Measuring the Expertise of Burglars

New research paper: "New methods for examining expertise in burglars in natural and simulated environments: preliminary findings":

Expertise literature in mainstream cognitive psychology is rarely applied to criminal behaviour. Yet, if closely scrutinised, examples of the characteristics of expertise can be identified in many studies examining the cognitive processes of offenders, especially regarding residential burglary. We evaluated two new methodologies that might improve our understanding of cognitive processing in offenders through empirically observing offending behaviour and decision-making in a free-responding environment. We tested hypotheses regarding expertise in burglars in a small, exploratory study observing the behaviour of 'expert' offenders (ex-burglars) and novices (students) in a real and in a simulated environment. Both samples undertook a mock burglary in a real house and in a simulated house on a computer. Both environments elicited notably different behaviours between the experts and the novices with experts demonstrating superior skill. This was seen in: more time spent in high value areas; fewer and more valuable items stolen; and more systematic routes taken around the environments. The findings are encouraging and provide support for the development of these observational methods to examine offender cognitive processing and behaviour.

The lead researcher calls this "dysfunctional expertise," but I disagree. It's expertise.

Claire Nee, a researcher at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K., has been studying burglary and other crime for over 20 years. Nee says that the low clearance rate means that burglars often remain active, and some will even gain expertise in the crime. As with any job, practice results in skills. "By interviewing burglars over a number of years we've discovered that their thought processes become like experts in any field, that is they learn to automatically pick up cues in the environment that signify a successful burglary without even being aware of it. We call it 'dysfunctional expertise,'" explains Nee.

See also this paper.

Posted on April 30, 2015 at 2:22 PM • 13 Comments


Andre GirondaApril 30, 2015 4:23 PM

I wonder how these two would fare -- -- the plan was solid: rob electronics gear and cash from rich Silicon-Valley types by posing as prostitutes. That way, many successful robberies would go unreported due to the victims not wanting to reveal their discretions. Of course, the whole plan fell apart once the robbers stole a prototype iPad. Go figure.

GweihirApril 30, 2015 5:45 PM

Calling this "dysfunctional expertise" is scientifically unprofessional. It is expertise, it is entirely functional, it has the same characteristics of other expertise (a very result of the research presented). A moral judgment has no place in a scientific paper, except maybe as a personal comment or observation. I also bet that if this was about "sanctioned" burglary like, for example, performed by CIA "black teams" (to cover-up stealing intel or place bugs), the "dysfunctional" would magically vanish, despite it being the same type of expertise.

On the other hand, as the scientific landscape is sometimes not too rational and scientific papers may well get into the hands of judgmental amateurs (that may still decide over funding), such countermeasures may well be required even if they degrade the quality of the result presentation.

keithApril 30, 2015 6:26 PM

What utterly redundant research. "People who practice get better at things."

albertApril 30, 2015 6:33 PM

LOL. I could have saved them the trouble; when you practice, you get better. It's true in every area of life.....except in US foreign policy. Psychologists should study the psychopaths in the State Dept. That would make some interesting reading.

kingsnakeApril 30, 2015 8:47 PM

How much expertise does it require to brick a window? See. Brick. Take. That's all the "thinking" process your average thief indulges in. Higher order thought being a bit difficult with all the meth / heroin / crack messing with the synapses. If they were capable of thinking beyond immediate gratification, they would come to the inevitable conclusion that nickle & dime crime does not pay. (Looting national treasuries on the other hand ... pff. Club Fed. At worst.)

Clive RobinsonMay 1, 2015 7:32 AM

There are problems with this research. Specifically, the novices cove a much broader spectrum than the experts. Specifically the experts usex have all failed to be sufficiently expert to avoid being identified...

That is there are some experts out there who either by luck or more expertise have not been identified / caught, and thus unavailable for the research....

It is suspected that in for instance house breaking there are a significant number of women, but the majority of house breakers caught / identified are male.

The reason for this appears to being carefull about what is taken and how, such that the crime is not immediately obvious to the house owners. Many male house breakers make obvious physical entry take obvious easily visable items or throw stuff out of draws etc when searching and strangly often do not wear gloves or cover their faces etc, consiquently they get easily identified and caught.

Some women have been suspected but not caught as they do almost the exact opposite of the males, they leave little or no sign of entry, they do not take easily visable items, they are carefull about how they search and take care not to leave either biological or tool evidence. The fact that the crime is often not immediately apparent to the house holder means that any trace evidence that might have been left becomes unavailable due to cleaning and other normal household activities. The reason that some of these women have become suspected is that of the exchanging proceads for gain, they or those they use to realise value from the stolen items get caught or suspected as having goods they can not prove ownership for, although it often can not be shown that the items are stolen.

As has been pointed out in the past there are three basic types of burglar. The first is the "see, smash and grab" opportunist who gets seen / heard etc but gets away before a response from authorities. The second is those who do minimal planning but make the crime obvious and usually get identified and caught after a period of crimes. The third group who often do not get caught by the crime it's self plan carefully, take care to minimise any biological or tool trace evidence.

