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Get the Message: How to Prevent Crime

How can police make crime prevention messages more effective?

Key points

  • Locus of Control identifies how much control people feel they have over their lives and environments.
  • Police understanding of Locus of Control will help them to better tailor and deliver more effective crime prevention messages.
  • An External Locus of Control means someone is unlikely to respond to crime prevention messages and change their behavior.
  • People nudged toward having an Internal Locus of Control will likely receive and act on a crime prevention message.

Continuing along the theme of police decision-making, with this post I suggest how police and crime prevention agencies, might better communicate crime prevention messages to their intended audiences and recipients. We begin with why it is important for those seeking to communicate crime prevention messages to others, to understand the influence in peoples’ decision-making of what is termed Locus of Control (LoC) (Rotter, 1966).

LoC is a personality construct in psychology, relating to how much an individual believes that they have control over their own decisions and behaviors. More specifically it is the degree to which peoples’ beliefs about the extent to which they feel in control of what happens to them and the extent to which they can affect their own lives.

  • Strong external locus of control: When someone believes what happens to them is luck or fate (they are not in control) with everything due to external forces in their environment.
  • Strong internal locus of control: When someone believes they are in control of what happens to them, and so their actions are likely to have a positive effect on their environment.

How will a better understanding of an individual's LoC, help police and others with their decision-making when designing crime prevention messages, and how they can be best delivered to their intended recipients?

Locus of Control can be a key personality construct for police when considering how to encourage members of the public to think more consciously about the security of their property or indeed themselves. For example:

People living in what is known or perceived to be a high-crime area, those with a strong External Locus of Control will be more likely to feel that whatever they do to try and prevent crime (or being a victim of crime) will be a waste of time because it will happen anyway. Whereas those living in the same area with a strong Internal Locus of Control will likely be more receptive to crime prevention messages, as they feel that they can influence crime levels in their area and reduce their own chances of becoming a victim of crime.

Taking LoC into consideration, it becomes clear why many crime prevention messages are only ever received, let alone acted upon, by a limited number of people. Many will simply not see the point. Police and others are therefore politely advised when designing crime prevention messages, not to make the message too general; it will be unlikely to resonate with enough people, to have a significant positive impact on people’s personal security and crime prevention behavior.

On a more positive note, one way of helping police and others to spread crime prevention messages is to encourage us to be more careful with our personal security (not going to remote areas alone at night) and with our personal possessions (not leaving valuables on display in our cars) is to nudge a small shift in some people’s perceptions from one of a strong external locus of control (it doesn’t matter what I do because I live in a high-crime area) towards a stronger Internal locus of control (if I remember to lock the car then I am making it harder to steal).

An easy-to-use standardized scale for measuring people’s LoC freely exists, which I have recently incorporated into a wider crime prevention survey with a specific area of a city in the UK, to inform the development of more bespoke and better-targeted crime prevention initiatives.

As most people will have a LoC that is somewhere between these two extremes, nudging should become a more realistic achievement. Such an approach to moving an individual’s LoC can help to re-frame crime prevention as empowering people to protect themselves as opposed to simply blaming victims for their actions.

Nudging and the wider issues of influencing people’s behavior and police decision-making are topics for a future post.


The content of this post leans firmly on a wider discussion in my forthcoming book, ‘Practical Psychology for Policing’, published by Policy Press, in October 2022.

Roach, J (2022 in press.) Practical Psychology for Policing. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.

Rotter, J.B (1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement". Psychological Monographs: General and Applied. 80 (1),1–28.

See Rotter's Locus of Control Scale on

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