UF study: 'Gamblers fallacy' not criminal label results in more crime

April 16, 2003

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- They shouldn't bet on it, but convicted crooks do as they commit more crimes under the gambler's delusion that if they were caught once, they won't get nabbed again, a new University of Florida study finds.

Like gamblers, repeat lawbreakers expect the odds are in their favor and that they won't be apprehended again unless they were extremely unlucky," said Alex Piquero, a UF criminologist who conducted the study.

"It's the idea that lightning never strikes twice (in the same place) - that if I do a lot of crime, get caught and get punished, it can't happen to me again tomorrow," he said. "Speeding is the perfect example. People may drive the speed limit for a few days after getting a speeding ticket, but they soon resume their old driving habits because they think there is no way they can get stopped again so soon."

Piquero said this phenomenon, known as 'gambler's fallacy,' is present in many aspects of life, even popular culture. "In the movie 'The World According to Garp,' when the house that Garp is looking at gets hit by a twin-engine plane, Garp says 'well, it's disaster proof,' meaning another plane can't come and hit the house again tomorrow," Piquero said.

The investigation looks at the phenomenon of "resetting," or how someone gauges the risks of being caught again before committing a crime.

Piquero and Greg Pogarsky, a criminology professor at the University at Albany in New York, looked at the problem in four separate studies involving high school and college students and people from the general population.

For the study, described in the February issue of the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, the two researchers asked 256 students at a large public university in the Southwest to estimate on a scale from 0 to 100 how likely they would be to drive drunk. Because the actual arrest rate in such samples tends to be quite low, they compared the responses of students who had been stopped by police when they believed their blood alcohol content was above the legal limit with their peers who had not been stopped. The 43 students who had been stopped reported they were much more likely than their peers who had not been stopped to drive when they had too much to drink, Piquero said.

"One of the consistent findings of researchers when looking at criminal behavior is that the act of being punished sometimes backfires," he said.

In the past, experts thought criminals continued to break the law because society identified them as criminals and they adopted this view of themselves, Piquero said.

The newest findings, however, lead the researchers to believe something else may be at play.

"We believe that it may not be the label that makes them go on to commit more crime, but a misperception in the way they weigh risks and rewards that affects how they respond to the punishment experience," he said.

The results have implications for policymakers, who must understand that punishment and other forms of public policy sometimes have unintended consequences, Piquero said.

"We think more attention needs to be paid to the thought processes that govern individual decision making," he said. "And for crimes like drunk driving, which have a very low probability of detection, the best approach policymakers can take is to increase the level of certainty such that people will increase the perception that they will get caught and punished."

The researchers' experiments studied both drunk driving and drug use, crimes that not only have low detection rates but low likelihood for severe punishment.

"For other crimes, such as robbery and rape, that have much higher clearance rates, there might be an entirely different resetting process going on, or there may not be a resetting process going on at all," he said.

Piquero and Pogarsky are now studying whether men and women have different approaches to resetting, as well as if people of various ages reset at different rates and whether the resetting process changes over time.

Piquero said the findings are not surprising. "This idea of resetting is consistent with other research finding that people tend to believe negative events are relatively unlikely to happen to them," he said.

Piquero's research sheds new light on the consequences of punishment, said Scott H. Decker, the Curator's Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

"The research is particularly important since so many offenders are caught and receive a punishment, and these results demonstrate that the punishment may fail to have its intended effect," he said.
Writer: Cathy Keen, 352-392-0186, ckeen@ufl.edu
Source: Alex Piquero, 352-392-1025, Ext. 213, apiquero@ufl.edu

University of Florida

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