Thursday, August 25, 2011

Gang crime, and crime as a hobby

Is crime really about wealth?

One persistent idea, chiefly advocated by strain theory, is that crime is motivated by the pursuit of wealth or opportunity. That is, a person commits a crime in order to better his life. We may not approve of his methods, but after all, don’t we all want the same thing in the end? And some crimes do involve either increasing the offender’s wealth or his perceived status among peers. Take the example of gangs. The gang some argue offers friendship and, through drug dealing or theft, the potential for riches - riches the member feels are otherwise beyond his ability, due to limited education or unjust discrimination.

However despite its lucrative reputation, the benefits of the drug trade to the average gang member are pitiful even compared to opportunities in poorer neighborhoods. Steven Levitt, one of the authors of Freakonomics, wrote a paper with a sociology graduate student to determine the workings of a large drug operation. The student had received the financial records from a gang he was interviewing in 1989. This gang was one of 100 branches of a drug trading organization. Those at the top, the 20 "bosses", each received a $500,000 annual salary from the total revenue, and the head of each branch received $100,000. However a "foot soldier" would earn only $3.30/hr, or less than minimum wage. This, he jokes, is why drug dealers still live with their moms. Add to this the risk of arrest, and clearly a job at a drive-thru window is both safer and more profitable for most than work in a drug gang.

Why, then? Because they enjoy it.

Most gang crimes are not aimed at any material gain at all, nor are all gangs involved in the black market. An early study conducted by Albert Cohen in his book Delinquent Boys found that the gang activities observed were instead an exhibition of “gratuitous hostility”.

A group of boys enters a store where each takes a hat, a ball or a light bulb. They then move on to another store where these things are covertly exchanged for like articles. Then they move on to other stores to continue the game indefinitely. They steal a basket of peaches, desultorily munch on a few of them and leave the rest to spoil. They steal clothes they cannot wear and toys they will not use.

In Lower Class Culture as a Generating Milieu of Gang Delinquency, Walter Miller observed that gangs act on certain ideas of "toughness" or "smartness"; entertainment would come at the expense of others either through intimidation, baiting and violence, or swindle. Miller notes the disdain of delinquents for honest work and formal education, the latter being “overtly disvalued and frequently associated with effeminacy”.

Whatever benefits a youth gains from a gang, material prosperity is low on the list. Furthermore, the crime is not a means to obtain benefits; the opportunity to commit crime is a benefit - a benefit enjoyed because of certain attitudes and beliefs not shared by the general population.

Scratching the surface

A gang is a group of young people which enjoys similar delinquent activities, much as other groups are formed based on shared interests, such as sports or video games. The crimes they commit are not a means to some other universal goal, but are a form of entertainment in themselves. In fact why they should find crime entertaining is a question that receives very little attention. Instead, we have an endless parade of theories suggesting that the criminal is merely a victim of pressures from his community, the “inequities of capitalism”, or from television and video games. He is either lashing out because he’s been made poor and helpless, or because we’ve brainwashed him with violent impulses beyond his control.

Of course not all crime shares entertainment as the motivation. Some crimes are recreational, while others are outbursts of anger or attempts to act out perverse fantasies (such as in the case of serial violent crimes, including murder, rape, and arson). Underlying these emotions are attitudes and worldviews – such as a victim mentality or worship of physical force and violence. The criminal behaves differently, unsurprisingly, because he thinks differently.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The error of putting yourself in a criminal’s shoes

Many people develop natural but erroneous assumptions about motives for crime. These include:

1) The crime was committed to fulfill a need.
2) The crime was a response to unique stress or emotional distress.
3) The criminal believes what he is doing is right.

For example, when we fiction readers think of a thief, our mind might go to the character Jean Valjean, from Les Miserables; in other words, to a criminal created from the desperation of poverty and human suffering. And street criminals are far more likely to win the sympathy of listeners than a wealthy embezzler or extortionist. The presence of suffering invites sympathy as a reflex, and we end up putting ourselves in the criminal’s shoes. When we do this we imagine scenarios where even we might break the law.

This begins what is known in intelligence analysis as “mirror-imaging” - when a person processes information about an event through his own experience. By substituting his experience and personality for the other person’s, this can lead to a greatly distorted understanding of behavior.

Seeing someone suffering commit a crime, one imagines himself in a similar position and draws conclusions about what might have caused the behavior. For example he decides that a criminal without a job would be less likely to recidivate if he had work skills or a better education. But because he is extrapolating from his own psychology, these conclusions only blind him to facts. He doesn’t notice that the criminal had a job, but lost it for mouthing off to his boss and missing work; that he was in school, but dropped out. And the underlying reasons for those behaviors are invisible, because they aren’t being studied.

This is why psychology is such a valuable tool for criminology. To avoid carrying assumptions to an analysis of crime, we have to fill in that blank space titled “why did he do it?” with research, not role play.