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The Supposed Irrationality of Crime February 15, 2007

Posted by Johan in Cognition, Forensic Psychology, Rants.
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I read an interesting article by Stephen Dubner on the infamous silver thief Blane Nordahl. Nordahl is famous for high extreme skill in burglary, marked by meticulous precision and a seemingly uncanny ability to evade authorities, but he is also known for his single-minded penchant for silver. This may sound eccentric, but in reality, it is not a bad idea. As Dubner outlines, silver is hard to trace, and can be extremely valuable if you know what to look for. It also has the advantage of being available downstairs in most homes, thus reducing the risk of waking anyone by coming too close to a bedroom.

The article is well worth a read for sheer entertainment, but I think there is also a wider point, which Dubner touches on here:

If an economist were to analyze Nordahl’s operation, he might well be impressed. Economics is, at root, the study of incentives, and Nordahl had rationally concluded that the incentives for stealing silver easily trumped the incentives to stop. He was essentially a one-man economy, and he had pinpointed a valuable yet abundant commodity. Perhaps most important, Nordahl had found a weakness in the criminal-justice system. Robbery was a shrinking discipline-burglary rates have fallen by half since the early nineteen-eighties-and the jail sentences were light.

A psychiatrist, however, might argue that Nordahl was driven by an irrational compulsion. One former girlfriend of Nordahl’s told me that he was fixated on stealing every night. “He got high off it,” she said. “He liked going into houses when people were sleeping. He said it’s more exciting to go into a house when people are there and get away with it.” Lonnie Mason also described Nordahl’s behavior as an addiction: “This is what he exists for, and it’s all about his infatuation with money.” Mason argues that silver was particularly appealing to Nordahl because it connotes the sort of family that passes along precious things from one generation to the next-a family that was distinctly unlike Nordahl’s own. As Mason sees it, Nordahl remained embittered by his parents’ divorce; he resented his father and became extraordinarily close to his mother.

I would have to side with the economist on that one.

There is a striking assumption, often made in criminology and forensic psychology, that crime is irrational. This notion is best exemplified by the cognitive restructuring programs offered to criminals predominantly in Canada, but increasingly also elsewhere. The idea is that through cognitive therapy, inmates will realize that crime doesn’t pay, and that they only thought crime was a good idea because of faulty thinking. Once they understand the true weighting of the incentives, they will understand that refraining from crime is the best course of action, or so the story goes.

Studies evaluating cognitive restructuring-inspired programs in Canada reported some fairly impressive results a few years back; recidivism appeared to have decreased as a result of the intervention. Unfortunately, these studies were flawed by self-selection: inmates who signed up for the program are likely to have been motivated to change to begin with, and furthermore, inmates who did not complete the program were typically removed from analysis. (Unfortunately my Criminology textbooks are in a cardboard box somewhere in Sweden, but if someone takes strong offense at these assertions, do challenge me and I will find you the source).

The problem with the assumed irrationality of criminal behaviour is of course that crime is irrational for most, but not all of us. For me, going on a silverware burglary spree would almost certainly be a bad idea: if caught, I would lose my place at university, ruin my chances at post-grad education, and so forth. It’s pretty clear that while my meager student loan could certainly benefit from a silver spoon or two, the drawbacks of getting caught would be huge.

Not so for Blane Nordahl. No real education, zero work experience, a host of criminal convictions. When he is released from the 8-year sentence he recently received, his options are essentially either going back to doing the crimes that he is so obviously good at, or start flipping burgers (if he can even get that kind of work). I would argue that it in such a situation, filling out a McDonalds application is the irrational thing to do.

But even for less spectacular criminals, the same principle applies. In grade 9, my civics teacher took the class on a trip to a prison, to see an inmate. The person we spoke to was quite obviously addicted to various substances, and had been going in and out of jail with some regularity for the past 20-30 years. No one involved, himself included, thought anything other than that he would go back to burglaries and carjackings when he came out. Given his current situation, with an expensive substance addiction, no work experience, a criminal record, and not knowing a single person who is not also a criminal, it would not just be irrational to try to get a real job, it would be borderline self-destructive.

The notion that crime is a result of irrational behaviour may hold some weight for impulsive, violent crimes, but the bulk of criminal offences are not like that. Most crimes are committed by habitual criminals, who carry out theft, burglaries, muggings. No amount of cognitive restructuring is going to make them think that 2+2 no longer equals 4.

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1. The Supposed Irrationality of Crime (via The Phineas Gage Fan Club) « securityfox - January 2, 2011

[…] The Supposed Irrationality of Crime (via The Phineas Gage Fan Club) I read an interesting article by Stephen Dubner on the infamous silver thief Blane Nordahl. Nordahl is famous for high extreme skill in burglary, marked by meticulous precision and a seemingly uncanny ability to evade authorities, but he is also known for his single-minded penchant for silver. This may sound eccentric, but in reality, it is not a bad idea. As Dubner outlines, silver is hard to trace, and can be extremely valuable if you know what … Read More […]


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