How do you break into a house without breaking a sweat? David Robson delves into the “flow state” of professional robbers – and finds how to beat them.

At first, it feels almost too easy. Against the gentle rustling of leaves, I walk through the back gate, across the lawn, and open the door, all of it unnoticed. I am committing a crime in broad daylight – and no one can stop me.

My glee soon turns to a kind of mental fog. I first grab the flat-screen TV, only to drop it on the floor. Time’s ticking by, so I run upstairs, then down, then up again. I bag a laptop, a phone – but in my rush, I’ve missed some of the biggest bounty.

My accomplice, Claire Nee, rolls her eyes. She points to a jacket, hanging on a chair – inside was a wallet, with credit cards and keys, which I could have easily nabbed. Then she points out the iPad I’d left on the chair, and the passports in the drawers. I’m crushed; I’d imagined I would be a rather good burglar.

The search becomes a natural instinct - Claire Nee

At least I needn’t worry about being caught by our friends with the talking brooches. The house we’re robbing isn’t real; it’s on a computer screen, part of a virtual reality program that I can control with a mouse. It’s the latest tool that Nee, a forensic psychologist at the University of Portsmouth, has been using to try to get inside the minds of burglars. “In the past, people thought of offenders as impulsive, indiscriminate, opportunistic – they didn’t think they were very clever because they usually aren’t well educated,” she says. And that has been a mistake. Nee has found that burglars have a complex cognitive toolbox of advanced, automatic skills – much like a chess player or tennis star. If we are to prevent future crimes, we’ve got to appreciate that expertise.

 

Nee began her research in prisons, where she carefully quizzed offenders about their misdeeds. She would gently probe their memories with interviews and questionnaires, as well as showing them photos and plans of houses and streets to try to trigger recall of their strategies. You might think the convicted burglars would be suspicious, or hostile, to someone trying to plumb their secrets. In fact, they are more than happy to open up. “A lot of the time they are incredibly bored. So what you overwhelmingly find is that they are really pleased that someone is interested in what they do,” she says.

Nee had forgotten that she had left her briefcase downstairs; as she watched the video link, she found one burglar leafing through her own belongings

Even so, her team have had a few surprises. As part of her recent experiments, she invited a group of students and convicted burglars to a police safe house to see how they would try and enter the premises. The back door had been unlocked, but engineers filming the incidents were shocked to find a couple of the burglars climbing in through a window above their heads. And later on, Nee had forgotten that she had left her briefcase downstairs. “I’ve now got this video of a burglar going through my briefcase and finding all my money – it’s really freaky,” she says.

Nee might have known that they would instantly home in on the cash. Throughout her experiments, she has shown that most burglars are operating on a skilled “automatic pilot” that allows them to quickly exploit an opportunity.

It begins long before the day of the crime. When he (or she) starts to need money, the burglar will begin noting potential targets during their day-to-day activities – walking the dog, say. They are surprisingly flexible, however, and may quickly change their mind on the day, if they see another house that is easier to access – thanks to an open window or door, or if the owners are away.

Once inside, the automatic pilot proves to be essential to stop the criminal losing their head, as I find out myself in my own botched burglary. The safe house is now being used for its original purpose, so I am instead taking part in a virtual reality simulation, which Nee has also used to ask convicted burglars to demonstrate the course of a crime. Despite the artificial set-up, she has found that they tend to take it seriously, and show much the same behaviour as they did in the real-life house.

I had, however, been sceptical of Nee’s claims that much skill is required. “How hard can it be?” I asked myself as I entered the virtual house. But although I know to focus on the small, portable, high-value items – somehow my eyes glide right over them. My mind is racing, but I can’t find anything – and so I go for the big, cumbersome items instead. Rather than being a smooth criminal, I am like a hyperactive kid on an Easter egg hunt. (If you don’t believe me, I would suggest you take a look at the video below, to see how many items you would have spotted during this staged crime.)

My confusion is a stark contrast to burglars’ behaviour in Nee’s simulations, which she developed with Martin White at the University of Sussex. Experienced burglars almost all followed the same route through a house, heading first to the upstairs bedrooms, and then to the living rooms downstairs. Along the way, they easily spot the coat pockets for wallets and credit cards, as well as the designer clothes, jewellery and other small valuables – while neglecting the electronic equipment that will quickly age. With an average of just four minutes in the house, the professionals accumulated around £1000 ($1560) more booty than Nee’s control group of law-abiding students.

