The Criminal Mind

and how to screw with it

How does a bike thief think and how can you make it more likely that it won't be your machine that he targets?

bg-scienceThe understanding of how a criminal decides what to steal, when and where and how he steals then sells stolen stuff has changed in the past few decades

The old idea was that criminals operate like small businesses. They logically assess risk and reward before making a move and that what put them off was the prospect of punishment.

This theory has driven everything from sentencing policy to the adoption of loopy crime prevention strategies such as the invisible marking of goods using ultraviolet markers.

The only slight problem is that the theory doesn't work, never has, never will because that's not the way human beings think. Turns out that most decisions are taken on gut instinct alone.

It has been a standard reaction for both the public and politicians to call for heavier sentences to deter crime. It's just logical isn't it. Well..........

No. Believe it or not sentencing figure almost not at all in a criminals decision making process. Why not? Two reasons. Because of the time it will take for a person to be convicted and punished. The further away the prospects of punishment the less the deterrent effect.

The phrase "Cheer up, it might never happen" is actually close to the mark of what we actually believe. This is especially true amongst thieves who are often, studies show, unrealistically optomistic and secondly, they don't expect to get caught in the first place.

Some of these insights come from a a new science, Behavioural Economics, which looks at how people really behave and has clarified a lot of the myths about how we decide things. Pioneered by Professors Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky it said that people were not always rational in their decision. Their work won Professor Kahneman a Nobel prize in Economics in 2002 (Tversky didn't get it because he died before the award was made). Since then their work has become mainstream with Behavioural Economists regularly picking up the top science prize.

As we evolved we developed a number of thinking shortcuts or biases in taking decisions that kept us alive. One of the most important of these turns out to be avoiding a loss, even before money was invented. It appears to have developed because if we lost our membership of the tribe of which we were part, which helped feed and keep us safe we were more likely to die and not pass on our genes

The "Oh S***" Circuit


This crops up in golf. Golfers making the same putt to save par (avoid a loss) are more likely to succeed than those going for a birdie (to make a gain). It also may explain why home teams in sport are more likely to win.

At the same time we evolved an early warning system. The brain has an area called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) which neuoroscientists call the "Oh S***!" circuit. This reacts to threats by doing things like firing up the fight or flight syndrome or making you take to your heels when confronted by a sabre toothed tiger or similar. The modern day equivalent would be a mugger.


It is linked into systems in the brain that lets us do things without thinking about them like breathing and emotional responses and reactions. For example yawning or smiling whenever someone else does.

It also registers threats and errors and the reaction to them. Ever felt uneasy about something or stopped yourself in mid sentence when you have got something wrong? That's the ACC working.

The Vision thing

It is also connected into the system that lets us see things. Every waking second of every day the eyes are scanning for potential threats, especially your vision that looks at things at the edge of your field of sight, your peripheral vision.

All of us have had the experience of instinctively moving to avoid something. You jerk your head aside just as a ball whizzes past. You weren't aware of it but you still moved to avoid it. How did that happen?

Turns out that you did see it but you just didn't know it. We actually have a secondary visual system that makes us react without having to think. The expression there is "the quick and the dead" is absolutely true. We evolved to get out of the way of danger as soon as possible. Better to react first and consider what happened later rather than being digested in the sabre toothed tiger's stomach.

This visual alert system is working all the time looking for patterns that represent threats but also rewards. The reward thing could be something like a ripe, delicious, sweet berry for your average cave inhabitant. This is why advertising works.

Note that all this involves seeing things whether consciously or not. Basically if we can't see it we dont care. This is why invisible marking sytems like Ultraviolet don't work, have never worked and will never work. It is why putting an expensive GPS tracking device on a bike without a warning sign is completely, expensively pointless.

Better the Devil you know

Another important factor is that we don't like situations that are uncertain or ambiguous, where we are not certain what is going on. People, including criminals, vastly prefer known to unknown risks.

Given a choice a thief would rather deal with a risk he understood. So if a thief is confronted by a lock, that is a known quantity, might take time, probably less than thirty seconds to cut it or the chain, no problem.

But faced by something he doesn't understand or cannot quantify, that is a different matter. He is far, far more likely to take a hike rather than a bike.

These are the reasons why It's My Bike has got a black, red and white glaringly obvious warning sticker, the same colours as road warning signs for the same reasons. It is why our chips can be hidden in, on and under places on a bike. It is why our chips are little radio transmitters that increase the chance of a thief getting nicked now.