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Ever wondered what it’s like inside the mind of a burglar?

  • 27 April 2021
  • 16 min listen

Professor Claire Nee from the University of Portsmouth explains how she’s been watching crime in action to demystify the criminal mind.

Professor Nee’s research watches offenders re-enact their crimes in a virtual reality environment to learn about the unconscious processes behind their choices. The idea is that burglars are ‘experts’ in what they do, and by making observations of them at work, we can pre-empt behaviour and help prevent future crimes.

Find out about the moral codes the team observed, and hear how they’re using their research to work with insurance and PR companies to help raise our awareness and keep homes and businesses safe.

You can listen to Life Solved on all major podcast players, whether via Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts or other apps. Just search for 'Life Solved' and press the subscribe button.

Experts in making criminal choices

As a Professor of Criminological Psychology, Claire sees burglars and thieves as ‘experts’ at what they do. In her research she’s been seeking to understand the unconscious decision-making behind their behaviour. She hopes that by being able to get inside the mind of a criminal, she can pre-empt the choices they’ll make and use that knowledge to help make homes and businesses safer.

About 60 per cent of the decisions we make in our day are automatic. That doesn't mean we're not responsible for them. But we've just got cognitive shortcuts that help us get through the day. We found this automaticity in the expertise of offenders.

Professor Claire Nee, Professor in Forensic Psychology

Using VR to bring crime to life

The theory is that learned behaviour, when repeated, becomes automatic. Whether that’s driving your car, pouring a coffee, or breaking into someone’s home. By observing and analysing the way someone goes about such a task, you can learn how they might approach it in different environments.

Claire and the team asked offenders to re-enact crimes in a virtual environment so they could watch the decision-making of a burglary in action. This allowed them to learn how criminals scope an environment and pick certain areas and properties over others. They also discovered some surprising ‘moral codes’ common to many offenders:

We knew they avoided small children's bedrooms. But we thought that was because there's not much of value in there. What we discovered was not going in children’s or babies bedrooms was actually a moral code. As in, it's okay to steal from a teenager or an adult, but not a child.

Professor Claire Nee, Professor in Forensic Psychology

These valuable results were immediately useful when working with insurance companies to share messages. Professor Nee also contributed to a Christmas PR campaign about not advertising your home as attractive to burglars. In fact, she thinks there are little things we can all do to help deter crime, such as locking doors and windows when you are in the garden or outside your home and always faking that someone’s in.

Breaking the cycle

Another opportunity for reducing crime lies in addressing the motives for it in the first place – often deprivation or desperation – and in rehabilitating criminals during sentences. Claire says there is a lot more than can be done during a prison sentence to make sure re-offending doesn’t occur.

They'd be lucky if they get to see a medical officer as they go through the prison door. They might never see a psychologist. They might have a probation officer, but it's absolutely shocking how little support offenders get. So they just continue offending.

Professor Claire Nee, Professor in Forensic Psychology

Episode transcript:

John Worsey: Thanks for downloading this podcast from the University of Portsmouth. Our interviews bring you world-changing ideas and ask the big questions, looking at research taking place right here in Portsmouth.

John Worsey: I'm John Worsey. I caught up with Claire Nee, a professor of criminological psychology. She specialises in looking at the offender's perspective on the crimes they undertake, and she looks at the expertly honed automatic processes that we all have making crime second nature for offenders.

Claire Nee: Probably about 60 per cent of what we do is automatic in our daily lives. Doesn't mean we're not responsible for it, but we've just got cognitive shortcuts that help us get through the day. We found this automaticity in the expertise of offenders.

John Worsey: This time we'll hear more about how Claire and her team use their understanding of the mindset of criminals to advise the public and businesses in protecting themselves, in outsmarting crime.

Claire Nee: Both outside and inside the home, we leave so many opportunities. Now, I'm not saying it's the householder's fault because it's the way we live our lives, but I think there's a huge gap and that we could-- we could get people to appraise their environments a little bit better without making life inconvenient.

John Worsey: Like many of us, Claire has always been fascinated by criminals and specifically by why they do what they do.

