Note: Dan Ariely’s new book, “The Upside of Irrationality,” was released this week. See the video below for more from Dan about the book.
There is a certain perverse pleasure in contemplating the perfect crime.
You can apply your ingenuity to the hypothetical issues of choosing a target, evading surveillance and law enforcement, dealing with contingencies and covering your tracks afterward. You can prove to yourself what an accomplished criminal mastermind you would be, if you so chose.
The perfect crime usually takes the form of a bank robbery in which the criminals cleverly bypass all security systems using neat gadgets, rappelling wires and knowledge they’ve acquired over several weeks of casing the joint. This seems to be an ideal crime because we can applaud the criminals’ cunning, intelligence and resourcefulness.
But it’s not quite perfect. After all, contingencies by definition depend on chance, and therefore can’t ever be perfectly thought out (and in all good bank-robber movies, the thieves either almost get caught or do). Even if the chances of being caught are close to zero, do we really want to call this a perfect crime? The authorities are likely to take it very seriously, and respond accordingly with harsh punishment. In this light, the 0.001 percent chance of getting caught might not seem like a lot, but if you take into account the severity of punishment, such crimes suddenly seem much less perfect.
In my mind, the perfect crime is one that not only yields more money, but is one where, if by some small chance you did get caught, no one would care, and the punishment would be negligible.
So, with this new knowledge how would you go about it?
First, the crime would need to be obscure and confusing, making it difficult to detect. Breaking a window and stealing jewelry is too straightforward.
Second, the crime should involve many people engaging in the same type of crime so that no one can make an example of you à la Martha Stewart. This is why looting, though easy to detect, is much more difficult to get a handle on than a single robbery.
Third, your crime will need to fall under the shady umbrella of plausible deniability so that if you do get caught, you can say you didn’t know it was wrong in the first place. With this kind of defense, even if the public cares, the legal system may let you off easy. Moreover, plausible deniability allows you to apologize in the aftermath and ask forgiveness for your “mistake.”
If you really want to go all out, do something you can spin in a positive light, and maybe even create an ideology around it. This way you can then explain how you’re actually on the side of progress. Say, for instance, you’re “providing liquidity” and “lubricating the market” and thereby helping the economy – even if it happens to be by taking people’s money. You can also resort to opaque and promising-sounding language to make your case; you’re “restoring equilibrium,” “eliminating arbitrage” and creating “opportunity” and “efficiency” across the board.
Basically, just bottle snake oil and tell them it will cure, rather than cause, blindness.
Something to avoid, on the other hand, is anything involving an identifiable victim with whom people can sympathize. Don’t rob one little old lady blind, or any one individual for that matter. It’s human nature that we care so much about blue-collar crime, even though the average burglary only costs about $1,300 (according to 2004 FBI crime reports), of which the criminal only nets a few hundred. Crimes like burglaries are the least ideal crime: they’re simple, detectable, perpetrated by a single or just a few people. They create an obvious victim and can’t be cloaked in rhetoric. Instead, what you should aim for is to steal a little bit of money from as many people as possible—little, old or otherwise — it doesn’t matter, as long as you don’t reverse the fortune of any one individual. After all, when lots of people suffer just a bit, people won’t mind as much.
So, what is the ideal crime? Which activity is difficult to detect, involves many people, has plausible deniability, can be supported by an ideology and affects many people just a bit? I think you know the answer…
Seriously, what we have here is a problem with our priorities. We have tremendous regulations for what is legal and illegal in the domain of possessions and blue-collar crime. But, what about regulations in banking? It is not that I really think that bankers plan and plot crimes for a living (I don’t), but I do think they are continuously faced with tremendous conflicts of interests, and as a consequence they see reality in a way that fits their own wallets and not ours. The recent turmoil in the market is a symptom, and unless we remove conflicts of interests from the banking system, we are going to be part of a long stream of perfect crimes.
Dan Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University. His latest book, The Upside of Irrationality, was just released. The book examines some of the positive effects irrationality can have on our lives and offers a new look at the irrational decisions that influence our personal lives and our workplace experiences.