Foraging Strategies Of Homo Criminalis: Lessons From Behavioral Ecology

Wim Bernasco
Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement

Foraging theory is about what animals do to feed themselves, about how they search, choose and eat food. The theory deals with the question of how their behavioral choices depend on accessibility and spatial distribution of food sources, proximity of predators, competition of members of their own and of other species, hunger level, and other environmental conditions. The theory is part of behavioral ecology, a branch of biology dedicated to the study of the origins and functions of animal (including human) behavior. In this contribution I explore how foraging theories can be fruitfully applied in criminology for explaining the ways offenders search and chose targets when they commit property crimes. Foraging theories may help us to understand how general environmental conditions of target scarcity and distribution affect criminal decision making: how do criminals choose target areas and targets, under which conditions do they become more or less selective in their choices, how long do they stay in a certain area before moving on, how are the sizes of the fruits of criminal activities related to the distance criminals have to transport them? In addition, theories of risk-sensitive foraging may help us understand under which conditions criminals will optimize short-term rather than long-term benefits of crime. Vigilance and other behaviors related to predation risk provide useful analogies for how spatial behavior and target choice of criminals are affected by the risk of detection and arrest. The paper is mainly theoretical, but some results are illustrated with empirical findings from the literature and from the author’s own research on spatial target choice of burglars in the city of The Hague.

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