Why do some people commit crimes?

Badische Zeitung reports on doctoral research project

April 09, 2024

There are many different reasons why people commit crimes. Among them: a lack of self-control and the need for immediate gratification – this is also known as a lack of future orientation. Doctoral researcher Sebastian Kübel is investigating which factors – both positive and negative – influence future orientation and the ability to exercise self-control. The German newspaper Badische Zeitung (BZ) recently reported on his fascinating insights so far.

One of the things that criminologists at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law are researching is which circumstances can lead a person to commit a crime. One important factor is whether or not a person pays attention to the (later) consequences a potential criminal act could have. “If someone on the street annoys me, it can be wonderfully liberating at that very moment to vent my anger and punch them in the face,” says Sebastian Kübel, who is currently writing his doctoral thesis at the research institute in Freiburg. “But such actions have consequences – police, prison, and so on. It’s just that the person doesn’t think about them at the time he uses his fist,” the BZ quotes the researcher as saying. The offender satisfies a short-term need and ignores any disadvantages his behavior could have in the future.

“In the field of criminology, we have known for some time that temporal orientation plays a decisive role,” says Sebastian Kübel, “meaning that some people live more in the moment and focus on what satisfies their immediate needs, while others also have the future in the backs of their minds.” In his research project, the psychologist is currently analyzing the personal and environmental factors that lead to such short-term mindsets. His work draws on a large representative data set, which captured the survey responses of more than 1600 people collected from primary school age through young adulthood.

What has already become clear: the ability to self-regulate one’s actions and keep in mind the future is not only shaped in childhood; it can also be influenced by both positive and negative factors in later life. An example of a negative influence can be a personal experience of violence. But the ability to think about the future can also be positively influenced and then play a key role in preventing crime. “That’s a valuable insight and positive outlook,” Sebastian Kübel told BZ. “And that’s why it’s worthwhile to continue looking for conditioning factors and techniques that we can use to promote future orientation.”

„Warum werden manche Menschen kriminell? Freiburger Wissenschaftler suchen nach Ursachen“. Article in German in Badische Zeitung on 04.04.2024 (paywall)

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