Creative Destruction

April 12, 2007

Behavior Modification in Action

Filed under: Criminal Justice,Science — Brutus @ 4:05 pm

This report from the Seattle Times introduces a new solution to the old problem of bank robbery: be nice. Apparently, bank personnel who identify a suspicious character (often based on dress alone, especially dress that obscures identity) can head off a potential heist by being aggressively nice and corralling the questionable person in a “customer service on steroids” scenario. The report focuses on treating would-be robbers nicely, but the key factor in my view is simply having multiple people interact with the culprit before the fact (in the event of an actual robbery) who would presumably then be able to make a positive identification after the fact. Still, it appears to be effective at reducing the incidence of bank robbery in Seattle, which is for unexplained reasons unusually high.

I rather like the idle of using positive reinforcement and subtle behavior modification to thwart crime. It also makes me wonder whether a foreign policy of “aggressive diplomacy” might better serve our objectives than the gunboat diplomacy currently in use. The obvious difference in scale between individual crime and crises among nation-states might tend to make such a comparison nonsensical, but I still wonder if involving other nations in overwhelmingly nice endeavors (or a simple observation “we can see what you’re doing and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves”) would effect any change in the way despots and terrorists operate.


  1. I suspect that the mechanism most strongly at work is that it is harder to be coldly self-serving towards someone who establishes a personal contact with you and becomes distinguishable as an individual, than it is to do that towards an anonymous cog in a machine.

    If so, the international analogy would be to humanize your own nation with other nations. It’s easier to bomb faceless enemy aliens than it is to bomb individual men, boys, women and girls who have real lives and aspirations.

    Comment by ohwilleke — April 12, 2007 @ 8:28 pm | Reply

  2. Then I’ve gotten it backwards. Other nations should be taking the steps you mention to protect themselves from us. We’re the bank robbers in this scenario.

    Comment by Brutus — April 12, 2007 @ 10:42 pm | Reply

  3. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if this really was an effective strategy in aborting violence.

    However, I don’t see any evidence there that it is. Bank robberies have fallen, but we all know that correlation doesn’t prove causation. Neither does the fact that the suspicious looking fella didn’t rob the bank mean anything other than perhaps that all he wanted was a roll of quarters.

    Comment by Daran — April 14, 2007 @ 6:08 am | Reply

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