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Burglars found to be as skilled as pilots

Sept. 27, 2006
Courtesy University of Portsmouth
and World Science staff

Bur­glars are so good at rob­bing hous­es, they can be con­si­dered ex­perts in their field on a pa­r with pi­lots, new re­search con­cludes.

Psy­chol­o­gists Claire Nee and Amy Meenaghan of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ports­mouth, U.K. found that bur­glars’ speed and ef­fi­cien­cy puts them on a lev­el with oth­ers who per­form com­pli­cat­ed tasks au­to­mat­i­cal­ly, such as mu­si­cians, chess play­ers and pi­lots.

A man tries to pry open a gar­age door. (Cour­te­sy City of Pa­cif­ic Grove, Penn.)


The con­clu­sions were based on in-depth in­ter­views with 50 se­ri­al bur­g­lars on how they car­ry out break-ins, Nee and Mee­na­g­han said. 

These talks, they ad­ded, re­vealed that get­ting in­to a home and steal­ing valu­a­bles, while si­mul­ta­ne­ous­ly mo­ni­tor­ing noise, is a clas­sic ex­am­ple of “ex­per­tise.”

“Bur­glars are ex­pert de­ci­sion­ma­kers. Based on a com­bi­na­tion of cues—wealth, lay­out, oc­cu­pan­cy or se­cu­ri­ty—they de­cide which prop­er­ty to en­ter,” Nee re­marked.

“Bur­glars be­come ex­pe­ri­enced at get­ting around a prop­er­ty very quick­ly with min­i­mum risk and max­i­mum gain. They nav­i­gate around the prop­er­ty us­ing a fixed search pat­tern or men­tal map to make sure they get all the desira­ble goods in the least amount of time.”


The re­search, pub­lished in the Sep­tem­ber is­sue of the Brit­ish Jour­nal of Crim­i­nol­o­gy, found that:
  • Se­cu­rity alarms don’t de­ter a bur­glar in­tent on steal­ing from a prop­er­ty.

  • Bur­glars pre­fer res­i­dents to be at home asleep, as this en­sures valu­a­bles such as wal­lets, hand­bags and jew­el­lery are in the house.

  • The av­er­age time for a bur­glar to be in a prop­er­ty was 20 min­utes, dur­ing which they net­ted goods worth £800 ($1,500).

  • Most bur­glars said they did­n’t plan the break-in in ad­vance. Rather, they head­ed for an af­flu­ent ar­e­a when they needed cash, then choose their prop­er­ty.

  • Two-thirds knocked on the front door to check wheth­er an­y­one was home be­fore en­ter­ing, and locked the door once in­side.

  • Two-thirds pre­ferred to work alone so they would­n’t have to split prof­its or risk pa­rtners iden­ti­fy­ing them to po­lice.

Nee al­so found the ma­jor­i­ty of bur­glars had a set route once in­side the house. They started in the mas­ter bed­room and scoured oth­er bed­rooms be­fore head­ing for the liv­ing room, din­ing room and stu­dy. In­trud­ers didn’t en­ter chil­dren’s rooms, as these rare­ly con­tained valu­a­bles, and on­ly went in­to kitch­ens if they had time.

The con­victed bur­glars said they were main­ly look­ing for cred­it cards, mon­ey or jew­el­ler­y, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers. The law­break­ers took te­le­vi­sions, CD and DVD play­ers and oth­er elec­tri­cal goods as a bo­nus on their way out. Over­all, the information should help po­lice and house­hold­ers pre­vent do­mes­tic bur­glaries, the psy­chol­o­gists said. 

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Burglars are so good at robbing houses, they should be regarded as experts in their field on a par with pilots, new research has found. Psychologists Claire Nee and Amy Meenaghan of the University of Portsmouth, U.K. said burglars’ speed and efficiency puts them on a level with others who perform complicated tasks automatically such as musicians, chess players and pilots. The conclusions were based on in-depth interviews with 50 serial burglars about how they carry out break-ins showed. These revealed that getting into someone’s home and stealing their valuables, while being able to simultaneously listen for noise, is a classic example of “expertise,” Nee and Meenaghan said. Their research, published in the September issue of the British Journal of Criminology, found that: · Security alarms don’t deter a burglar intent on stealing from a property · Burglars prefer residents to be at home asleep as this would ensure valuables such as wallets, handbags and jewellery would be in the house · The average time for a burglar to be in the property was 20 minutes, during which thieves netted goods worth £800 ($1,500). · Most burglars said they didn’t plan the burglary in advance but headed for an affluent area when they needed cash and then choose their property. · Two-thirds knocked on the front door to check whether anyone was home before entering and locked the door once inside the property. · Two-thirds preferred to work alone so they didn’t have to split the profits or risk partners identifying them to police. Nee also found the majority of burglars had a set route once inside the house. They started in the master bedroom and scoured other bedrooms before heading for the living room, dining room and study. Intruders did not enter children’s rooms as they rarely contained valuables and only went into the kitchen if they had time. The convicted burglars said they were mainly looking for credit cards, money or jewellery, according to the researchers. The lawbreakers took televisions, CD and DVD players and other electrical goods as a bonus on their way out of properties. The evidence will help crime prevention police officers and householders who want to prevent themselves against domestic burglaries, the psychologists said. “Burglars are expert decision-makers. Based on a combination of cues – wealth, layout, occupancy or security – they decide which property to enter,” Nee remarked. “Burglars become experienced at getting around a property very quickly with minimum risk and maximum gain. They navigate around the property using a fixed search pattern or mental map to make sure they get all the desirable goods in the least amount of time.”