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We're using VR and working with ex-offenders to help prevent Crime

Discover how Dr Claire Nee's Virtual Burglary Project is shedding new light on how to stop crime before it starts


Home at last after a hard day’s work, all you want to do is put your feet up with a nice cup of tea. But as you head for the kettle, something feels wrong.

The house feels different, somehow. It doesn’t look quite right. And then it hits you: Somebody has been here. There’s been a break-in. I’ve been robbed.

As you pace from room to room, checking off a mental list of what’s missing and what remains, you feel shocked, angry and sad.

You start to tot up all the practical disruptions and expenses to come – changing the locks, fixing the broken back window, dealing with the police and your insurers. You wonder if you’ll ever feel safe in your own home again.

All you want is for the burglar to be caught and convicted. They have violated your privacy and stolen your property. Who cares why or how?

Dr Claire Nee cares. And it’s a good job for all of us that she does.

Claire is Director of the International Centre for Research in Forensic Psychology at the University of Portsmouth.

Her pioneering Virtual Burglary Project uses simulated environments to understand the behaviours, thought patterns and emotions of burglars.

Claire’s research is about making a difference for the victims of crime, and the perpetrators too. Ultimately, she aims to make the nightmare scenario of a break-in less likely to occur, by making important breakthroughs in research.

Why virtual reality?


Claire has proved that Virtual Reality (VR) is a unique way to understand burglars' thought processes and discover the chain of decisions that leads to a burglary. Her discoveries represent a paradigm shift in forensic psychology.

A pioneer in this area, Claire is one of the first in the world to get offenders to re-enact crimes, as opposed to relying on the interview method.

The Virtual Burglary Project has its origins in Claire’s PhD, when she created a simulated residential environment using maps and photos of houses. It gave her lots of information to work with and was fascinating from a crime prevention perspective. VR provides a state-of-the-art step forward.

Claire explains, "When they re-enact their crimes in the virtual environment, they’re not hindered by trying to recall, recreate or reinstate a context that happened years ago.

When VR arrived, I thought it'd be great to use this for re-enacting the crimes. It’s always better to watch behaviour if you can, rather than interview people. VR has them disclose so much more information, because they’re actually doing it.

Dr Claire Nee, Director of the International Centre for Research in Forensic Psychology

“Rather than their motivations for committing crimes, I’m more interested in how they enact the crime, the hours and days building up to it, and the aftermath as well. This hasn’t really been looked at before."

Her use of VR came about because of memory flaws and memory misattribution. No matter how forthcoming the burglar, memory simply isn't a reliable source of information. Inaccuracies inevitably creep in.

“Sometimes what you think you did simply didn't happen. There's also the social impact of not wanting to sound like a terrible person."

VR technology gives infinitely richer, more detailed data than just interviewing offenders. It shows that the offenders work fast, scoping their environment, rapidly picking up clues to make an instinctive decision about whether to burgle.

"When VR arrived, I thought it'd be great to use this for re-enacting the crimes. It’s always better to watch behaviour if you can, rather than interview people. VR has them disclose so much more information, because they’re actually doing it.”

A triple whammy


There are three main wins with VR research.

First of all, there's watching offenders in order to understand their cognition and emotions as they approach and undertake the crime – ‘using a past thief to catch a future thief’.

That same information can help educate householders and businesses to better protect their properties. Some offenders simply give up if they can't get in.

Thirdly, the data unearthed by VR can help with rehabilitating offenders.

The cognitive script


Many offenders display a kind of 'expertise' in that they very rarely get caught at the scene of the crime.

Interviewing burglars in prison, Claire discovered that they have cognitive scripts – mental maps which help you complete a task quickly with minimal risk. The offenders say things like, 'I do it on automatic pilot', and 'All my concentration goes on listening out for someone coming back."

We all have these cognitive scripts. Driving is a good example. When we first start learning, there's a huge amount to take in – checking mirrors, changing gear, clutch control, speed awareness – but between around six months to a year, you build up what's called a 'cognitive schema'.

Claire likens these to "a bunch of recipes in your memory about how to do something." Cognitive schemas mount up in our long-term memories, and eventually take over so a task becomes habitual rather than conscious.

Chess players, for instance, can have hundreds of thousands of possible configurations of the chess board in their head at one time. Rather than forming more and more schemas, the ones you have get richer and richer – just as a chef might develop more and more recipes around one set of ingredients.

The burgling mindset


Burglars are what Claire terms “dysfunctional experts.” Even though what they do is obviously criminal, many are ‘good’ at it.

Like all of us, their automatic scripts govern how they live their lives, and committing offences is part of this.

Offenders are usually from socio-economically deprived backgrounds and tend to lead chaotic lives. They haven't had good education or nutrition. They often come from dysfunctional and unsupportive families with no positive role models.

As a result, their brains are set up to be impulsive.

Drugs and violence are usually part of the mix from a very young age, in one form or another. This helps explain the high rates of traumatic brain injury found in young offenders.