Claire Nee: I'm interested in how offenders appraise the environment and select targets in order to carry out a crime. So that could be-- my main focus is burglars because I did my PhD on that about half a hundred years ago. And then I was looking people were very interested in how burglars scoped the environment and selected houses to burgle or flats or whatever the property's going to be. I guess what we're more interested in now is how they undertake the entire burglary and how they navigate around the house as well once they've got in. I've always been interested in the offenders perspective on what they do, which is interestingly very, it's ignored a lot in both forensic psychology, a little less so in criminology. And I think it's a kind of a punitive thing like, we don't want to know your views.

John Worsey: But why would you want to understand the motivations of a criminal if you're a law-abiding citizen? Claire explained her fascination with the mindset of a lawbreaker.

Claire Nee: I'm more interested in actually how they enact the crime and the hours and days building up to the crime and then the aftermath as well, which hasn't really been looked at all. We have looked a lot at how they pick a house, for instance, burglars. But I'm also interested in the early decisions about, right, I'm running out of money, I will be running out of money in a couple of days, so I'll contact so-and-so and we'll go out and do this.

Emma Fields: Yeah.

Claire Nee: They do seem to display a kind of expertise when they're doing the offence, right. People very, very rarely get caught at the scene of the crime, but householders cannot perceive risk the same way that offenders do. And I wondering almost...

Emma Fields: It's a different, um...

Claire Nee: They have different...

Emma Fields: Different perception.

Claire Nee: Yes, different perceptions. They have different automatic scripts about how they live their life.

John Worsey: Claire sees criminals as experts in what they do. She and her team have done lots of research into how criminals build this knowledge and the skill sets to do what they do. She's also explored their backgrounds and patterns of behaviour.

Claire Nee: When you look at the lives that most the upbringings most offenders have had, even from when they're conceived in the womb, say, with a mom who is using drugs or is not eating properly.

Emma Fields: Yeah.

Claire Nee: And is setting up their brains for things like ADHD.

Emma Fields: Yeah.

Claire Nee: And kind of a propensity to take drugs themselves.

Emma Fields: Yeah.

Claire Nee: Then they're born into an environment where there are no boundaries because the mum might be very young, there's lots of caretakers coming and going, she hasn't got many skills, she's got no money. You know, there's so many risk factors that just compound, compound, compound. Even things like traumatic brain injury, I had no idea until a colleague in Exeter pointed out to me how much traumatic brain injury there is in young offenders because they're born with quite impulsive brains. So they're going to be falling over a bit more. They're more prone to things like ADHD. They're more prone to take drugs. They're more prone to be in an environment where people are...

Emma Fields: Physical violence.

Claire Nee: ...taking drugs and beating them up. This guy got into it because he was an expert in traumatic brain injury. He just happened to be giving a talk in prison and this guy said, I've got this funny bit in my skull here and when I press it, I see stars. And he had like an open bit of skull. And the guy was thinking, Jesus and he started looking into it. And it's like when you have-- he was, he used to work with rugby players. When you have that traumatic brain injury, it sheers all the neurons right up the impulsive pathways that the bits that deal with...

Emma Fields: Yeah.

Claire Nee: Stopping you being impulsive. And so it just makes you even more impulsive, you know. So the odds are very much against people. And I know it's very little and a lot of people wouldn't agree with me, but I just sort of think, I find it fascinating that people commit crimes.

Emma Fields: Yeah.

Claire Nee: I think everyone during their adolescence pushes the boundaries. If you come from a caring, supportive environment, you move away from that. But if it's the absolute norm, then why would you?

Emma Fields: It's that whole moral framework.

Claire Nee: You'd have to be a strong person, wouldn't you, to say my family are bad and I'm not doing this. You know, there are kids who do that. Certainly, you know, in any family where there's one or two offenders, there might be other kids who go straight. And it must be very tough for them, you know.

John Worsey: If a person's upbringing can make all the difference in building impulsive pathways as a result of trauma, can it also make some people more prone to risk and crime? Claire described how once crimes become a regular part of life, criminals build up an automatic skill set that becomes second nature, a little like learning to drive.

Claire Nee: When you get into a car you don't have to think, I now need to push the pedals and look around. It pops out instantaneously from your long term memory. So most of the time when we're perceiving and chatting now, we're using our working memory, it's like a sort of computer processing space. And we're just remembering things like, oh, I need to tell you that I need to do that and this is how I do this kind of thing. And that's-- so it's like a nice sort of space where you're processing stuff all the time.

