The reasons behind crime

October 11, 2013 by Fabio Bergamin, ETH Zurich
Whether a person turns criminal and commits a robbery depends greatly on the socio-economic circumstances in which he lives (staged photograph). Credit:

More punishment does not necessarily lead to less crime, say researchers at ETH Zurich who have been studying the origins of crime with a computer model. In order to fight crime, more attention should be paid to the social and economic backgrounds that encourage crime.

People have been stealing, betraying others and committing murder for ages. In fact, humans have never succeeded in eradicating crime, although – according to the rational choice theory in economics – this should be possible in principle. The theory states that humans turn criminal if it is worthwhile. Stealing or evading taxes, for instance, pays off if the prospects of unlawful gains outweigh the expected punishment. Therefore, if a state sets the penalties high enough and ensures that lawbreakers are brought to justice, it should be possible to eliminate crime completely.

This theory is largely oversimplified, says Dirk Helbing, a professor of sociology. The USA, for example, often have far more drastic penalties than European countries. But despite the death penalty in some American states, the homicide rate in the USA is five times higher than in Western Europe. Furthermore, ten times more people sit in American prisons than in many European countries. More repression, however, can sometimes even lead to more crime, says Helbing. Ever since the USA declared the "war on terror" around the globe, the number of terrorist attacks worldwide has increased, not fallen. "The classic approach, where criminals merely need to be pursued and punished more strictly to curb crime, often does not work." Nonetheless, this approach dominates the public discussion.

More realistic model

In order to better understand the origins of crime, Helbing and his colleagues have developed a new so-called agent-based model that takes the network of social interactions into account and is more realistic than previous models. Not only does it include criminals and law enforcers, like many previous models, but also honest citizens as a third group. Parameters such as the penalties size and prosecution costs can be varied in the model. Moreover, it also considers spatial dependencies. The representatives of the three groups do not interact with one another randomly, but only if they encounter each other in space and time. In particular, individual agents imitate the behaviour of agents from other groups, if this is promising.

Using the model, the scientists were able to demonstrate that tougher punishments do not necessarily lead to less crime and, if so, then at least not to the extent the punishment effort is increased. The researchers were also able to simulate how crime can suddenly break out and calm down again. Like the pig cycle we know from the economic sciences or the predator-prey cycles from ecology, crime is cyclical as well. This explains observations made, for instance, in the USA: according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program, cyclical changes in the frequency of criminal offences can be found in several American states. "If a state increases the investments in its punitive system to an extent that is no longer cost-effective, politicians will cut the law enforcement budget," says Helbing. "As a result, there is more room for crime to spread again."

"Many crimes have a socio-economic background"

But would there be a different way of combatting crime, if not with repression? The focus should be on the socio-economic context, says Helbing. As we know from the milieu theory in sociology, the environment plays a pivotal role in the behaviour of individuals. The majority of criminal acts have a social background, claims Helbing. For example, if an individual feels that all the friends and neighbours are cheating the state, it will inevitably wonder whether it should be the last honest person to fill in the tax declaration correctly.

"If we want to reduce the , we have to keep an eye on the socio-economic circumstances under which people live," says Helbing. We must not confuse this with soft justice. However, a state's response to crime has to be differentiated: besides the police and court, economic and social institutions are relevant as well – and, in fact, every individual when it comes to the integration of others. "Improving social conditions and integrating people socially can probably combat much more effectively than building new prisons."

Explore further: People with mental health problems at high risk of being victims of crime

More information: Perc M, Donnay K, and Helbing D. Understanding Recurrent Crime as System-Immanent Collective Behavior, PLoS ONE 8(10). e76063. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0076063

Related Stories

Residents feel safer with walkable, retail space

October 8, 2013

The characteristics of walkable neighbourhoods have been explored for their associations with perceived crime risk and fear of crime in Perth's new suburban housing developments.

