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Elisha Bespalov
Elisha Bespalov

Guardians VR

This study investigates the deterrent effects of incremental levels of guardianship on residential burglary and assesses how burglars differ from non-burglars in terms of their perceptions of opportunities for burglary.

Guardians VR


In a virtual reality experiment, 181 incarcerated burglars and 172 non-burglars (university students) were tasked to appraise a virtual neighbourhood in search of a burglary target. During the appraisal process, participants were exposed to different levels of guardianship, ranging from the mere presence of a guardian to an intervening guardian.

The presence of a guardian deterred both burglars and non-burglars alike, with only negligible incremental effects for levels of guardianship. For burglars, guardianship increased the perceived likelihood of being caught and the perceived level of social cohesion, whereas it decreased neighbourhood attractiveness. The burglars differed from the non-burglars in terms of how they appraised the virtual neighbourhood, clearly reflecting differences in expertise between both groups.

In the present study, we capitalise on the potential of virtual reality (VR) to provide an experimental test of the deterrent effects of different levels of guardianship among a sample of incarcerated burglars and a comparison group of non-burglars. Specifically, we aim to (a) investigate what level of guardianship is required to deter residential burglary and (b) examine how burglars differ from non-burglars in terms of their perceptions of opportunities for burglary.

In their original notion of the concept, Cohen and Felson (1979) envisioned guardianship as the mere presence (versus absence) of individuals. Mere presence was argued to provide unintentional supervision to a specific place and time through routine activities. Subsequent conceptualisations have extended the scope of guardianship to also include guardianship exhibited by objects, such as security cameras or alarms (e.g. Cohen et al. 1981), and the actual actions or behaviour of guardians (e.g. Reynald 2009). In the present study, we are particularly interested in the latter.

Reynald (2009) defined three successive levels of guardianship. The first level entails the mere presence of (a) guardian(s). The second level focuses on guardians actively monitoring their surroundings. In the third and highest level, guardians actively monitor their environment and ultimately intervene when they observe a potential offender. Preliminary evidence indicates that levels of guardianship are negatively correlated with property crimes (Reynald 2009). However, recent research suggests only minor increases in effectiveness between successive levels of guardianship (Moir et al. 2017). That being said, it is important to note that previous studies examining levels of guardianship were largely observational and correlational in nature, hence leaving open questions regarding causality (Reynald et al. 2018). In addition, whereas interview studies report higher numbers of monitoring and intervening guardians (Moir et al. 2018; Reynald 2010), monitoring and intervening guardians are less frequently observed in observational studies compared with mere present guardians and are therefore underrepresented in this research (Hollis-Peel and Welsh 2014; Hollis et al. 2019).

Burglars have been found to accumulate unique expertise over time. This expertise results in a superior recognition and quicker assessment of burglary-related cues (Nee and Ward 2015; Coupe 2017). For example, burglars more quickly detect and pay attention to cues signalling wealth, occupancy, and security (Nee and Meenaghan 2006; Nee and Taylor 2000). Hence, it stands to reason that burglars will also be more attuned to cues of guardianship when compared with non-burglars.

Research has thus far not addressed how burglars appraise different levels of guardianship. Using experimental research designs, such an appraisal could be directly observed by recording the behaviour exhibited by the burglars in response to these varying levels. Additionally, by contrasting the responses of burglars to those of a non-offender group, it is possible to place these findings in context and also highlight how expertise affects the assessment of guardianship.

This study was part of a larger data collection of the Virtual Burglary Project (VBP). The VBP aims to test hypotheses about burglary expertise and decision-making using VR. The present study had two goals. The first goal was to establish the effect of guardianship levels on burglar-perceived deterrence. The second goal involved the comparison of experienced burglars with non-burglars (i.e. university undergraduates) in terms of their perceptions of opportunities for burglary. Participants were instructed to scout a virtual neighbourhood for opportunities to commit a burglary and to proceed in a similar fashion as they would in the real world. During this process, they were exposed to a virtual guardian displaying one of three different levels of guardianship (mere presence, monitoring guardian, and intervening guardian) or did not encounter a guardian (control condition). After the scouting experience, participants were presented a survey in which they were questioned about perceived deterrence and neighbourhood attractiveness. We tested the assumption that for both burglars and non-burglars, perceived deterrence would increase in parallel with increases in the level of guardianship. Furthermore, we theorised that burglars would respond differently in terms of perceived deterrence in line with their superior expertise and be quicker and more efficient in the scouting process than non-burglars.

