Virtual reality could help police understand why people commit crimes

Virtual reality could change the way police interview criminals (Edith Cowan University)
Virtual reality could change the way police interview criminals. (Edith Cowan University)

Virtual reality (VR) could soon offer police officers a new way to train for interviews, after a groundbreaking study that challenged volunteers to 'commit burglaries' in VR.

Such role-playing can help understand why people commit crimes and how the guilty respond, the researchers who carried out the study said, adding that one day criminals might even be interviewed in VR.

Lead author Dr Shane Rogers, of Edith Cowan University (ECU) in Australia, said: "You will often hear police say, to catch a criminal, you have to think like a criminal – well that is effectively what we are trying to do here."

How did the study work?

The forensic psychology research project involved 101 participants, who role-played committing a burglary in two similar virtual mock-crime scenarios.

Virtual reality could change the way police interview criminals (Edith Cowan University)
Virtual reality could change the way police interview criminals. (Edith Cowan University)

PhD researcher Isabella Branson, of ECU, said: "Afterwards, I interviewed them about the experience in a mock police interview. The interview takes place in a virtual interrogation room, and I ask the questions in real time, with real responses."

Dr Rogers said the study has the potential to unlock new insights into the criminal mind, and why they make the decisions they do.

"We know that historically criminals aren't forthcoming and often lie when questioned by the authorities," he explained. "By putting non-criminals in criminal scenarios, we are given credible insight into how and why decisions are made in illegal scenarios or situations. This is why using mock crime scenarios is an invaluable method within forensic psychology research."

Why does VR help?

Traditionally in previous research, researchers have had people act out crimes on the university campus. But VR makes this much more realistic.

"Using virtual reality, we can have people engage in experiences that more faithfully recreate a criminal experience to obtain more reliable and valid findings," Dr Rogers said. "In our study we found that participants were able to get into the role of acting as a criminal in virtual reality. We also found that a higher level of motivation for conducting the crime also had them feeling more motivated to try and be deceptive in the follow up interview."

Why is this research useful?

VR has a future in training police, more specifically detectives for interviews, where interview practice can be conducted in a wide range of virtual scenarios, Dr Rogers said.

"Going a step further, potentially we could also see a future where offenders are questioned in a virtual reality environment. Somewhere that is dissimilar to the usual physical location, like an interview room or a prison cell – it could be somewhere less intimidating where they can feel more comfortable to respond more truthfully when interrogated."

The development of virtual reality mock crime experiences has applications beyond interviewing.

"These scenarios can also be used to study how everyday people, and criminal offenders, go about conducting crimes. What points of entry are preferred? What kinds of things provide the most deterrent? Police officers could role-play as criminals in these virtual scenarios themselves, to put themselves in the shoes of a criminal to better understand how they think and act."

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