29 May 2017

How Rational Are Bank Robbers?

An economist looks at the behavioral economics of bank robbery in order to think about what might and might not work best to discourage crime.
Each year there are more bank robberies in Italy (approximately 3,000) than in the rest of Europe combined, with a 10 percent chance of victimization on average. 
…The average robbery lasts 4.27 minutes and leads to a haul of approximately 16,000 euros. Given that more than half of all bank robberies involve two or more perpetrators, the average haul per criminal is approximately equal to 8,700 euros. . . .
Those are a few interesting facts from a bold new paper, Optimizing Criminal Behavior and the Disutility of Prison. . . . 
[H]igher ability bank robbers have a higher disutility of prison. Thus higher ability offenders can be (especially) deterred by longer sentences. The authors focus attention on high-ability offenders because those are the offenders most likely to fit the assumptions of their rational-actor model. I think it’s actually better to focus on the contra-positive conclusion: its hard to deter idiots. . . .
The existence of idiots, however, calls into question the optimizing assumptions of the model. As I argue in What was Gary Becker’s Biggest Mistake? the poorly-socialized-child theory of crime can suggest other approaches to combatting crime (e.g. cognitive behavioral therapy): 
Here’s a simple test for whether crime is in a person’s rational interest. In the economic theory if you give people more time to think carefully about their actions you will on average get no change in crime (sometimes careful thinking will cause people to do less crime but sometimes it will cause them to do more). In the criminal as poorly-socialized-child theory, in contrast, crime is often not in a person’s interest but instead is a spur of the moment mistake. Thus, even a small opportunity to reflect and consider will result in less crime. 
The guy who robs a bank that has a security guard and then attempts to run away seems like a poor fit for a rational actor model. Perhaps more thinking would have led a better planned bank robbery but more plausibly it would have led to no robbery at all. Thus, I’d frame the author’s contributions in this path-breaking paper as telling us not just about rational bank robbery but about the limits and bounds of rational bank robbery.
From Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution (emphasis mine).

As far as it goes, Tabarock's observations are astute.

He misses, however, the low hanging fruit. What is Italy not doing, that every other country in Europe does, that make so much of a difference?

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