26 October 2017

Experiments in crime purr-vention

Dr Helen Innes from the Crime and Security Research Institute at Cardiff University explains how an experiment with a cartoon cat has generated new evidence about how to better use crime prevention communications to influence public behaviour.

Just think about how many crime prevention messages the police and their partner agencies send to the public that are effectively trying to scare people into changing their behaviour! Ultimately, by using this 'fear framing' approach the irony is that in trying to reduce crime, they might be increasing public fear. Moreover, there is very little reliable research evidence about 'what works' in relation to different crime prevention communication strategies, and a lot of what has been done has focused upon would-be offenders rather than encouraging improved security behaviours amongst potential victims. In an environment where key recorded crime types are increasing and the profile of crime is shifting, where there are fewer police officers and where digital communication channels are multiplying, there is potentially public value in establishing how improved crime prevention communications might contribute to crime reduction outcomes.

Set against this backdrop, the 'Nudges, Tugs and Teachable Moments' project funded as part of the What Works Centre for Crime Reduction academic consortium set out to generate new evidence by incorporating psychological insights about human judgement and decision making from behavioural economics and Thaler & Sunstein's (2008) theory of 'nudging' behaviour change.

The approach tested three models of behaviour change:

  • 'Nudges' use established social psychological influence mechanisms to induce behavioural modifications;
  • 'Tugs' involve compulsion or direction to alter conduct;
  • 'Teachable moments' work by delivering a communication at a particular moment in time, often when the recipient is especially receptive to new information.

The research was organised around two main phases: (1) the creation of a new evidence base about 'what works' in public crime prevention messaging based around a model of 'Behavioural Crime Prevention', and (2) the application of this evidence to a real-world preventative campaign conducted in partnership with the Metropolitan Police.   

Phase 1 'What Works?'
The work started by identifying key ways in which communication can influence and persuade. These clustered around characteristics of: the 'messenger' (who conveys the information); the message (the content of what is conveyed); the 'mechanism' (the social-psychological behaviour change trigger); and the 'mode' (the media platform utilised). These elements were blended together in different combinations across 8 short crime prevention films, each dealing with different crime victimisation scenario.

The films were played to 1064 members of the public, with different groups seeing different films. The audience members were then asked a series of questions about their thoughts, feelings and potential behavioural responses to the films. 


Analysis of the data were used to derive ten principles of Behavioural Crime Prevention informed by the insights about which messenger, mechanism and message combinations are especially influential in getting the public to engage with crime prevention issues.   Amongst them were:

  1. Don't overuse the 'tug' Authority-Tell-Scare combination whereby an authority figure (e.g. a police officer) delivers a stern warning to the public telling them what they must do in order to avoid dire consequences.   This approach works for some but has negative side effects:  it makes a fair proportion of people feel scared and vulnerable, and others angry.  Reacting with anger to a message was counterproductive for intent to change behaviour.
  2. Establishing empathy ('likeability') and resonance ('like me') are messaging alternatives that perform better than authority / fear framing. The two most impactive films according to the 1000+ viewers were victims recounting their experiences of how the crime had happened to them, whilst emphasising the emotional impacts.
  3. 'Showing not telling'. An unexpected finding from the films was the importance of modelling what you want people to do. Lots of crime prevention advice issues lists of instructions, but when the behaviour was practically modelled, viewers were far more likely to take it on board.

Phase 2 Behavioural Crime Prevention with #CopCat
Findings from the film experiments were then used to design an innovative crime prevention campaign. This used a colourful, likeable cartoon cat messenger to give simple, practical messages in a humorous and non-threatening way.

Focused upon a problem in London with thieves on mopeds and bicycles stealing mobile phones, the preventative campaign encouraged people to be more aware of their surroundings, including going hands-free when using their phone on the street.  The idea was to test the performance of the #CopCat campaign when compared with a far more traditional set of fear-framed messages in the Metropolitan Police led #loveyourphone campaign. Importantly, the idea was to do this 'for real' to see how the different messengers and messages performed in busy and 'noisy' urban settings. 

Each campaign was assigned to a separate London borough. Poster panels, stair and pavement stencils were placed in and around relevant tube stations and short films delivered by social media in June 2016. The effects of the campaigns were evaluated by a Cardiff University research team who conducted observational research, street questioning, social media analytics and a staff survey of local employers to discern how far people recalled the different messaging and their reactions to it.

Key findings were:

  • The CopCat campaign performed about the same as the Metropolitan Police's one in terms of the 1 in 4 people who recalled it. However, CopCat generated significantly less fear and anger in its audience than the fear-framed campaign, in line with what the Behavioural Crime Prevention principles predicted.
  • More innovative communications used by each campaign – stencilling on stairs and street graffiti– were particularly successful in raising public awareness and were a social media talking point, suggesting that a novel mode of communicating can increase the salience of messages to the public in a busy urban environment.

The take-home message from this field trial is that you can influence crime prevention behaviour without causing people to feel more afraid or angry.

What Next?
The success of the London trial has attracted the interest of other police forces and partners overseas.  The Society for Evidence Based Policing in Canada and the Community Safety and Justice Division of the Squamish Nation have approached us with a unique and exciting opportunity to work with their indigenous community to explore the development of culturally appropriate messaging informed by Behavioural Crime Prevention.

For further information, please contact Dr Helen Innes at InnesH@cardiff.ac.uk

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