How I Met My Partner In Crime

Comparing social behavior in partner selection in criminal and non-criminal populations

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Seeking a criminal partner is not unlike searching for a dance partner on a Saturday night. Humans are inherently social creatures, driven by the innate need to connect with others. We interact with other people almost every day, forming a so-called “social network”. Think about your close friends and try to remember why you became friends with them in the first place. Was it because you already had friends in common? Did they attract you because they shared the same interests? Or did they simply appear to be in the right place and at the right time in your life? In reality, it could be a combination of everything. Interestingly, regardless of the end goal - whether it is dancing or robbery - the mechanisms underlying these social connections have remarkable similarities.

Criminals and criminal networks

When we use the term “criminal” or “offender” we refer to a person who breaks the laws and rules of a given country. Some crimes can be performed by one person, such as tax fraud. However, some criminal acts can require collaboration between several people. For example, criminal literature indicates that burglary has the highest prevalence of co-offending. In working together, it is believed that criminals may form social networks, which we call “criminal networks”. These networks can serve as a pool of potential partners and collaborations.

Suppose someone is seeking a partner to rob a house. What qualities would be the most important in a potential partner in crime? Let’s look at business partnerships as an example to answer this question. Production companies often require external help to develop new solutions and products. When seeking help, they look for companies that are trustworthy, competitive, and willing to collaborate. Similarly, when it comes to robbery, criminals are more likely to team up with someone who has relevant experience, can be trusted not to betray them, and is currently available.

It’s not what you know but who you know

Our social networks can consist of many individuals, but we can’t afford equal time and attention to all of them. We tend to interact more frequently with a select few, termed “strong ties,” representing our close friendships. Simultaneously, we maintain “weak ties”, representing acquaintances and people we see less often. In 1973 sociologist Granovetter showed that weak ties play a valuable role in our networks. The importance of weak ties might feel counterintuitive, but there is a rationale behind it. If you have a small but very connected group of people you interact with daily, you are likely exposed to the same information and opportunities and there is no room for exploring new things. And if you are looking for a new job, all your close professional contacts are more likely to have the same options in mind as you have already tried. However, a random post with a vacancy ad on LinkedIn from a person you barely know might open a door for new opportunities.

It is believed that criminals might experience the same when it comes to a criminal partner selection. Pierre Tremblay, a Canadian criminologist, has suggested that offenders might use both types of ties, strong and weak. Using this approach criminals interact with strong ties that are defined by the high level of trust to commit crimes together, but at the same time, they also rely on weak ties for accessing new skills and information. However, some criminals might prefer only strong ties, as these collaborations may have a higher chance of success and fewer chances of betrayal.

People like people like them

However, there should be something that attracts us to individuals to create any type of connection. Consider your friends and the common interests and opinions you share. Chances are, you are probably very similar to your friends in some areas, such as music taste, religious beliefs, or shared sports activities.

In her blog post, Gwendolyn Seidman discusses why we might tend to like people who have or are perceived to have similar interests as us. There are several possible explanations for this phenomenon. For instance, when we see someone who has similar attitudes toward the world, we become more confident that our own attitudes are appreciated and correct. Another possible explanation is that we believe that people who have a lot in common with us are more likely to like us in return.

In criminal partners, it is not always straightforward to assess how similar or dissimilar they are in terms of interests, political views, or religion. What we do know, however, is that criminals would rather co-offend with someone who is the same sex and around the same age as them. After analyzing survey data from US schools, Flashman and Gambetta found that adolescents who participate in delinquent activities have an even stronger preference for similar friends, compared to nondelinquent adolescents.

Moreover, Granovetter proposed a theory of triadic closure. In simple terms, this theory suggests that if you have two friends who are similar to you, but they don’t know each other yet, they are more likely to be similar as well and become friends as well. This social phenomenon has been replicated in studies of co-offending groups, showing that criminals are more likely to co-offend with the partner of their previous partners. A group of researchers from UCL showed that it is even more likely to collaborate with the partner of your previous partner than to choose a “popular” criminal or collaborate with the same person as before.

Right place, right time?

An important question is whether humans are always guided by rational calculations when forming new connections. Do we consider all the pros and cons of a person we want to go dancing with or perform a thorough risk-benefit analysis? Often the individuals we share experiences with enter our lives spontaneously.

Similarly, in her work, “Robbery arising out of a group drinking-context”, Ann Teresa Cordilia has shown that some criminal events happen on the spur of the moment. She discussed how group drinking situations might give rise to casual robbery. Here is a quote from one of the interviews:

G. L. and R. were drinking and were “half crocked”. S. said he knew about a car [which they could steal] which somebody wanted so they could get rid of it. G. had doubts because he didn’t want to violate his parole. But he went along anyway and that’s how he ended up [in prison].

Marcus Felson, a professor at Texas State University, identified three conditions that need to be met for a co-offense to occur. Firstly, the co-offenders must gather physically at the same place and time. Secondly, they should be able to communicate with each other without any interference from outside. Lastly, they must have enough time to socialize before committing the offense.

Closing remarks

Studying social behavior among criminals is a crucial yet challenging task. Understanding how offenders find partners can assist law enforcement in preventing future collaborations and ensuring a safer society. One thing we can say for certain is that it is far wiser to enjoy the company of friends in a bar than to end up behind bars.

Ruslan Klymentiev
Ruslan Klymentiev

Trying to do useful things with the help of data and math

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