Nudges, Tugs and Teachable Moments: What can a Cartoon Cat teach us about changing people’s crime prevention behaviour?

Crime prevention messages aimed at the public typically adopt a ‘fear frame’ – trying to scare people into changing their behaviour, and in doing so potentially fuelling the public’s fear of crime.   The Universities' Police Science Institute has conducted a study aimed at developing new evidence and insights about what works to persuade people to adopt new security behaviours that better protect them from crime risks.

What's the key idea?

Traditionally, situational crime prevention efforts have focused on limiting the opportunities of offenders to commit crime rather than fostering behaviour in potential victims that reduces their risk of victimisation.  Crime prevention communications targeted at the general public commonly adopt a ‘fear frame’, using perceived risk and threat to evoke a fear reaction in its audience and trigger subsequent preventative behaviour.

Recently, an alternative approach to behavioural change founded in social psychology has come to the fore.  Underpinned by Thaler and Sunstein’s ‘Nudge’ (2008), focus is placed on modifying communications to bring about a desired behavioural response. Such modifications can be small and seemingly insignificant, but are shown to drive behavioural changes.  Consequently, ‘nudging’ has rapidly gained traction within public policy, not least because its successful application precludes more forceful behavioural compliance seeking through rules, sanctions or law (so-called behavioural ‘tugs’).  However, to date, the application of nudging to public crime prevention communications has remained neglected.  Although theoretically convincing, empirical evaluations of nudges in this area of public policy are lacking.    

The study aims to address this research gap and empirically test, in a real-world setting, crime preventative messages that vary what is communicated, how, when and by whom.

Initial findings from the (1) The Social Experiment and (2) #Copcat Field Trial stages of the research have been published in a 60 Second Briefing Paper which is available to download from our publications page here: upsi.org.uk/publications