Burglary in Virtual Reality

Iris van Sintemaartensdijk

Research output: PhD ThesisPhD-Thesis - Research and graduation internal

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In order to deter burglars, we need to understand what deters them. Although targeting patterns, targeting characteristics, interviews and surveys have produced a valuable and consistent body of work, the most important limitations of these methods combined are the lack of observing actual behaviour and a lack of experimental research. The method that can bypass the problems associated with studying burglars is the use of virtual reality (VR). VR is a computer-generated environment, which is viewed in 3D. The goal of placing recipients in VR is to transform them into another world – a virtual environment that can be close to the real world or contain fictional elements – and have participants feel part of this virtual environment. With VR the context of any scene – including a burglars’ scouting process - can be simulated in a realistic way. VR offers new possibilities to face the practical and ethical challenges in burglary research and has contributed to understanding burglar decision-making while they are in the targeted houses. The burglar scouting process – the decision-making process in which a burglar appraises a neighbourhood and behaviour exhibited in the neighbourhood– has not received such attention in VR. Observing how burglars behave in virtual neighbourhoods while simultaneously being able to experimentally manipulate factors that could impact this scouting process will provide us with more insight into effective deterrence burglars. In particular for the factors of guardianship (both symbolic and physical) and personality, VR can offer possibilities to better understand their impact on the burglar scouting process. In the current dissertation, 181 burglars and 172 non-offenders were asked to scout two virtual neighbourhoods, in which in neighbourhood 1 symbolic guardianship (via the presence of a neighbourhood watch sign, a police sign, both signs or no sign was manipulated, and in neighbourhood 2 physical guardianship (via a absent, merely present, monitoring or intervening guardian) was manipulated. Participants were asked about their personality traits and burglary expertise. In respect to physical guardianship, the presence of a guardian deterred both burglars and non-offenders, in which there were only negligible incremental effects of guardianship. In line with the original notion of guardianship developed by Cohen and Felson (1979), guardians serve as a deterrent simply by being present. In respect to symbolic guardianship, it appears that symbolic guardianship via deterring neighbourhood watch or police signs seems to elicit only small effects in deterring burglars. Given the low cost and maintenance of these signs, however, we should not be quick to dismiss them as deterrent measures. As for personality and the association with the scouting process, personality traits (in particular honesty-humility, self-control and conscientiousness) appeared to be not only related to engaging in crime but are also associated with the burglar scouting process. This association is however contingent upon the (dysfunctional) expertise of burglars. With this work, it is as if we have been given a peek into the mind of the burglar. How neighbourhood residents deter him, signs meant to deter do not affect him as much and how his scouting process can be different due to his personality traits. This is only a small portion of all situational features and individual differences that influence the burglar scouting process and that VR can help uncover. In combination with well-established methods, VR is a valuable addition in burglary research when you want to observe how burglars behave and have control over what he is exposed to. There is still much more left to discover, replicate and extend. VR has its place in burglary research, offender research in general and that we can look forward to exciting studies in this field.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
  • van Lange, Paul, Supervisor
  • van Gelder, Jean-Louis, Supervisor, -
  • van Prooijen, Jan-Willem, Co-supervisor
  • Nee , Claire, Co-supervisor, -
Award date7 Feb 2022
Publication statusPublished - 7 Feb 2022


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