We performed a general linear model with the following independent variables: guardianship level and expertise (burglars versus non-burglars). Presence, cyber-sickness, and gaming experience were added as covariates for all analyses as they could potentially affect perception of the neighbourhood as well as time spent and distance travelled in the VE. The plan of analysis was structured as follows. First, we compared the different levels of guardianship at the aggregated factor level, followed by a comparison on the individual item level. For each set of analyses, we first established the effect of the four experimental conditions on the dependent variables. Subsequently, we performed planned comparisons contrasting the control condition with the three experimental conditions together to establish whether the effect guardianship is best presented as a dichotomy or as a matter of successive levels. Lastly, we tested for differences between the three levels of guardianship. These analyses were performed separately for burglars and for non-burglars. In the second part of the analyses, we compared the responses of burglars to the dependent variables to those of the non-burglars.

In its original formulation, guardianship was seen as a presence versus absence phenomenon, bypassing the possibility of differential effects between different levels of guardianship (Reynald 2009). Studies that have thus far attempted to take levels of guardianship into account have done so in a non-experimental fashion (van Bavel and Elffers 2013). The present study is the first to experimentally assess the effect of different levels of guardianship on burglar-perceived deterrence.

In line with expectations, when guardianship was encountered by burglars, perceived social cohesion and chances of getting caught increased, whereas perceived neighbourhood attractiveness decreased. No differences, however, emerged between the three levels of guardianship on these variables. These findings suggest that the mere presence of a guardian increases perceived deterrence and that the incremental deterrent effect of increasing guardianship levels is small for residential burglary. Differences between burglars and non-burglars were found for perceived difficulty to burgle, perceived attractiveness, chances of getting caught, likelihood of neighbourhood residents to intervene, social cohesion, time spent in the virtual neighbourhood, and distance travelled in it. There were no differences between burglars and non-burglars for the effect of level of guardianship.

Our findings align with the original notion of guardianship by Cohen and Felson (1979), in which guardians deter by virtue of simply being present, rather than the view of guardianship as a matter of degree. The minor differences between a present, a monitoring, and an intervening guardian correspond with findings from earlier correlational studies on level of guardianship (Hollis-Peel et al. 2012; Reynald 2009). However, it is important to note that the lack of clear difference between these groups could be affected by the ambiguous risk that a merely present guardian poses to a would-be burglar. The difference between the mere presence of a guardian and one that is monitoring is arguably subtle and a merely present guardian can also evolve into a monitoring or intervening guardian (Wright and Decker 1994). This ambiguity could render differences in perceived risk between levels of actual guardian behaviour comparatively small. Nonetheless, while even a sticker of a pair of watchful eyes can, in some situations, reduce norm violations or misconduct (e.g. Bateson et al. 2006; Nettle et al. 2012), intervening guardians pose a more imminent threat to burglars than monitoring guardians (van Bavel and Elffers 2013). Conceptually, these stages are thus notably distinct from one another.

Exploring the manipulation of guardianship behaviour and what constitutes mere presence, monitoring, or intervening guardianship is a necessary step in exploring the small differences in stages of guardianship. In the current study, the mere present guardian was not actively monitoring the participant while standing outside the house; mere present guardians are also present guardians not able to monitor activity due to their physical surroundings (e.g. street view blocked by a fence) (Reynald 2009). Intervening guardianship can take many forms, such as calling the police, physically confronting the burglar, or being verbally abusive. Perhaps varying the range of guardianship behaviour within each stage would create more notable differences between the stages. 041b061a72


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