglars have a complex cognitive toolbox of advanced, automatic skills -- much like a chess player or tennis star. If we are to prevent future crimes, we've got to appreciate that expertise.
Our news media do little to disabuse us of the stereotype of criminals as impulsive and even bungling -- and there are many criminals that fit that stereotype. But Nee's findings to the contrary are worth heeding since they lead to measures that can head off burglary, such as making sure windows are closed when we leave home.

Nee also suggests that her findings can help "rehabilitate" criminals. I suspect that Stanton Samenow, author of Inside the Criminal Mind, which I read years ago and highly recommend, might disagree, at least in part. In that book and other work, Samenow considers the basic thinking error that makes a criminal:
["Errors in thinking"] are thought patterns that, in combination with one another, give rise to behavior that harms other people. An example is the criminal's sense of entitlement or sense of ownership. From his perspective, when he enters a room, every object in that location that he desires already belongs to him. He just has to figure out how to take possession of it and conceal it while he makes his getaway.
Samenow elaborates on how criminal thinking affects the process of reforming a criminal later, within the same interview:
The dictionary defines "rehabilitate" as a process of restoring a person or object to an earlier constructive state or condition. Rehabilitating a 19th century mansion entails returning it to its former grandeur. Rehabilitating a stroke victim involves helping her regain functions she previously had. There is nothing to which to "re-habilitate" a criminal. The scope of "habilitation" is larger. It is to help him abandon thinking errors that give rise to criminal conduct, to learn corrective concepts, and implement those concepts so as to live responsibly.
Considering the thoughts of Nee and Samenow taken together, it occurs to me that abandoning the more fundamental errors Samenow focuses on would subsume or obviate some of the remedies Nee suggests, such as teaching criminals to ignore things like open windows. That said, Nee's advice can still help us safeguard against being victimized by passers-by, against whom we might not have the opportunity to apply some of Samenow's advice, such as the following:
Do not make rash decisions to trust people on the basis of first impressions. Personalities reveal themselves over time, often very slowly. If a person asks you to do something that is contrary to your beliefs, trust your instincts and do not get involved. If a sales pitch seems too good to be true, avoid the purchase. Trust your common sense in terms of how you attract attention. Secure valuable possessions, leaving them out of temptation's reach. Do not lend money or possessions to anyone whom you do not know very well. Avoid areas that you know to be unsafe.
Of course, one could argue that leaving a window open is effectively a decision to trust every random passer-by not to break in. However, Nee's consideration of the decision-making process of practiced burglars underscores just what a criminal will take as trust. Such things do not occur to most civilized people.

-- CAV

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