Thursday, November 25, 2021

Blinded by the light

The Greek philosopher Aristotle created the scientific method - knowledge proceeds through evidence, objective analysis, and logic.
Photo Creative Commons

by Gregory Saville

As Bruce Springsteen writes in his song, it’s easy to get blinded by something you are passionate about. That especially applies to crime theory.

It’s hard enough to implement crime prevention without having to constantly check whether the prevention theory itself is under attack. Of course, prevention practitioners should know the strengths and weaknesses of their programs, including theory veracity. But when theory itself remains unchallenged by scientists, even when emerging data contradicts that theory, it makes the practitioner's job much more difficult. 

When that happens, practitioners are unsure whether it is the theory that is wrong or the implementation. 

Take crime displacement theory. When a crime happens in one location, will preventive measures move it somewhere else? Traditional displacement theory says crime will not necessarily move elsewhere. Or if it does, it might create benefits in other ways (the so-called diffusion of benefits theory).

Most likely, we are told, the displaced crime will reduce in impact – it won’t get worse! We are told dozens of studies confirm this theory over a number of years. 


Then a British undergraduate thesis on displacement uncovered some disturbing patterns in the evidence.

Catherine Phillip's analysis discovered, “that displacement may, in fact, be more common than is widely claimed, particularly in the case of studies with offenders. Furthermore… the findings of the Kirkholt Burglary Prevention Project, which purport to demonstrate a diffusion of benefits, are shown to be based on questionable evidence.”

Curiously, this was met with deafening silence in the situational crime prevention community. Phillip's referring specifically to the scientific evidence would, one would think, sound alarms to scientific theorists. Not so.

A few years later, Tarah Hodgkinson, myself, and Martin Andresen, conducted a detailed study on displacement over a multi-year timeframe using extensive ethnographic/statistical research in a city where we had delivered CPTED for over a decade. We combined the best qualitative and quantitative research. Our research discovered that, indeed, displacement was not benign, there was no diffusion of benefits, and alarmingly, we uncovered clear evidence of malign displacement in which crime got much worse in two different areas. 

We published our study in one of the most prestigious journals in the criminological community – the British Journal of Criminology.

Again, from the displacement research crowd… crickets! Apparently, data and evidence, even in a thorough crime study, were also not enough to sound the alarm about troubles with displacement theory. 


Marc Brackett's Permission To Feel


For many years, Gerard Cleveland and I have taught our police students emotional intelligence (EI). EI was created by psychologists in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly the work of Yale University’s professor Peter Salovey and his colleagues. The best recent book on EI is Marc Brackett’s, Permission to Feel.

The role of emotions, it turns out, is poorly understood among professionals and, I would add, researchers. Emotions explain why researchers get attached to their theories and, when it comes to criminology, why they refuse to accept new theories or abandon old ones.

The methodology of science suggests that researchers should carefully manage their emotions and follow the data. In displacement, at least, it seems that may not always have been the case. The attachment to theories – this clinging to something when contradictory evidence arises – emerges from poor emotional intelligence and the inability to detach from a theory and look at alternate theories with a clear eye. 

Avoid theory blindness by looking carefully at the data,
self-awareness, and detaching from bias


Take, for example, 2nd Generation CPTED! For years, Gerry Cleveland and I heard complaints from traditional crime prevention practitioners that “if it’s not about changing the physical environment, it’s just not CPTED”. 

When we pointed out that the founders of CPTED – Jane Jacobs, Oscar Newman, C. Ray Jeffery – did not limit their discussions to architecture; they also spoke of the interconnectedness between theories, of the role of neighbors in crime prevention, and of social cohesion in neighborhoods. Getting locals to create a sense of defensible space was the mantra in authentic CPTED, yet those practitioners attached to physical target hardening ignored this part of the theory. 

This is theory-blindness! It is often triggered by emotional attachments to a particular view and it is known in psychology as confirmation bias – the tendency to search only for information that confirms your prior beliefs of something. It is not surprising we are sometimes blinded by the light of a theory to which we are attached. We are all, after all, human. But ignoring data and cherry-picking evidence that supports only one particular theory is not only unscientific – it obstructs our work to help create safer places. Our communities deserve better.


I spoke too soon in regards to crickets from the criminological community. The situational theory cluster inside the movement might ignore, but not so the mainstream criminology community. The American Society of Criminology just awarded our own Tarah Hodgkinson the prestigious Robert Bursik Award for the displacement study I referenced above that Tarah, Martin Andresen, and I co-published in the British Journal of Criminology. Congratulations Tarah.  

1 Reply so far - Add your comment

V. said...

Wonderful to read. Scientific data and its importance to vidate or refute theories Almost with an imperative of confirming them. Great to know sometimes they don't. Hard working research. Thank you for sharing and congratulations!