The Lazy Brain: Cognitive Limitations and Journey to Crime

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.

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3 Responses to The Lazy Brain: Cognitive Limitations and Journey to Crime

  1. Julio J Toral says:

    Dr Phillips

    I am a Crime Analyst working for the Metropolitan Police. I also hold a Masters degree in Investigative Forensic Psychology. My dissertation versed on Thefts of Personal Property in airport environments. Although based on a very small sample my study found journeys to crime far greater than the typical 1-2 miles. Further to my findings other literature has pointed fact that not all journey to crime is Domocentric, stressing the importance of Anchor Points ( I will be pleased to send you a copy of the publication if you want to discuss further ). In my capacity as an analyst I have also mapped nearly three hundred journeys to crime (crowflight distances) subsequently finding a suggestion of medium rather than shorter journeys to crime.

    Kind Regards

    Julio J Toral

    • Hi Julio,

      Many thanks for taking the time to reply. Firstly I admit that my article was very over simplified! I agree completely with the importance of anchor points here, and also with the fact that it isn’t all Domocentric. Indeed it is something that relates, perhaps, to the Canter model of marauding and commuting offenders (although this is obviously relating to a certain type of offending).

      I guess I was trying to illustrate here the relationship between journey lenght and capacity but realise that there is a lot of research that shows longer distances. I’d be interested in a reference for your research on this. It’s a complex issue but a fascinating one! Thanks again, and regards, Jez

  2. Julio J Toral says:


    Thank you for your answer.

    I totally agree with your concept of comfort zone. Subjects seem to be guided by environmental cues that are subsequently processed by heuristics. These cues are possibly associated with familiar environments, perceptions of security (i.e. darkness) and expectations of reward.

    My comment was based on my experience on acquisitive crime, but I must say that you are well justified on your posting. If we look at it under the prism of violence we realize that the thousands of domestic disturbances brought to the attention of police throughout the country have a rather short “journey to crime” -that is, zero miles-. They are not classed as crimes, true, but that does not stop them from being of the same nature as other criminological phenomena that is fully (and arguably) regarded as worthy of our attention

    Best Regards


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