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Dan ArielyBack to OpinionDan Ariely

How to commit the perfect crime

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.


  • Rafael

    To commit the perfect crime just become a politician, or become a billionaire & join the Builderburg Group.

  • Kim Johns

    To commit the perfect crime, just apply one pseudo-science (in this case, psychology) to the analysis of another (in this case, economics), write a book on your “findings,” then pitch it shamelessly on PBS from a sinecure in a posh university. .

  • Brandon

    The basis of this is greatly flawed. Banks are not committing crimes. Moreover, every penny a bank makes is agreed upon with the customer. Is a bank robbing customers by charging $40 NSF fees? No, the customers shouldn’t have written hot checks. Is a bank robbing customers with ARMs? No, the customers shouldn’t have agreed to the mortgage terms.

    On the other hand, let’s not forget that government regulation in the form of the Community Reinvestment Act led to many of the problems that banks are being blamed for. Fannie and Freddie are responsible for a large portion of recent housing crisis but don’t fall under government regulation like banks.

    Don’t get me wrong though. Most of the big banks have some culpability in the housing crisis for pushing mortgages they knew weren’t likely to be paid back. However, the community banks that WERE NOT responsible for the recent crisis will suffer as a result of more regulation of the big banks.

    I agree there are some common sense reforms needed, but to just claim that more regulation will fix the problem is short-sighted to say the least. More government involvement seldom fixes the problem.

  • Rob

    More government involvement seldom fixes the problem? The New Deal brought us out of the great depression. The New Deal was a government program.

    Now, after thirty years of deregulation, this is where we are. Goodbye, Gulf Coast, goodbye jobs, goodbye polar ice caps, goodbye budget surplus (hello deficit).

    Teabaggers are so gullible. Rush has told them to blame environmentalists for the oil spill. So they will. Watch them as they fight against government regulation of offshore drilling.

  • Big Jim

    @Rob “The New Deal brought us out of the great depression. ”

    I’m afraid you’ve been duped. The great depression was caused by the Fed squeezing the money supply after the 1929 crash, which in turn was a bubble in stock prices brought about by the Fed inflating the money supply in the 1920s. The New Deal exacerbated the depression by introducing a virtual command economy. WW II got the economy going again by virtue of government borrowing vast sums (from bondholders who actually lost money on the deal), and also the US received a lot of money from selling arms. Bretton Woods in 1944 established the US $ as the world’s reserve currency, boosting US financial power, and the decimation of Germany’s, Japan’s, Europe’s and the UK’s economies meant the US was in an excellent position to out-compete their industries after the war.

  • Big Jim

    But Dan Arielly is fundamentally correct.

    Central reserve banking is an enormous scam that allows banks to siphon profits (ie interest charges) on money created out of thin air via the dark miracle of fractional reserve banking. This is inherently inflationary, which is why the US $ roughly maintained its purchasing power over the two centuries preceding the institution of the Fed in 1913, but has lost 97% of its purchasing power in the century since.

    This is an interesting subject that very few people are interested in – but until a significant slice of the voting public grasp it, we’ll continue to lurch from one fiscal and monetary crisis to the next. And the average taxpayer will continue to be raped by the financial elite.

  • MichaelBobson

    I see it’s your passion. :)

  • JohnLittle1993

    Finally, someone else who sees a problem with the monetary system!
    Thanks for your opinion-
    What you say is true.