True Crime - Understanding What Makes Criminals Tick

Podcast about the technological possibilities of criminological research

In its latest episode, the podcast IQ – Science and Research, presented by the German public-service radio and television broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR), looks into methods that can help researchers to better understand offenders and, ideally, contribute to crime prevention. This includes the Virtual Reality method used by criminologists at our Institute, which has already yielded striking results.

How can technology help researchers understand what makes criminals tick; what factors encourage criminal behavior; and what might deter (would-be) offenders? The BR podcast IQ – Science and Research explores this question in its episode “True Crime – Ver­ste­hen, wie Verbrecher ticken” (“True Crime – Understanding what makes criminals tick”) by examining technological methods and applications used in criminology and forensics worldwide, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Reality (VR), and Augmented Reality (AR). 

One example covered by the podcast is the Canadian researcher Patrice Renaud, who uses technological methods to predict the future behavior of convicted sex offenders, for example AR. In his AR re­search, digital elements are inserted into the real world to trigger a reaction in people: Test subjects are given AR glasses to see how they react to deliberate sexual stimuli. This enables Renaud to identify who might present a danger to the public. Here, too, he is supported by technology: Eye-tracking data, brainwave measure­ments, and measure­ments of the state of arousal help with the evaluation. With his research, Renaud provides Canadian courts with a basis for deciding how long society should be protected from a sex offender deemed dangerous.

Freiburg-based criminological VR research hub

Another innovative approach covered by the podcast is the VR research conducted by the Department of Criminology at the Max Planck Institute in Freiburg, which has been seeing tangible results. To learn more about this method, BR interviews psychology professor Jean-Louis van Gelder, who brought the VR approach to Freiburg and opened the criminological VR research laboratory MAXLab Freiburg in 2022. Together with VR pioneer Claire Nee from the University of Portsmouth in the UK, van Gelder is regarded as a leading figure in international criminological VR research.

One of their joint projects—the “Virtual Burglary” project—uses VR adaptations of residential areas to study the behavior of burglars. What makes this research special is that the studies are being carried out in prisons—with convicted burglars—most recently in Germany, the USA, and the Netherlands. These burglary “experts” explore the virtual residential area as if they were to commit a burglary, encountering various deterrent scenarios along the way (lighting, noise, etc.). The aim of the studies is to measure how such potential deterrents affect burglars’ actions and risk perception. Eye-tracking data and movement patterns of the participants help to assess whether and how well the various deterrents work to gain a better understanding of burglars’ behavior. In consequence, preventive measures can be developed to “make burglars’ job harder” in future.

For example, in one of their latest studies the researchers found that dynamic street lighting (i.e., streetlamps that are activated by activity and dimmed accordingly in the absence of activity) is not as effective a deterrent as had been previously expected. Conversely, what did have a deterrent effect were signs depicting eyes, with researchers assuming that they make burglars feel watched. “As a study result, this may sound banal, but it brings significant added value to municipalities,” explains the podcast.

Whether in Germany, Canada, the UK, or elsewhere in the world—the examples presented by the podcast show how technological methods can underpin criminological and forensic research. However, one thing remains undisputed: Technology alone cannot replace the motivated and creative researchers who develop relevant study designs and evaluate and contextualize collected data.

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