Claire Nee: And so when you become an expert, that's all lovely and free. When the burglar was saying, I can do it on automatic pilot, but I can listen out for noises. Just doing it they don't have to think about it, it just pops out, there's a good-- I do it now because I've interviewed hundreds of burglars.

Emma Fields: Yeah.

Claire Nee: I just, all the time I'm appraising the environment and thinking I'd get in there, you know, or that looks really dangerous for that person because it's very vulnerable or whatever. They don't even have to think about it. And they go about doing the burglary, but their working memory is free to listen out for little noises and things like that. So, and we've got some really gorgeous, like quotes from burglars that just signify that beautifully. So when we were writing, I wrote a few years ago, a wrote a theory of what I call dysfunctional expertise because people don't like you saying that they're experts. But it fits in, you know, it maps perfectly onto the expertise literature. Things like automaticity that they can do things quicker, more, efficiently, better, etc..

Claire Nee: So a really good example for us to relate to is when you learn to drive. You know, when you learn to drive, you're thinking, I've got to move this gear stick, I've got to look out the window, perceive everything. I've got to turn the wheel. I've got to do that. And it seems like an enormous, impossible task, doesn't it? But over about six months to a year, it suddenly just becomes, what we call, you build up a cognitive schema. And all that is, is I like to think of as kind of like a bunch of recipes in your memory about how to do something.

Emma Fields: OK.

Claire Nee: And what the people who've done loads of experimental research have found is that, say, for instance, chess players can have hundreds of thousands of possible configurations of the chessboard in their head at one time. So it's not that you get more and more of these schemas, it's that they get richer and richer.

Claire Nee: Probably about 60 per cent of what we do is automatic in our daily lives. Doesn't mean we're not responsible for it, but we've just got cognitive shortcuts that help us get through the day. Now, that's really, we found this, we found this automaticity in the expertise of offenders. There's no doubt that people live very chaotic lives, but they demonstrate this expertise because they've learnt, you know, it's repeated practise over and over again about how to do, for instance, a burglary. But even if they're wanting to give up crime, you know, we've got to acknowledge that a lot of their processing is automatic, like it is for anyone who's experienced at doing anything. I can remember my dentist drilling my tooth and making a golf appointment on the phone at the same time.

Emma Fields: Yeah.

Claire Nee: God sake will you concentrate! You know. But actually, he was able to do the drilling and-- because his working memory was all free because he knows how to do that automatically.

John Worsey: Terrifying stuff. So a lot of what criminals do is repetitive behaviour that becomes unconscious over time. And importantly, Claire says that we can use this knowledge of automatic patterns to pre-empt criminal behaviour. She's using virtual reality to really bring this to life.

Claire Nee: So first of all, we can learn from offenders using virtual environments much because we can get them to re-enact a crime which is spectacular.

Emma Fields: That use a thief to catch a thief kind of idea.

Claire Nee: Yes. And we're the first people in the world to actually get offenders to re-enact crimes. Actually getting them to re-enact it using the virtual environment, makes them disclose so much more because they're actually doing it. So they're-- the schemas are popping out of their long term memory while they're doing it. They're not hindered by trying to remember what happened and recreate green state context that happened years ago. So we can learn from them. They correct us all the time. They say, well, this isn't very good. This is what I'd do. You need to get this right for the next one to say about doors or windows or a rear entrance or things like that. We learnt an enormous amount about how they scope the environment from our first virtual burglary. And we learnt things that we didn't know before. Like we knew they avoided small children's bedrooms, but we thought that was because there's not much in there. What we discovered was, they're going, oh, that's a children's bedroom, not going in there. You know, it's sort of like a weird moral code. It's okay to do a teenager or an adult, but nobody else. You learnt enormous amounts about where they go to immediately, how they go to the high-value areas. So we learnt about how to coach people, where not to put their stuff, which we've done with Churchill insurance.

John Worsey: Using this kind of information via virtual reality can help advise people and businesses on the best way to avoid being burgled. She also tries to enable people to get into the mindset of the burglar and to understand the reality of who the burglar might actually be.

