Short-term thinking, criminal action 

People who have short-term mindsets (i.e., impulsivity, sensation-seeking, and low future orientation) are more likely to commit crime. In our research, we consider how adverse environments and experiences affect short-term mindsets. A research team at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law found that harsh and unpredictable environments, victimization, and first-time and early police contact are each associated with more short-term thinking. This can help explain the link between short-term mindsets and later crime in adolescents.

Text: Jessica Deitzer, Sebastian L. Kübel, Jean-Louis van Gelder / Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law

People with a short-term mindset who prioritize the present at the expense of considering the future while making decisions tend to have worse life outcomes. A focus on the short-term can make criminal behavior more appealing, as the latter is often accompanied by immediate rewards like money, property, social status, or thrill, despite the potential for long-term costs. This can explain why short-term mindsets are one of the most consistent predictors of crime and delinquency. Thus, understanding short-term mindsets is vital to understanding deviant behavior.

Our work at Max Planck Institute for In several research projects, we have investigated the role that a harsh, unpredictable environment and adverse experiences can play. We have studied police contact, victimization, or other negative life events that can lead adolescents to doubt the quality of their future. In sum, when the future is seen as less stable, less promising, and less guaranteed, adolescents may adapt by focusing on the present.

Temptations of the moment

30 years ago, Michael R. Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi introduced the concept of self-control, or "the idea that people also differ in the extent to which they are vulnerable to the temptations of the moment", to criminology. Two components of self-control are impulsivity, an inability to resist immediate temptations, and sensation-seeking, a preference for exciting and thrilling experiences in the moment. In our research, we also involve other variables which coalesce around a preference for the present - such as a lack future orientation, which denotes the tendency not to pursue longer-term plans or goals. All three constructs (impulsivity, sensation seeking, and lack of future orientation) share an emphasis on the short term, while the future is devalued or ignored. We use short-term mindsets as an umbrella term to capture multiple constructs that denote a tendency to focus on the present while disregarding or discounting the future, as Jean-Louis van Gelder, together with researchers from Zurich and Cambridge, pointed out in a 2018 study.

Our first research project has recognized that exposure to harsh and unpredictable environments can change adolescent cognition. Harsh environments are those where insufficient resources or violence signal that there is an enhanced risk of death, injury, or other undesirable future outcomes. Unpredictable environments are characterized by frequent changes. Youth growing up in these environments may see the world and other people as chaotic, undependable, and uncontrollable - and thus opt to focus on the present rather than on a future that is not stable or guaranteed. We test these ideas using two longitudinal datasets that follow adolescents across many years of public school, one collected in the US and one in Switzerland. We find evidence that harsh and unpredictable environments are associated with short-term mindsets, especially sensation-seeking, which partially explains the relationship between harsh and unpredictable environments and delinquency.

A second project, for which we recently published results, focuses on victimization: Similar to harsh and unpredictable environments, violent victimization can signal that the future is unsafe and uncertain and lead adolescents to focus on the present. Many people who are victimized are also likely to be offenders; this is what criminologists call the "victim-offender overlap." We posit that part of the reason for this overlap stems from an increase in short-term mindsets. Using longitudinal data collected from Swiss adolescents, we find evidence to support this claim. This partially explains the relationship between victimization and later delinquency, helping us better understand the reasons for the victim-offender overlap.

In a third project, we examine the consequences of contact with the police on adolescents’ future outlooks. Among adolescents, arrest can increase offending, rather than acting as a deterrent. We argue contact with police may lead adolescents to expect additional police or criminal justice system contact and spillover effects into other areas of their lives in the future; they may then exhibit a preference for the present. Using longitudinal data from Switzerland adolescents, we find that first-time police contact is associated with an increase in present orientation, especially for younger adolescents.

Early intervention can help prevent harsh circumstances.

This line of research emphasizes the ways in which adolescents respond to adverse experiences and environments in their later decision-making. Moreover, it demonstrates how short-term mindsets can help explain the link between many known risk factors and crime. Which actions should be taken in response to these findings?

Ideally, policy responses should help adolescents avoid the adverse experiences and environments in these studies. Early intervention in parenting and other domains of adolescent’s environments can help prevent harsh and unpredictable circumstances. Crime-reduction strategies should be employed to lessen the risk of adolescent victimization. Alternatives to early adolescent police contact should be considered whenever possible.

However, when it is difficult or impossible to avoid these circumstances, interventions for those who have experienced them should promote building back a positive future and consideration of future outcomes. For example, cognitive behavior therapy programs can reduce delinquency through decreasing impulsive, automatic thinking styles. Envisioning one’s future self, including through virtual reality and avatars, is also linked to a reduction in delinquency. Improving future prospects and future orientation may therefore help mitigate the detrimental consequences of adverse environments and experiences on short-term mindsets.

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