The development of dysfunctional expertise in burglars
: pathways into crime and the implications for offender rehabilitation and situational crime prevention

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Residential burglary is a prevalent crime with far-reaching consequences for its victims. In 2017, in England and Wales alone, 650,000 burglaries or attempted burglaries were committed (Office for National Statistics, 2017) with the social and economic cost of each burglary estimated at nearly £6,000 (Heeks, Reed, Tafsiri & Prince, 2018). Historically, there has been an assumption that those who commit burglary do so as a result of low self-control and in response to an irresistible opportunity (e.g. Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). More recent research, however, indicates that experienced burglars demonstrate superior decision-making than would be possible for the novice or non-burglar (Nee, 2015). These competencies (comparable to expertise in non-offending fields) have led to the proposal of a theory of ‘dysfunctional expertise’ to explain the skilful undertaking of a residential burglary. 
The overarching purpose of this thesis was to examine in more detail the cognitions, emotions and behaviour of younger and older burglars in order to investigate the extent to which offence-related decision-making may be guided by expertise at different stages of the criminal career. Four key aims were addressed: 1) to build on emerging evidence for the use of virtual reality (VR) as a method to investigate offending behaviour in an empirical and ethical way; 2) to look in more depth in the time period leading up to a burglary (the decision to offend); 3) to compare indicators of expertise in the commission of a virtual burglary by younger and older burglars; and 4) to examine the largely neglected time period after the offence.
A mixed methods approach, involving the use of a simulated ‘virtual’ environment combined with a ‘think aloud’ protocol and a semi-structured interview, was used to better understand how expertise might develop over time and with experience. In Study 1, this novel method to enhance offender recall and motivation to disclose information (the Virtual Enactment Method, VEM), was developed and trialled using a sample of 61 male incarcerated burglars (age range 20-56 years, Mage = 37.64 years; SD = 8.59). The VEM allowed for the observation of ‘offending’ behaviour, which, by the nature of expertise, may be automatic and beyond the conscious recall of the experienced offender; therefore, minimising the memory and social desirability issues that have negatively affected data gathered during interview studies in the past. The findings of this study, for which the author of this thesis was lead researcher and author, showed that the use of the VEM was effective in reinstating the criminogenic event, increasing engagement, enhancing recall, and encouraging participants to talk more openly about their experiences, skills and knowledge.
Having established the value of this method, the author of the current thesis designed the subsequent three studies, in which the VEM was used to provide a more in-depth description of the burglary event as a whole, incorporating discussion of the role of expertise. A sample of 70 incarcerated male burglars, made up of 37 younger (18-21 years, Mage = 20.30, SD = 1.43) and 33 older (<21 years, Mage = 39.19, SD = 9.93) burglars was used for these studies. While the age of the offender may not directly reflect experience, the comparison of offenders by age enabled the development of expertise to be considered alongside other age-related factors that influence motivation and offence-related decision-making. Aspects of expertise have been demonstrated to accrue quickly in young offenders (e.g. Logie, Wright & Decker, 1992), but expertise does not then develop in a linear manner. Patterns of offending, cognitive development and aging are all examples of factors that may affect the speed and extent to which expertise is refined. The nature of expertise is also likely to differ between young and adult burglars, thus the distinction between younger and older burglars adopted for this thesis enables examination of the differences in decision-making and behaviour between the groups, providing clues to the development of offence-related expertise. In Study 2, the reasons provided for getting involved in and maintaining involvement in burglary were examined. The findings highlighted the key role that affect (i.e. the thrill of the offence) plays in encouraging ongoing participation in burglary. Positive emotional reward was an important motivating factor in the early days of burglary experience, and encouraged the repeated offending necessary for the development of expertise. Expertise, in turn, influenced the increasingly habitual engagement in burglary over time. Thus, Study 2 identified an important interaction between emotion, cognition and expertise on diversification, specialisation, persistence and desistance from crime. Study 3 examined the development of expertise within burglar groups, through analysis of the actual undertaking of a ‘virtual’ burglary by younger and older burglars. Findings suggested that indicators of expertise were evident in both groups; hence, expertise develops from relatively early in the burglar career. However, compared to the younger burglars, the older burglars demonstrated more developed expertise in relation to key procedural skills (the search of the property and the identification of high level goods). Finally, Study 4 examined the (to date, relatively neglected) time period after completion of a burglary. Findings suggested that expertise is less pronounced during this time than is observed in the initial decision to offend and the actual commission of the offence; however, this may be due to a reduced need for such developed skill, specifically in the conversion of stolen goods. The automaticity that develops as part of expertise, however, may be influential in the proliferation of burglary over time, and in specialisation in this type of offending. 
To summarise, the research presented in this thesis provides a valuable contribution to understanding the cognitive and emotional processes that interact across all aspects of participation in residential burglary. In addition, a novel method for uncovering offence-related decision-making (the VEM) is presented. Together, these provide the opportunity to establish a deeper understanding of the decision processes that lead to burglary. This understanding has implications for crime prevention and rehabilitation strategies that utilise understanding of offender cognitions to reduce the incidence and impact of burglary. Further, the findings are not only important for the study of residential burglary, but also have the potential to be applied to a wider range of offences, particularly those which have been demonstrated to incorporate similar, expertise-based learning (e.g. sexual offences).
Date of AwardJun 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Portsmouth
SupervisorClaire Nee (Supervisor) & Zarah Vernham (Supervisor)

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