Claire Nee: We did a big publicity campaign coming up to Christmas because that's a prime time for burglars. And of course, really, really upsetting for people. And we also did stuff about how to try and help victims not feel so afraid by actually thinking about what the offender would really be like. Actually, probably a very disadvantaged probably 19 or 20 year old with a drug habit who's more scared of you than you are of them.

Emma Fields: Yeah.

Claire Nee: So we can educate people about making their environment safer, about understanding what's happened when there has been a burglary.

Emma Fields: Which helps them then... Would that then help them to recover from that event and hopefully not be in that 1 in 10 people that need relief?

Claire Nee: Exactly. There's about 25 per cent, I think, who really suffer quite bad PTSD and things like that and reimagining of the event and that sort of thing. And also for me as well, you know, the whole rehabilitation at the end of the day, whatever side of the political spectrum you come from, everyone wants to reduce crime. So by reducing opportunities, that's a really good thing for the offender as well, because some offenders will just stop if they keep coming. You know, if they keep coming across buildings that aren't able to get in, they'll give up eventually.

Emma Fields: Yeah.

Claire Nee: Burglars, now, are even more cautious about making sure if they hear something they scarper really quickly.

John Worsey: It seems that thanks to Claire, we can start to understand the patterns in the mindset of a burglar. But what other ways are there for us to use this knowledge to prevent crime in day to day life?

Claire Nee: Both outside and inside the home, we leave so many opportunities. Now, I'm not saying it's the householder fault because it's the way we live our lives. But I think there's a huge gap that we could-- we could get people to appraise their environments a little bit better without making life inconvenient.

Emma Fields: Is it that a bit like when it's a beautiful sunny day and you're sat right at the end of your back garden and you've got the windows at the front of the house open?

Claire Nee: Yeah, exactly. And, you know, you could easily get someone nipping in and grabbing. At the front door, there's often keys, handbags, iPads, wallets, everything there, you know. It's just being a little bit more savvy. But we have to be careful as well not to increase fear of crime either. So we're monitoring that as well.

John Worsey: And on top of helping the public prevent burglary with little changes like that, Claire also looks at helping criminals rehabilitate by turning their automatic processes into skills that are useful outside of crime.

Claire Nee: It's only about the worst 10 per cent of offenders get any rehabilitation at all.

Emma Fields: Really?

Claire Nee: So your typical acquisitive offender, your burglars, your thieves, your car thieves and all those, that's about 60 to 80 per cent of the prison population.

Emma Fields: Yeah.

Claire Nee: They're going in and out. They might get-- they're getting, on average, say, a 14-month sentence of which they'll serve seven, which is the statutory. You do a half of it inside, half of it on licence. They'll be lucky if they get to see a medical officer as they go through the door. They never see a psychologist. They might have a probation officer, but it's absolutely shocking how little support they get. So they just continue offending. But it's more a more generic thing, really, that you-- because you learnt that repeatedly, you were able to do that very well.

Emma Fields: Yeah.

Claire Nee: So let's think about what you're good at and what you want to do and work on that and build on it. And, you know, sort of using the experience of having been able to do something quite well and turning it around. But sometimes you would be able to translate actual skills as well.

John Worsey: Thanks for listening to this episode of Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth. You can find out more about the work of Claire and her team, as well as our other projects by going online to port.ac.uk/research.

John Worsey: If you want to share your thoughts on this programme. You can find shout about this podcast using the hashtag Life Solved.

Anna Rose: Next time on Life Solved, we meet the Portsmouth scientist who's protecting people and livelihoods from the devastating impacts of hurricanes and volcanic eruptions.

Carmen Solana: Dominica was heart breaking. You're seeing the amount of destruction. I had been in there in July and the-- and the hurricane occurred in September. So three months before I met a lady and we exchanged WhatsApp's and we were chatting a really lovely lady, and she lost everything. She was in there with her son, single mum, living in a hut that had survived. And it was unlike that it was most of the people. And you think, you know, there must be something that we can do. We can do better than what we have done.

John Worsey: Make sure you subscribe to our podcast app to get every episode of Life Solved automatically. And please do tell us what you think with a review and rating if you get a moment.

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