The authorities catch criminals in a number of ways. The first is by chance or targeted rapid response where the criminal is caught in the act. The second is because the criminal is identified because they get "grassed up" by others or their own boasting or lifestyle etc, and they get convicted by trace or other evidence collected and stored. The third is by back tracing the chain of possession of identified stolen items that turn up and are identified. The fourth is by identifing likely recipients of stolen items, that is very high value or rare or specialised items are in effect "stolen to order" identifing the end buyer gives the authorities targets to watch.

Most criminals who get caught have done so because they have not planed what they are going to do from begining to end, including realising value from the proceads and providing a reliable way to launder the value, and ensuring that others involved are suitably cautious.

K.S.May 1, 2015 7:39 AM

@Gweihir You are asking too much from soft science like psychology.

RFMay 1, 2015 9:23 AM

@Clive Robinson:
  Specifically the experts usex have all failed to be sufficiently expert to avoid being identified...

The fact that the "experts" studied were not good enough to avoid being caught should somewhat strengthen the argument that there may be a significant expertise curve in burglary. If the people who were caught are this much better than the novices, imagine the skill required to stay uncaught.

However, this is a study with a very small sample size. Broad conclusions like "there is a significant difference in the expertise of novice and experienced burglars" cannot be made without much more data.

Kieran MacMay 1, 2015 12:30 PM

@Clive Robinson

"Many male house breakers make obvious physical entry take obvious easily visable items or throw stuff out of draws etc when searching and strangly often do not wear gloves or cover their faces etc, consiquently they get easily identified and caught"

The reason for no masks is obvious: wearing a mask on and off the property makes you look like a burglar, as surely as that guy with a canvas bag labelled "$" did. Assuming there are cameras, putting the mask on and taking it off while inside the property offers no protection over not wearing a mask at all. Hence for nonviolent robberies the best strategy might be to stroll in and out without acting suspiciously in public. For violent robberies, of course, the only useful strategy is to be very aggressive.

Tony H.May 1, 2015 2:36 PM

I read the paper, and it is indeed on the light and speculative side. But in fairness, the authors admit that the sample size is way too small for real stats, and are mostly suggesting that doing studies with their virtual housebreaking scheme might be valid if performed with much larger sample sizes.

What caught my eye (in the interview where she describes this unfortunately named "dysfunctional expertise", not the paper itself) is the notion that the professionals are always on the lookout for opportunity as a background task, which (surprise!) matches the security mentality that's been discussed here a number of times. People Like Us (whether white hat or black) tend to automatically observe what goes on at a store or airport or web site or any other place with an eye to security flaws, and I don't think this is much different from what experienced [ex-]burglars do. Meanwhile the novices don't much notice these things - whether a broken protocol for the door to a airport's sterile area, or a suspicious browser popup. Whether this mentality is teachable, for good or bad, is an interesting question.

RogerMay 5, 2015 12:23 PM

There certainly are some potential issues with this study. The most important is actually brushed on by the authors:
"...findings need to be empirically validated in a free-responding methodology such as those examined in the current experiment."

This problem is that the authors developed model tests to assess the expertise of burglars, but did not validate them. That is, did not verify if these tests are actually accurate in assessing burglary expertise. There are certainly reasons for suspecting that they may not be. For one, people behave differently in a risk-free game than how they behave when there is a real risk of being caught or even shot. This is particularly evident in the reported spread of times, which suggest that one of the professional burglars spent upwards of ten minutes searching the house.

For another, the test area was not a real residence, but a residential building set up according to the experimenters' design. The main assessment criteria was efficiency in locating loot that the experimenters had seeded through the area on the basis of their existing hypothesis of burglary effectiveness. Hence, the "expertise" score may merely reflect how well the test subjects conformed to the existing hypothesis, rather than real-world effectiveness. This creates a classic Confirmation Bias.

A few other issues:

  • "... value of the items taken by burglars was higher and this difference approached statistical significance ..." Approached. In other words, the main result of the study was not statistically significant.
  • "The finding that the simulated environment triggered almost identical in behaviour the participants was an important one." Huh. Subjects perform a certain activity live (sometimes called rehearsal), and then a few minutes later they do the same thing on a visually identical simulation. I would suggest it is altogether unsurprising that their second performance is done in the same way, and it is no proof at all that they would have done the simulation the same way if they had not rehearsed it.
  • "Simulated environments have been considered reliable methods for some time to train a variety of professionals such as surgeons, pilots and soldiers ..." This is an exaggeration. Simulated environments are considered to be cost-effective training aids for these professions but I don't believe any organisation considers them a complete system of training nor uses them exclusively. Moreover, it is a non sequitur. The matter being discussed was whether a simulated environment is an effective test of ability, not whether it is an effective training aid. It is not difficult to think of tasks where these are quite different, e.g. cooking.

ErikMay 29, 2015 4:31 PM

hmmm: If a burglar can be interviewed after the deed, (s)he cannot be an expert at it, can (s)he?

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