Impatient and risk-tolerant people more often become criminals, study finds

There is a broad consensus that some people have stronger social and financial incentives to commit crimes than others do. Yet, people who face the same incentives can also make different choices because they have different preferences. This means that they weigh the costs and benefits of committing a criminal action differently.

In general, however, we lack knowledge about the role of people’s preferences in relation to the risk of ending up committing a crime. Researchers from Center for Economic Behavior and Inequality at the University of Copenhagen have therefore tested the assumption that character traits such as risk tolerance and impatience are more prevalent among criminals.

“In addition to looking at the importance of cognitive skills and socio-economic background, we have also examined a number of personal preferences in relation to criminal behavior. And we can clearly see that certain preferences play a key role,” says Professor Claus Thustrup Kreiner.

Thieves take chances

According to the researchers, willingness to take risks turns out to be a key characteristic of many criminals.

“The propensity to commit crime is twice as high for the most risk-tolerant individuals compared to the least risk-tolerant,” emphasizes Claus Thustrup Kreiner.

The importance of the individual’s willingness to take risks in predicting criminal behavior corresponds to half of the importance of cognitive abilities, which is the strongest predictor for the propensity to commit a crime.

“If we look at different types of crime, willingness to take risks is particularly relevant when it comes to predicting property offenses, such as theft. If we are talking about violent, drug or sexual offences, problems with self-control are common among the individuals,” explains Claus Thustrup Kreiner.

Focus on the behavior of young men

The study includes data from economic experiments, where more than 7,000 young Danish men were invited to participate on an online platform.

The participants received an average payoff of approximately DKK 250 (€ 30) for participating, but the amount depended, among other things, on their patience in the experiment and willingness to take risks with the possibility of a major benefit. The study is in line with other economic studies, which have examined the importance of preferences for differences in people’s economic outcomes. Data from the experiments was anonymized and linked to administrative data, which, in addition to describing the socioeconomic conditions of the participants, also included information about crime.

“We have chosen to focus on crime among young men aged 15-20 because it is a group where a lot of crime is committed compared with other men and women in general,” explains Claus Thustrup Kreiner.

The combination of experimental and administrative data has also given Claus Thustrup Kreiner and the other researchers a unique set of control variables.

“We have gathered information such as school performance, residential area, immigration status, family size, birth order, parental socioeconomic status, criminal activity of parents and stress factors such as parental divorce or unemployment,” he says.

Punishment or prevention?

One of the main functions of the criminal justice system is to deter people from committing crimes. The new research results imply that exactly the people who are most likely to commit crimes are also those who respond least to increased enforcement and stricter sentences. The risk of future penalties have a much smaller preventive impact on a person who is impatient and willing to take risks.

“Our study may be able to help explain why there is limited empirical evidence that increasing punishment works to reduce crime,” says Claus Thustrup Kreiner.

The inadequate effect of punishment highlights the importance of work on crime-prevention. Here, Claus Thustrup Kreiner also believes that their results are relevant. He elaborates:

“Our study clearly shows that preferences such as risk tolerance, impatience and altruism predict the propensity to commit crime. Other research suggests that it is possible to influence these behavioral parameters in children and young people, which can be very important in relation to the development of criminal behavior.”

About the study

The study ‘Preferences predict who commits crime among young men’ was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on 8 February 2022.

The article is written by Thomas Epper, Ernst Fehr, Kristoffer Balle Hvidberg, Claus Thustrup Kreiner, Søren Leth-Petersen and Gregers Nytoft Rasmussen, all of which are affiliated with the Center for Economic Behavior and Inequality (CEBI) at the Department of Economics, University of Copenhagen.

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