In my last post I discussed the issue of cognitive limitation, the fact that our brain can only process so much information at once without being overloaded. This means that our brain is ‘miserly’ with it’s processing and uses a number if strategies to help keep it within acceptable limits. Essentially we usually try and do things with the least effort needed. These strategies, or heuristics, have important implications in terms of our behaviour, all of which is essentially driven by our brain. So, if we take this point of view, it can be seen that understanding cognitive limitation can also help us to understand certain aspects of criminal behaviour.
An example of this would be the issue of where criminals choose to commit their offences. Research has shown that even the most serious offences are usually committed surprisingly close to where the offender lives, or is based. Studies have actually shown that the ‘average’ journey to crime is only between 1 and 2 miles. This could be seen in terms of opportunity but, arguably, it still all boils down to limits in cognitive processing. Put simply humans operate best in places they know. Our experience of a location helps us develop a ‘mental map’, something that not only aids us in navigating this space but also reduces the need for cognitive processing.
I’m sure you can relate to the difference you would feel in terms of walking around your home town or finding your way around a strange city. The former is easy and happens without much conscious thought – we take for granted that we know where we are going and get there automatically. Indeed we know that the brain essentially processes information at two levels, one of which is automatic and other more actively. When we are used to something, or somewhere, cognition moves into automatic mode and saves on the more intensive active processing. This is why a strange city would ‘feel’ more difficult. Our brain is literally unprepared in terms of experience of the place and we have to use a lot more active processing to find our way around.
So psychologically we prefer places that we know, literally speaking those that are within our comfort zone. They are comfortable because they don’t invoke the, usually unpleasant, feelings we get when our brain is overloaded. Individuals who commit crimes are no different from those that don’t in terms of the limits to their cognition. Their brains will do all that they can to avoid overload, which in turn will impact on their behaviour. Logically one might argue that any criminal would choose to commit their offences a great distance away from where they live to help reduce their chances of capture. The reason most don’t is that it takes too much cognitive effort to understand and ‘learn’ somewhere new and from a psychological point of view it is much ‘easier’ to offend close to home.