“I could have done it with my eyes shut,” one burglar told Nee

Strikingly, most of the thought processes involved in this search seem to take place below consciousness, giving the burglar greater mental space to deal with the risk of being rumbled. “I could have done it with my eyes shut,” one told Nee during her prison interviews. “The search becomes a natural instinct, like a military operation,” is how another described it. “It becomes routine to concentrate on what’s going on around you and where to find things. Most concentration is on the risk of someone coming back – the search is natural.”

Given this rapid, systematic, non-conscious behaviour, Nee compares burglary to other, more functional forms of skilled expertise – from music to chess to tennis – where top performers claim to enter a similar kind of “flow state” in which most of the most crucial decisions rumble away below awareness.

And as with those other kinds of experts, she thinks burglary relies on intricate “psychological schemas”. “They are bunches of recipes for how to do things. And as you get more expert, it’s not that you get more of the schemas, but they get more dense and interrelated,” she says. “So you can pluck a solution instantaneously out of your memory, just by seeing a cue.”

For a chess player, it’s the detailed strategies that can be called to mind in an instance; for a burglar, it’s an encyclopaedic understanding of house layouts and the likely locations of the most valuable objects, as well as planned routes for the getaway. Having experienced many different scenarios, they already have a plan that suits the crime in hand, meaning they don’t have to work through all the possibilities. A novice, by contrast “will be processing everything at once,” Nee says. As I found, doing that leaves you paralysed with indecision.

Nee’s theory may seem rather abstract, but she is hopeful that it will suggest practical ways to fight crime. Given her research, she is not surprised that burglar alarms no longer act as much of a deterrent; on hearing an alarm, most neighbours fail to call the police for 20 minutes or so anyway, so they don’t pose a great threat. And they are now so familiar that most burglars have incorporated the ringing into the mental schemas – so they can continue burgling without paying attention to the sound.

Instead, Nee says one trick could be to find something unexpected that doesn’t fit the usual script of a crime, breaking the burglar out of the automatic, below-conscious processing. “That’s likely to make them abandon the crime,” Nee suggests. Playing a recording of someone’s footsteps, or even something as simple as gentle white noise, might be distracting enough to perturb the burglar. Equally, you could lay out your house in a distinct way – anything that confuses their automatic mental maps. “The thing is, you have to be innovative over time because burglars will get used to whatever you do,” she says.

Misdirecting the burglar’s automatic pilot may also turn them away from a life of crime. Nee points out that cues suggesting a potential burglary – an open window of an empty house, for example – could trigger the brain’s reward system, making it harder to resist and putting them in the automatic mind set. “It’s a whole chain of decisions to do an offence,” she says. “They won’t be conscious of early decisions but as they get closer to the scene of potential crime, the reward system will kick in more and more.” So rehabilitation therapy could train burglars to avoid those cues and fight temptation, preferably at the earliest point, such as when they are just about to scout out potential targets. She is now working with Jean-Louis Van Gelder at the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement to study the waves of emotion during a crime.

Almost all the burglars would avoid a face-to-face encounter – except one who, chillingly, liked to walk into bedrooms to watch people sleep

For the time being, there are some easy measures that we could all take. Besides the obvious (remembering to close windows and lock doors) Nee thinks one of the best strategies is to pretend that someone is always in the house; almost all the burglars she has interviewed report that they will do anything to avoid a face-to-face encounter (except one, who chillingly reported that he would deliberately walk into bedrooms at night to watch his victims sleep). So if you are leaving for the shops, you might call goodbye through the front door to give the impression that your family are still inside – even if there is no one at home.

Before I leave, I can’t help wonder whether Nee has perhaps started to see the possibility for crimes everywhere – a little, perhaps, like the masterminds she is studying. She admits that, like a seasoned professional, she now spots potential targets whenever she is out walking her dog. “I guess it is just second nature to me now,” she says. Lucky for us, she’s not been tempted to put her expert burgling skills to the test yet.

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