It's to do with the amygdala - a primitive area of the brain, linked to self-preservation, threat and reward - and other parts of the brain that govern impulse control. Damage to these areas makes burglars more impulsive.

Rather than their motivations for committing crimes, I’m more interested in how they enact the crime, the hours and days building up to it, and the aftermath as well. This hasn’t really been looked at before.

Dr Claire Nee, Director of the International Centre for Research in Forensic Psychology

Drugs and violence are usually part of the mix from a very young age, in one form or another. This helps explain the high rates of traumatic brain injury found in young offenders.

It's to do with the amygdala - a primitive area of the brain, linked to self-preservation, threat and reward - and other parts of the brain that govern impulse control. Damage to these areas makes burglars more impulsive.

Put simply, the burglar who broke into your house probably did so on impulse – but that impulse was built-in as a result of a long, automatic decision chain.

Even though many offenders genuinely want to give up crime, their ‘expertise’ is hard-wired into them. It’s learned through repeated practice, and becomes a mindset which never turns off.

It is actually a self-preservation mechanism – they need money so they fall into automatic patterns, or heuristics (strategies which help us solve problems using past knowledge and experience).

The need to feel validated as part of a group is also part of the burgling mindset. Claire says, "Peer kudos is another aspect of the ‘expertise’, and we can use this in rehabilitation to say to them, 'despite your challenges, you are 'good' at burgling’. So let's turn this ability into something positive and pro-social."

A fresh look at rehabilitation


Claire originally wanted to be a clinical psychologist. As part of the training, she worked with very young offenders in a probation hostel.

There, she saw the almost impossible challenges they’re up against.

Many rehabilitation programmes haven't taken on board that offenders usually offend because of dysfunctional home lives, their resulting automatic scripts, and the people they’re surrounded by. Being in prison with offenders or in a community with ex-offenders makes leaving that life even harder.

Good rehabilitation motivates the offender to want to have a better life. They don’t like going in and out of prison but it becomes a way of life. They’re de-skilled and mixing with other offenders all the time.

Dr Claire Nee, Director of the International Centre for Research in Forensic Psychology

What’s more, only the worst 10 per cent of offenders receive rehabilitation. A huge percentage of the prison population go in and out of prison without any rehabilitation support. Is it any surprise they continue to offend?

Old rehabilitation methods focus on negatives and deficits, and try to fix those. An alternative approach is to look at offenders' strengths, work with them to imagine a better life, and map out ways to move towards that life.

Claire says that good rehabilitation "motivates the offender to want to have a better life. They don’t like going in and out of prison but it becomes a way of life. They’re de-skilled and mixing with other offenders all the time."

Crime prevention and education


Householders cannot perceive risk the same way that offenders do. And people don't want to learn to think like a burglar. But it's important to make householders aware that there's plenty they can do to safeguard their homes.

Claire and her team use research straight from offenders’ mouths, to train householders to be more aware of the many opportunities we offer burglars.

"We're learning from the offenders. They advise us where we can improve security around the home. We want people to get better at appraising their environments, without making life inconvenient or increasing fear of crime."

The team have learned huge amounts about where offenders go to immediately in a home, and how they get straight to the high value areas. They’ve used this information to educate people on where not to put really valuable things.

Surprising facts have also been revealed:

"Our first virtual burglary taught us a huge amount about how they scope the environment. We knew they avoided small children’s bedrooms, but we thought that was because there’s not much of monetary value in there. In fact, we discovered the real reason was that it's 'wrong' to go into a baby or a child’s bedroom – a moral code of sorts."

If we can help people make their environments a little less inviting to a burglar, and also help them understand what burglaries and burglars are about, it will help them avoid being victimised.

Dr Claire Nee, Director of the International Centre for Research in Forensic Psychology

Claire has worked with Avon and Somerset Police, conducting research in local prisons to give better crime prevention advice to householders. She also works with insurance companies on awareness campaigns, and with victims of burglary.

“If we can help people make their environments a little less inviting to a burglar, and also help them understand what burglaries and burglars are about, it will help them avoid being victimised.”

One campaign Claire worked on focused on how burglars aren't the axe-wielding monsters our imaginations lead us to believe, but usually young people desperately wanting to get in and out very quickly with a few valuables.

She explains, "I want you to feel less afraid by understanding that the offender – most likely a very disadvantaged 19 or 20-year-old with a drug habit – is far more scared of you than you are of them."

Claire's fascination around why people commit crimes is what led her to the University of Portsmouth.

“Portsmouth already had a strong reputation for forensic psychology. Ray Bull was here and he’s made a huge worldwide impact on interviewing child witnesses and memorandums for practice with the police. Tony Gale was also here – a renowned personality psychologist.”

When she joined, Ray asked Claire to start the Centre for Forensic Psychology, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2017.

She says, “Portsmouth has allowed me the freedom to develop something very, very innovative. There is worldwide interest in VR research. It will put our university on the map for being leaders in this field.”

The tool might be virtual reality. But the impact it can have – from reducing our chances of getting burgled, to turning troubled lives around – is very real indeed.

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