“Alert Neighbors Deter Burglars” © Marco Otte, VU Amsterdam

Professional burglars quickly notice whether people in a residential area are on the alert or not. A virtual reality (VR) study conducted by criminologists at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law comes to this conclusion.

In the experiment, around 350 participants were asked to roam a virtual residential neighborhood in search of potential burglary targets. About half of them were experienced burglars. The other half consisted of people who had no previous experience with burglaries. In three of four experimental conditions, a resident was standing in front of his house in the neighborhood. His level of attention varied – depending on the condition. In the control condition, the resident was absent. 

The experiment showed that, simply by being present, the resident had a deterrent effect − irrespective of how he behaved, for example whether he looked in the direction of the burglar or not. There were also differences between the two groups in terms of how they appraised the virtual neighborhood: Burglars spent less time in the neighborhood and covered less distance than the other participants, which reflects the fact that they are more efficient in the scouting process, in line with their “professional” expertise.

Asking actual offenders to demonstrate their expertise is a productive way of gaining a better understanding of criminal events says project leader Jean-Louis van Gelder. And doing this in VR allows us to study behavior that would be both unethical and unfeasible to study in the real world. VR technology opens up new research possibilities by realistically simulating criminogenic situations and enabling researchers to investigate offender behavior. The Dutch researcher heads the Department of Criminology at the Max Planck Institute in Freiburg and is one of three directors at this research institution.

The ”Virtual Burglary Project” is a collaborative research endeavor of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law, the University of Portsmouth (UK), and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Leiden University (NL).



  • Prof. Dr. Dr. Jean-Louis van Gelder
    Director, Head of the Department of Criminology
    Tel.: +49 761 7081-700 (secretary)