Criminal: the truth about why people do bad things by my colleague Tom Gash is great and you should read it. It’s well written, persuasive and interesting. It’s also packed full of compelling stories as examples, it didn’t take longer than it needed to to say what it wanted to say, and it had a structure that made it very easy to keep reading. All of which meant that for once I didn’t get stuck in the middle as I often do with other work-related non-fiction books.
It starts by setting out the two diametrically opposed views of crime. Firstly, ‘heroes and villains’, with its moral emphasis and view that those who commit crime must be punished to prevent more crime (which tends to be the view of the political right). Secondly, ‘victims and survivors’, the view that crime is forced by adverse circumstances (which tends to be the view of the political left). This articulation reminded me of the book The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, which shows why intelligent people have such polarised political views.
Before reading this, not having given crime much thought, other than through watching The Wire and a general addiction to crime fiction and crime drama, I tended to fall into the latter group. But, as Tom points out, it’s more complicated than that and in fact neither of these views are correct. Instead, he outlines three important truths about crime that are all about behaviour – the power of opportunity, the limits of reason, and the beauty of small things (in that small things can have big effects). Building on these themes the book then sets out eleven myths about crime. Below are my picks of the ones that particularly interested me, mainly because they challenged my own misconceptions.
Myth 1: crime is rising
Having read Freakonomics by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt I was fascinated to read Tom’s take on their analysis of falling crime rates being due to the rise in abortions. Tom’s right that we crave simplicity and when I first read this explanation I loved it, but Tom points out that it is based on a relationship between trends, that in econometrics what you model matters, and that what drives crime rates is just not this simple.
Myth 2: taking up a life of crime
Not having children, so not having spent much time thinking about the behaviour of toddlers, meant that I found the analysis of the behaviour of children fascinating. It turns out that rather than people taking up a life of crime, in fact impulsiveness in early childhood is one of best predictors of future criminality. Only a tiny minority buck the trend towards better behaviour throughout childhood and into adulthood. Come to think of it I have seen more toddlers hitting each other over the head than I have adults.
Myth 3: criminals will stop at nothing
Myth 3 shows that crime is often the result of an impulsive action, with short-term satisfaction being sought, whilst ignoring possible long-term consequences. Tom points out that crime, substance abuse and risky sex have a lot in common – short-term pleasure, but long-term poor choices in terms of health, wealth and happiness. People’s ability to avoid snares depends on their personality traits and the degree of temptation to which they are exposed. A critical point for me was that some people are faced with, and are less able to deal with, more stressful circumstances than others. Crime often being the result of impulsive actions means that crime is an ever-present risk which ‘ebbs and flows in harmony with our patterns of daily existence’, rather than an exception to everyday life.
Myth 5: biology determines criminality
This is a fascinating unpacking of nature versus nurture when it comes to crime. The evidence shows for instance that the attributes people are born with or develop from family and other close relationships matter more than people they live near. It also shows that abuse and neglect do not always have physical consequences but that extreme deprivation might actually have biological impacts, although thankfully good care in later life can heal the damage.
Myth 6: poverty is the real cause of crime and Myth 7: immigration increases crime rates
The analysis of the relationship between poverty and crime shows that crime is rooted in deep-seated behaviours and is not always motivated by money, whilst a deeper look at the relationship between immigration and crime shows that some waves of immigration do present higher rates of crime, whilst others can reduce crime. Tom points out that both sides of this argument manipulate the statistics.
We then get on to what this all means for how we tackle crime. The myth that we need more bobbies on the beat is debunked as Tom shows that whether we need more or less police is much less important than where they are deployed. What some consider proper policing may actually be the least effective – random patrols and over-responding to emergencies for instance. Tougher sentences are not in-fact a sure-fire way to deter crime, leopards can change their spots and reducing crime does not always need a radical reform – back to small things having big effects.
Tom concludes by highlighting the importance of evidence-based, not myth-based, policy-making when it comes to crime. He charges us all to relinquish our deeply cherished myths and to see the world as it really is. It’s not easy to admit that your knee-jerk reactions are wrong, but Criminal leaves you with no alternative. I do hope I write a book as good as this one day.