Burglary is a common and costly crime which has also been found to be a gateway to violent crimes. On average, the offenders in this study committed 62 burglaries each. Personality is a robust predictor of involvement with crime but how are personality traits related to behaviour during a crime? For instance, how do burglars decide which houses to target? This post summarizes the NI Academy Assistant scheme-funded Personality & burglary: A VR study by van I. Sintemaartensdijk, J. Prooijen, C. Nee, Marco Otte, & P. Lange. (2022). Part of the “Virtual Burglary Project (VBP)”, the study used virtual reality to examine how personality traits influence the scouting process of burglars and non-offenders.
The study involved 181 incarcerated burglars and 172 non-offenders (mostly university students) who were asked to scout two virtual neighbourhoods in VR for potential burgalry targets- a feat given that 353 participants had to each explore the environment with no time limit. The virtual neighbourhoods were designed by Network Institute members with sound, avatars walking about and featured around 40 houses (see the layouts below). These had various features relevant to burglary such as a package in front of the door, curtains drawn, or a ladder in front of the door.
The researchers tracked the participants’ movements, time spent scouting, and house selection. They also measured their personality traits using the HEXACO model (see below for an explanation of each trait) as well as self-control. Perception of the virtual environment was also measured to see how valuable (upmarket) versus risky a neighbourhood is to burgling- the deterrence measures (see the points below for an explanation).
- Honesty-Humility: This trait reflects the tendency to be sincere, honest, greedy, pretentious, hypocritical, loyal and modest. People lower in honesty-humility are more likely to exploit others when the opportunity arises and display less sincerity, fairness, greed avoidance and modesty.
- Emotionality: This trait is associated with impulsivity and emotional instability.
- Extraversion: This trait is characterized by outgoingness, assertiveness, and sociability.
- Agreeableness: This trait reflects the tendency to be cooperative, kind, and considerate.
- Conscientiousness: This trait is associated with being organized, responsible, and hardworking.
- Openness to Experience: This trait reflects the tendency to be open-minded, creative, and curious.
As for the deterrence measures used in this study:
- Neighbourhood Deterrence: This measure reflects the perception of the neighbourhood as a whole: perceived difficulty to burgle the neighbourhood, neighbourhood attractiveness, chances of getting caught, and willingness to burgle now.
- Resident Deterrence: This measure reflects the perception of residents’ potential intervening behaviour: social cohesion, resident willingness to call the police, and willingness to intervene.
These measures were used to assess how burglars assessed the neighbourhoods they were scouting for potential burglary targets. They provide insight into how different aspects of a neighbourhood can deter or attract potential burglars (see below for an insight into the feel of a neighbourhood).
Hypotheses & Findings
The researchers had the following hypotheses and results:
- Burglars have different personalities from non-offenders. Burglars are hypothesised to be less sincere, extraverted, organized, open-minded and controlled but more emotionally unstable. This hypothesis was partially supported, as burglars scored less on sincerity and open-mindedness but were more organized and controlled than non-offenders even when age was taken into account- as the offenders were older overall.
- Lower sincerity (honesty-humility) would only make offenders perceive neighbourhoods as easier to burgle (lower perceived deterrence), not non-offenders. This hypothesis was supported. This implies that the act of burglary itself, combined with lower honesty-humility, influences ex-burglars’ perception of the environment, making it appear more conducive for burglary. However, non-offenders, even with low honesty-humility, don’t view environments in terms of burglary ease.
- Higher honesty-humility, emotionality, conscientiousness, and self-control would be associated with spending less time scouting and selecting less risky targets (i.e. being less suspicious) for burglars only. This hypothesis was partially supported, as indeed higher honesty-humility and self-control were associated with more efficient scouting behaviour and less risky house selection for burglars. But emotionality and conscientiousness were not. So being more emotionally unstable and organised does not lead to better burgling.
Some other results were:
- Higher extraversion was related to less suspicious scouting for non-offenders only.
- There was a finding with similar implications to 2) above where personality is shaped by an activity (burglary here). For those lower in conscientiousness, significant differences emerged between burglars and non-offenders. Lower conscientiousness in burglars was associated with efficient scouting behaviour, suggesting that being less careful and meticulous has advantages for burglars. But this was not a significant finding for non-offenders which again shows how personality changes through burgling.
- The opposite was found for self-control where for those higher in self-control, significant differences emerged between burglars and non-offenders. Burglars high in self-control were less suspicious in scouting the neighbourhood.
The authors note that further research should be done on the seemingly conflicting finding that both higher self-control yet lower conscientiousness leads to efficient scouting. And other research should consider risk appraisal and promotion/prevention focus. The presence or absence of positive outcomes is emphasised with a promotion focus. This brings about a greater embrace of risk, seeking novel experiences and desiring change, however unethical behaviour is more likely with a promotion focus. This is why it may be linked to burglary.
Conclusion and Implications
To conclude, the researchers did in fact uncover that ex-burglars’ personality is linked to burgling such that honesty-humility, conscientiousness and self-control manifest differently for burglars compared to non-offenders. Another way to put it is that burglary expertise (i.e. experience) moderates the effect of personality on burglary behaviour, as burglars have learned to exploit situations and avoid risks based on their traits. Interventions could aim to increase honesty-humility and conscientiousness since these specifically make burglars more efficient when low. This is important because the fact that burglars perceive a neighbourhood as an easy target merely because they have lower honesty-humility (i.e. see others as more exploitable) shows a distortion of reality. A vicious cycle of successful burglaries may manifest in an increased perception that others can be easily exploited for example. The authors are however careful not to propose such a spurious correlation.