What your TV habits may say about your fear of crime

February 8, 2011

What's your favorite prime-time crime show? Do you enjoy the fictional world of "CSI" or "Law & Order," or do you find real-life tales like "The First 48" or "Dateline" more engrossing? Your answers to those questions may ...

Recommended for you

Study sheds new light on ancient human-turkey relationship

January 17, 2018

For the first time, research has uncovered the origins of the earliest domestic turkeys in ancient Mexico. The study also suggests turkeys weren't only prized for their meat—with demand for the birds soaring with the Mayans ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1.8 / 5 (5) Oct 11, 2013
There are 2 major causes of crime:
1) Damage done to fetuses through malnutrition, environmental poison, drugs, alcohol, and tobacco which create compulsive, addiction-prone people with diminished capacity for empathy.

2) The tribal dynamic; internal atruism in conjunction with external animosity. Group members do not perceive actions against outsiders as crimes; indeed, evolution has selected for this behavior as it increases a groups chances of survival.

The majority of violent crime in the US is gang-related. The US has a higher percentage of close-knit minority and immigrant communities which do not consider themselves part of society. They will naturally tend to prey on outsiders in order to improve their lot, and will take great pride and satisfaction in doing so.

Crime rates in other countries are increasing in tandem with the flood of third-world refugees fleeing violence in their own countries, caused by explosive religion-driven population growth.
5 / 5 (1) Oct 11, 2013
Crime at its basic level is a way to fulfill a need. Consider an uneducated Minority, what are his options? He looks at the world around him/her and sees that a legitimate life leads to struggle, low pay, long hours and little respect. Then he thinks of doing something quick and easy, such as selling drugs, where the benefits are much greater and quicker to obtain. Add to that a lack of proper role models, lack of a decent father figure or proper parenting, and other environmental factors. Social factors are hard at work, too. Will I get more praise from my peers by getting good grades, or beating up another person? Will I be respected while I drive my plain reliable car to the community college, or if I get a large car with large rims that costs me more money and has low gas mileage? The actions they take are logical from their point of view.
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 11, 2013
More punishment does not necessarily lead to less crime, say researchers.
I bet more Capital punishment would lead to less crime. At least crime committed by the now dead offender.
2 / 5 (4) Oct 11, 2013
What a bunch of bunk. Most crimes are victimless. This fact makes what is a crime and what isn't a crime completely arbitrary. Right now there is a criminal sitting in federal prison doing a 10 year bid because he committed the heinous act of importing lobsters in plastics bags instead of cardboard boxes. I guess he was predisposed not knowing it's a Federal felony to violate foreign export laws.

The origins of crime are the STATE law makers that usurp the public interest for it's own interest. Most people don't know that the STATE is not the public. It simply claims to represent the public. Crimes are also known as a tort against the public. The STATE is simply a usurper, using the public as the waterboy of profit.
3 / 5 (2) Oct 11, 2013
Crime is a matter of legislation. Legislation is not associated with morality but most often with money.
not rated yet Oct 11, 2013
How do they model 'the socio-economic circumstances under which people live?' Can they demonstrate similar effects from changing life circumstances IRL?
I thought not.
I'm glad law and order is coming to Sim City.
1 / 5 (1) Oct 11, 2013
Punishment without proper rehabilitation cannot lead to less crime. Prisons are like social networks and/or schools for even more crime later.
3 / 5 (2) Oct 13, 2013
40% drugs
40% mental deficients
20% career criminals

Those who feel that group x owes them something are the most likely to take that something from that group.

3 / 5 (2) Oct 13, 2013
"The US has a higher percentage of close-knit minority and immigrant communities which do not consider themselves part of society. They will naturally tend to prey on outsiders in order to improve their lot, and will take great pride and satisfaction in doing so." - Otto

And yet America is supposed to be a melting pot where everyone must conform to common cultural norms.

This is not the case in Canada where it considers itself a tapestry with different cultural groups celebrating their unique heritage within Canadian society.

And yet Canada has less gang related crime.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.