Using Choice Architecture to Increase Crime

Sometimes when designing for behavior change, it is useful to think about what you would do if you had the exact opposite goal. In that spirit…

Prompt: Using behavioral science, how can you maximize willingness to commit crime?

  • Identify high potential targets: Find anyone who commits a crime, no matter how minor. The slightest propensity to crime should be taken advantage of.
  • Get control of their environment: Identified individuals should be moved to a temporary environment to shape them where we have complete control over what they see, what they do, and when they do it.
  • Replace their social network: Physically, socially, and technologically separate individuals from non-criminal social networks, and put them in a social network with other people who have committed crimes
  • Reinforce and normalize the new social network: The new social network might not stick, so we need to find a way to create bonding. One way to do this is by creating an unpleasant environment such that people in their new social network can provide protection, resources, and (in general) friendship.
  • Put a wedge between them and “non-criminal” society: Make sure they feel hated by the rest of society by not just looking the other way at mistreatment, but making sure they know society doesn’t care about the mistreatment (e.g., allow for a rape culture and make jokes about it, force them to wear pink underwear and live outside in the Arizona desert just because)
  • Create a criminal identity: Give them (and their new social network) the identity of “criminal”
  • Reinforce the identity: Deny basic necessities and pleasantries, and then have a steady flow of contraband to help normalize crime.
  • Diminish respect for authority through arbitrariness: Add in an element of arbitrariness (bias + noise) to the system to make authority seem very unfair.
  • Diminish respect for authority through severity of punishment: Enact severe punishment (e.g., solitary confinement)
  • Undermine the social contract by removing legal avenues: Make sure that they are second class citizens (e.g., remove voting rights.)
  • Add desperation: Make sure they have no opportunity to make meaningful money for a few years so that when they are returned to their initial environment they are desperate for any job. Also make sure that welfare programs are more difficult to access, or impossible.
  • Return to initial environment, and make moving hard: Once you’ve successfully done all the above, avoid a fresh start by sending them to the original location in which they committed the crime, and then make that location a legal necessity for them to stay in. Even better if locals know they committed a crime, and so only the criminals will associate with them while law-abiding citizens do not. So wherever possible, make sure there is parole with regular check-ins with the government. This should last at least long enough to put down some roots so that they’ll want to stay in the original location of the first crime.
  • Add friction to (or remove) non-criminal career options: Make it hard for them to get jobs by, for example, making sure they are not up to date on the latest technologies and trends. And if that is not enough, make sure people know they are “CRIMINALS” on a public website so that no one wants to hire them. (Most jobs are found through social networks, so replacing their social network should go a long way here)
  • Maintain the system: Systems are hard to maintain, so we need to make sure the economic incentives are there for the system to not change much, which could be the result if locals don’t like the idea of a rough prison nearby, or if prison employees decide they want to change the system. One way to prevent this is to put the prisons in small communities to ensure that the local economy depends on the prison system (i.e. Shirky Principle). This will de-incentivize any pro-social ambition that might be out there. (Removing voting rights will also help in this regard)

As the saying goes, every system is perfectly designed to get the result it gets. And the system is currently set-up to have recidivism rates of ~50%.

Look to Norway for what a behaviorally informed prison system might look like. Which is not to say such a system will work in the US, or even that it will work in Norway. But at least it doesn’t seem to be intentionally designed to increase recidivism.

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