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Cornell Student Articles on Topical Affairs

Inside the mind of a burglar

In 2014 alone, property crimes including home burglaries cost the U.S. economy more than $14.3 billion in damages, with the typical homeowner suffering losses of roughly $2,000 in stolen goods or property damage for every incident. Now, that is no small figure. The year prior to that, almost 2 million home burglaries caused losses of $4.5 billion, which averaged out at damages of around $2,300 per burglary. With one burglary taking place every 15 seconds on average, it’s an issue that certainly takes its toll on the national economy – and on the psyche of its people.

Home break-ins can be emotionally traumatic for homeowners, leaving them with feelings of violation, anger, insecurity and fear. Many describe the feelings they experience following a home burglary as “similar to violation or rape”, and for as many as one in three adults, sleeplessness and anxiety linger for months following such an incident.

But what if we were to use our current understanding of what goes on in the mind of a burglar to undermine and prevent such behavior? While the number of studies that provide insight into the psychology of a burglar is limited, there have been several notable studies that worked directly with convicted criminals to better understand their mindset, habits and behaviors.

U.S.-based researcher Joseph Kuhns from the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, for example, spoke to more than 400 convicted felons to learn of their motivation and typically methods for committing a burglary. What he found was very interesting: even an offender’s gender can impact their approach to burglary.

Men, for example, prefer to plan their burglaries more deliberately by gathering information about a targeted home ahead of time. Women, on the other hand, tend to act more impulsively – motivated by drugs more than anything else – and prefer to commit a burglary during the afternoon. Male burglars apparently prefer to target businesses and shops, with money their main motivation, and they strike typically in the late evening.

Fifty one percent of convicted burglars cited the need to acquire drugs as their main reason for committing the crime, while 37 percent said money was their main motivation. Just one person indicated the theft of firearms as their motivation.

Another U.S.-based research study which invited a carefully chosen group of convicted ex-burglars plus a handful of regular citizens to demonstrate how they would attempt to burgle a home was extremely insightful, revealing that most burglars follow a similar routine when breaking and entering. Firstly, the burglars were far more efficient. One hundred percent of the time they entered and exited a home from the back, and usually through an open window or door. Interestingly, 50 percent of burglaries occur as the result of a window or door being left open, despite the possible presence of an expensive alarm system. If a burglar can’t find an open or unlocked window or door, their next best bet is typically to smash open a window. If this can’t be achieved within a minute, though, the burglar will typically move on to another home.

Speed and efficiency are the main considerations in the mind of a burglar while “on the job” – so much so that they typically develop an efficient system for scanning a house once inside. Generally, they focus on “high value” areas such as bedrooms and hallways, avoiding kitchens, bathrooms and children’s bedrooms. Bizarrely, in the experiment conducted with the ex-burglars and regular citizens, burglars spent more times inside the home than the regular citizens did, eventually gathering hauls worth around $1,500 more than the non-burglars. They would take fewer but more expensive items than the non-burglars, too.

Burglars typically target items that are easy to carry or put into pockets, including jewelry, passports, wallets, phones, tablets and laptop computers. And, as per human nature, these items are usually found in several key areas: bedside tables, kitchen drawers, on or inside hall tables and inside clothing drawers or cupboards. If we were to anticipate that burglars would go straight to these “regular hiding spots” and instead hide valuables in children’s rooms or in bathroom shelves instead, perhaps we could fool a burglar or two.

Psychologist Dr Claire Nee, who has dedicated more than 20 years to the study of burglary, reports that inside the mind of most burglars a sort of ‘dysfunctional expertise’ is occurring all the time. By this she means that while burglars look, walk and talk the same as most people, inside their minds a very different phenomenon is usually occurring. They are forever calculating, taking notes and planning their next attack. When they walk into a bank they take note of the security personnel, when they take their dog for a walk they are noting which other homes in the neighborhood have dogs, when they are “cold-calling” door to door, they are mentally noting access points to a property. Whichever properties present the least trouble in terms of gaining access immediately become a burglar’s next target, giving homeowners an extra impetus to invest in burglar-proof security screens and security systems.

Lastly, if a criminal wants to break into your home, they don’t care how much destruction or damage they inflict by doing so. They are not at loathe to break a door, causing thousands of dollars’ worth of damage in order to steal an item worth $100. So, unless you take this documented knowledge of a typical burglar’s behaviors, mindset and habits to try to deter them from entering your home or finding your valuables, it will be you who pays the price.

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