annwfyn: (mood - dragonish warning)
[personal profile] annwfyn
Random and interesting theory.

Human beings are not motivated by being good, or being bad, or being greedy.

Human beings are largely motivated by habit and short cuts. Two studies I’ve been reading this morning are awesome examples – one is the fairly well known study in suicide, which shows that if you make it just slightly harder to kill yourself (like, for example, stopping anyone from buying enough pills to take a lethal overdose at one shop) the suicide rates plummet. I always thought this was a good example of how suicide seems to be, most often, an act of impulse, of momentary crisis. I know there’s another study that suggests that the average time lapse between thinking of suicide and following through is twelve minutes. “If someone really wants to commit suicide, they will” is a lie. Or rather, the overwhelming majority of suicides won’t.

I knew that.

But it turns out that there’s another recent study which suggests something similar about crime. Franklin E. Zimring released a study on the plummeting crime rates in New York City since the 1980s and 1990s. It’s really interesting. He rejects the notion that ‘broken window’ policing did much (mostly because he thinks it happened in theory more than in practice), and he rejects the notion that it reflected growing prosperity or social intervention. His theory is that ‘criminal activity seems like most other human choices—a question of contingent occasions and opportunity. Crime is not the consequence of a set number of criminals; criminals are the consequence of a set number of opportunities to commit crimes. Close down the open drug market in Washington Square, and it does not automatically migrate to Tompkins Square Park. It just stops, or the dealers go indoors, where dealing goes on but violent crime does not.

‘And, in a virtuous cycle, the decreased prevalence of crime fuels a decrease in the prevalence of crime. When your friends are no longer doing street robberies, you’re less likely to do them. Zimring said, in a recent interview, “Remember, nobody ever made a living mugging. There’s no minimum wage in violent crime.” In a sense, he argues, it’s recreational, part of a life style: “Crime is a routine behavior; it’s a thing people do when they get used to doing it.” And therein lies its essential fragility.

Crime ends as a result of “cyclical forces operating on situational and contingent things rather than from finding deeply motivated essential linkages.” Conservatives don’t like this view because it shows that being tough doesn’t help; liberals don’t like it because apparently being nice doesn’t help, either. Curbing crime does not depend on reversing social pathologies or alleviating social grievances; it depends on erecting small, annoying barriers to entry.’

He also points to a lot of other factors – he suggests that easily available credit cards may have done more to kill off the Mafia in New York, who relied heavily on loan sharking as a part of their business, as anything the FBI did. He also suggests that the mobile phone drove drugs dealing indoors, and when the drug dealers left the parks, the muggings that took place around the edge of their marketplace just sort of evaporated.

But the central gist is the same. These things arise out of opportunity, and stay out of habit, and if you remove those things, sometimes that’s enough.

This is a remarkably interesting thought.

(Also true of me. I’m totally a creature of laziness and habit.)
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