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The Criminal Tipping Point


Explanations > Decisions > The Criminal Tipping Point

Everybody cheats | The tipping point | A way back from the edge | So what


When and how do people become criminals? Where is the point at which everyday cheating becomes hardened criminality?

Everybody cheats

Almost all people break rules and even the law in small ways, but not big ways. A couple of classic examples is in driving faster than the legal speed limit and stealing office supplies.


We often feel a bit uncomfortable when our actions and our law-abiding self-image conflict, so we justify our illegal actions by telling ourselves stories such as 'I need it', 'they won't miss it' or 'I'm in a hurry'.

Most of all, we contrast our actions with really bad crimes and conclude that because we are only breaking law 'just a bit', we are much closer to good than we are to bad. And being approximately good is good enough for most of us.


A little rule-breaking is also fun. We get a bit of a buzz from over-stepping the mark that others have laid. It asserts our independence, showing we are in control of our own lives.


It can also provide a way of bonding with others. If we both act in 'bad' ways, then there is a conspiratorial delight in being 'partners in crime', together against the world.

The tipping point

What can happen in rule-breaking is that we get so good at it that a little rule-breaking becomes normal and the buzz fades. This is a danger point as we may break even more rules or break the same ones more severely in order to bring back the buzz (and often, if we can admit it, satisfy a certain greed).

Going over the edge

And so the slippery slope continues until the most dangerous point of all, where we effectively acknowledge that we are now hardened criminals and give up the pretence of goodness. This appears where we know that we are hurting or significantly endangering others, yet still carry on regardless. If caught, we blame others, including the victims, but never ourselves. To save our skin we would lie through our teeth and let others take the rap.

Of course few people go this far, but for those that do, it is often a point of no return. A characteristic of tipping points, based in catastrophe theory, is that 'going over the edge' is like falling off a cliff: the way back is long and arduous and few even attempt it.

Teenage criminalizing

This can be seen with young people who go off the tracks at an early age and then tip into hardened criminality, typically in their early teens when they are trying to grow up and where their role models are criminalized older children or adults. Social workers may try to 'save' them by removing them from the criminalizing influences, though they are not always successful.

So what?

So how do you stop people from becoming criminals? A way of doing this is to get them to confess and then to do something to atone for their crimes.

Confession acts not so much to prevent the minor cheating, but does give a way back from the edge. When people are approaching serious criminality, or even have reached it, then an abject confession can literally save them, restoring their rule-breaking norm to 'acceptable' minor transgressions rather than hardened criminality.

See also

Consistency principle


Ariely, D. (2012). The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone - Especially Ourselves, HarperCollins


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