Preferences predict who commits crime among young men

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Understanding who commits crime and why is a key topic in social science and important for the design of crime prevention policy. In theory, people who commit crime face different social and economic incentives for criminal activity than other people, or they evaluate the costs and benefits of crime differently because they have different preferences. Empirical evidence on the role of preferences is scarce. Theoretically, risk-tolerant, impatient, and self-interested people are more prone to commit crime than risk-averse, patient, and altruistic people. We test these predictions with a unique combination of data where we use incentivized experiments to elicit the preferences of young men and link these experimental data to their criminal records. In addition, our data allow us to control extensively for other characteristics such as cognitive skills, socioeconomic background, and self-control problems. We find that preferences are strongly associated with actual criminal behavior. Impatience and, in particular, risk tolerance are still strong predictors when we include the full battery of controls. Crime propensities are 8 to 10 percentage points higher for the most risk-tolerant individuals compared to the most risk averse. This effect is half the size of the effect of cognitive skills, which is known to be a very strong predictor of criminal behavior. Looking into different types of crime, we find that preferences significantly predict property offenses, while self-control problems significantly predict violent, drug, and sexual offenses.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2112645119
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number6
Number of pages7
Publication statusPublished - 8 Feb 2022

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