The True Causes of Crime

Credit: © koszivu / Fotolia

Whether a person turns criminal and commits a robbery depends
greatly on the socio-economic circumstances in which he lives.
In the U.S., we use a crime and punishment model that incarcerates convicted criminals in the hope that this will discourage both them and others from committing crimes.  Yet our crimes rates remain high compared to other countries, to the point that the homicide rate in the U.S. is five times higher than in Europe despite our having the death penalty - which is not used in Europe.

Obviously, something is wrong with this picture.  We spend far more per capita in this country on "corrections" with far less to show for it.

According to this study, our energies and money would be better spent helping people fit in socially, while ensuring that potential criminals have economic opportunity.  The authors point out that crime is a cycle between social and economic opportunity and crime.  i.e., if a person feels they have a place in our society and the opportunity to earn a living, crime will decrease.  If a person feels they don't fit in or belong, and, that they lack the opportunity to earn a living, crime increases.  A lack of belonging and opportunity is what stimulates crime.

It's a cycle in which the threat of punishment plays little part.

Here's the report:

"Improving social conditions and integrating people socially can 
combat crime much more effectively than building new prisons."

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. This 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.

During the USA's declared "war on terror" around the globe, the 
number of terrorist attacks worldwide has increased, not decreased.

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Furthermore, ten times more people sit in American prisons than in many European countries. More repression, however, can 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.

A 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 penalty 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 behavior of agents from other groups, if this is promising.

"Tougher punishments do not necessarily lead to less crime."

Cycles of crime
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 combating 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 behavior of individuals. The majority of criminal acts have a social background, claims Helbing. For example, if an individual feels that all the friends and neighbors 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 crime rate, 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 crime much more effectively than building new prisons."

* In economics, the term pig cycle describes the cycles of supply and prices in livestock markets. In his model, when prices are high more investments are made. The effect of investment is delayed due to breeding time. Increased breeding causes the market to become saturated which increases supply which leads to a decline in prices. This drop in prices causes less investment which lessens production, but the effects take a long time to be noticed.  The eventual reduction in supply reduces supply but leads to increased demand and increased prices, causing a cycle of raising and lowering prices.
~ Adapted from Wikipedia

** The predator-prey relationship helps maintain the equilibrium between various animal species. Without predators, certain species of prey force other species to extinction as a result of competition for food. Without prey, there would be no predators. The key feature of predation thus is the predator's direct impact on the prey population. Cheetahs and gazelles, Polar bears and seals, Foxes and Rabbits, Birds and Insects, etc are typical examples. In other words, when prey animals increase, predators increase.  When prey animals decrease, the number of predators decrease as well.
~ Adapted from

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Story Source: Materials provided by ETH Zürich. Matjaž Perc, Karsten Donnay, Dirk Helbing. Understanding Recurrent Crime as System-Immanent Collective Behavior. PLoS ONE, 2013


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