Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Why do people commit crimes?

Good morning everyone! I was talking to a friend the other day about the surge of crime that is mainly attributed to the current recession. During the discussion, I asked the hypothetical question of whether crime would exist if we somehow managed to perfect the law enforcement agency and all criminals were caught on the spot. My friend, a psychologist in profession, responded that criminals may feel the unbeatable need to break the law so logically, crime would still exist.

This got me thinking about the assumption of the rational agent in economics. In our discipline, we economists assume that all people are rational, that is, they take the rational decisions based on the information that they have available. So how can we explain such behavior as crimes of passion or other irrational behavior?

The key here is irrationality. People are irrational when they behave outside the norm, they behave outside what is generally considered acceptable behavior. Economics, goes one step further to investigate the reasons of this behavior. What was the person thinking at the time? What was his expected utility level and what was he trying to achieve?

A thief for example, may be willing to take the chance of getting caught in order to enjoy some great utility from the lute he stole in the future. In general, criminals, underestimate their chances of getting caught and they thus overestimate their expected utility level or enjoyment in the future. But remember my initial question. If the criminals knew that they would get caught would they still do the crime?

Economics answers this question by making use of the notion of utility or enjoyment. There is no question that if such a condition held, crimes would greatly decline, especially the crimes that promise future utility, as this, would no longer be an option. What would cause people to still exhibit criminal behavior in that case? My friend already provided the answer. Their unbeatable need. This unbeatable need, arises from the expected utility and disutility from doing the crime.

At the time of the illegal action the criminal gets a utility surge, the unbeatable need, which overwhelms the expected future disutility that will arise from being caught and being thrown to jail. This is the answer. For this reason it will be impossible to live in a crime free society. The promise of a crime free world is an imaginary one because criminals will always consider the benefits of committing the crime to outweigh the costs.

Yes, criminals may regret their actions in the future when they are apprehended, but this is because their expected disutility is actually realized from being caught. The regret stems from the fact that they realize that they overestimated their future enjoyment.

Stay rational and have a high utility day!


  1. Dear Constantinos,

    First things first, I would like to congratulate you on your blog and I hope you keep up the good work.

    As a crime scientist (not a criminologist) I adhere to the economic utilitarian approach to understanding, interpreting and preventing crime as opposed to the sociological perspective (i.e. that society somehow fails people which, in turn, become criminals).

    With the exception of criminals operating under the influence of drugs or committing crimes of passion (where there is a highly distorted utilitarian motive), every crime is a rational economic decision.

    Every criminal (and every potential criminal) is presented daily with opportunities to commit crimes and their related outcomes. However, the outcome of any given crime (especially when it is monetary) must be viewed in relation to the criminal’s ability to successfully perform it. (considering measures of crime prevention, levels of law enforcement, ability to monetize on the spoils and the skills of the criminal among others).

    By increasing the risk of committing a crime, through improved law enforcement that increases the risk of apprehension, target hardening (for example making banks more secure), making money laundering harder etc, the utility of it is directly decreased and thus crime is reduced.

    However, there will always be people who are professional criminals (and therefore face a much more reduced risk of apprehension which increases their utility), or people terrible at calculating risk, or thrill seekers and therefore crime will persevere. After all, with a 100% rate of apprehension, streakers insist on disrupting athletic events by running naked!

  2. This post seems to have a particularly Western and/or American perspective. A few interesting examples from Asia exist to show the merit of taking an "economist's" perspective in regards to crime rather than the more psychological or sociological perspective. Japan in particular has an extraordinary crime control system if somewhat harsh and unnerving for liberal western thinkers.

    Japan's conviction rate is running at about 99%+, though in a cultural context their confession rate is also well over 90%, and with a harsh and unyielding incarceration system included, Japan enjoys a very low crime rate. The social costs of this system do also warrant further study, as Japan also has an exceptionally high suicide rate.

    Another Asian example that supports the tough on crime approach to reduce the rational decision to commit crimes is the Singapore criminal justice system. Singapore maintains corporeal punishment in the from of caning of the buttocks. They also have a very low crime rate and are in the Top 5 listing for perception of government corruption, while also having very strict anti-corruption laws.

    Thus, we can easily take an incredibly harsh methodology to crime control and most likely this will reduce crime. However, we have to analyse the cost to society that these harsh laws have. We as a society have to decide if a little crime is more desirable than a police state.