August 14, 2007

When teens commit crimes for others

About 7 percent of Finnish youths have shoplifted for someone else, according to a nationally representative study of 15- and 16-year-olds in that country. Their reasons reflect a combination of altruistic and coercive motives that may be difficult to sort out in the real world.

Motivations for these “crimes by proxy” include being pressured or coerced, helping an older friend who did not want to get caught, being paid, trying to fit in with the group, and proving one’s courage to friends.

These last two motivations fit with much study of juvenile crime committed in groups, including my own research with antigay hate crime perpetrators. “It is obvious that for adolescents, shoplifting for someone else is tightly interlocked with social connections and peer groups,” writes researcher Janne Kivivuori in the current issue of the British Journal of Criminology. “Even purely ‘instrumental’ property crimes, such as shoplifting, are often embedded in a system of coercive and altruistic actions within a social group.”

Questioning the autonomy of these teen shoplifters, Kivivuori links proxy crime to obedience to authority. As demonstrated by Stanley Milgram’s groundbreaking research in the early 1960s, most people will commit proxy crimes when asked to do so by someone in authority.

Proxy crime may factor into more serious and violent offending as well, blurring the lines between offending and victimization, suggests Kivivuori, who is research director of the National Research Institute of Legal Policy in Helsinki, Finland.

Reference: Kivivuori, J. (2007). Crime by proxy: Coercion and altruism in adolescent shoplifting. British Journal of Criminology.

Photo credit: drinksmachine (Creative Commons license)