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Mentors are crucial - for a career in crime

From the London Guardian: Professor Bill McCarthy's article on the role of mentors in the criminal world was recently covered by the London Guardian newspaper.

Mentors are crucial - for a career in crime
Marc Abrahams
Tuesday April 25, 2006


Is our criminals learning? A new study called Mentors and Criminal Achievement tries to find out.

The study is a natural follow-on to the question famously raised by George Bush during his first campaign to become president of the US. On January 11 2000, looking down at a select audience in the city of Florence, South Carolina, where the crime rate is 3.4 times the national average, Bush asked: "Is our children learning?"

For Bush, learning is a lifelong challenge. Carlo Morselli and Pierre Tremblay, of the Université de Montréal, and Bill McCarthy, of the University of California at Davis, explore how that challenge applies to 268 prison inmates in the Canadian province of Quebec. Their report was published recently in the journal Criminology. It echoes the thoughts and findings not only of Bush, but also of earlier researchers, and criminals.

They offer up a nugget from Indiana University criminologist Edwin H Sutherland's 1937 book The Professional Thief, By a Professional Thief. "Any man who hits the big-time in crime, somewhere or other along the road, became associated with a big-timer who picked him up and educated him," the thief told Sutherland, adding that: "No one ever crashed the big rackets without education in this line."

Mentors, say those who study the development of great executives, inventors, artists, sports figures and entrepreneurs, are crucial if one is to have a successful career. But aside from those highly celebrated professions, and from some obvious high-skill specialties, do people really need mentors, or can they generally find success on their own? Do mentors make a measurable difference?

"Our analysis," write Morselli, Tremblay and McCarthy, "focuses on the effects of mentors on two aspects of criminal achievement: illegal earnings and incarceration experiences ... Proteges with lower self-control attract the attention of some criminal mentors, who provide the structure and restraint that lead to a more prudent approach to crime. This approach involves fewer and more profitable offenses that lower the risks of apprehension and, perhaps, promote long-term horizons in crime."

The researchers used a painstaking protocol: "We collected information on monthly illegal earnings and on the number of days that respondents were incarcerated. After calculating the total for criminal earnings and incapacitation experiences for the period, we applied logarithmic transformations to create our dependent variables."

Their calculation resulted in a big payoff. As they put it: "Our findings suggest that strong foundations in crime offer an advantageous position for continuous achievement and the presence of a criminal mentor is pivotal for achievement over one's criminal career."

The underlying wisdom of this was already known to Bush. In his 2003 state of the union address, he told the American people: "I propose a $450m initiative to bring mentors to more than a million disadvantaged junior high students and children of prisoners ... One mentor, one person can change a life for ever."

(Thanks to Kristine Danowski for bringing this to our attention.)

· Marc Abrahams is editor of the bimonthly magazine Annals of Improbable Research ( and organizer of the Ig Nobel Prize © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006