Serious organised crime: communications evidence review

Review of messaging around serious organised crime and toolkit for communicators to reduce demand, victimisation and fear.

5. Attitudes and Behaviours

"The attitudes and behaviour of the general public have considerable influence on serious and organised crime. Widespread permissiveness, risky behaviour or a lack of awareness can create an enabling environment for certain crimes.

"Social tolerance towards certain crimes reduces risks for [organised crime groups] and increases public demand for illicit commodities. The consumption of new psychoactive substances ( NPS) and the purchase of counterfeit luxury goods enjoy the highest levels of social tolerance. Despite media campaigns, such activities are rarely considered problematic or hazardous by the public due to their perception as victimless crimes with little risk to the consumer."

Europol, 2013 [234]

Organised crime is funded in large part by the general public, whether through the purchase of drugs or counterfeits, or through the unwilling victims of fraud or cyberscams.

As we have seen, many government and law enforcement strategies relating to organised crime recommend, to varying and increasingly central degrees, an increased focus on helping people avoid become part of crime as a crucial element of any strategy to combat it, thereby cutting off the flow of money and recruits which allows such groups to function and sustain a market for their trade.

It is clear that in order to be successful in this task we must broaden our focus so that we do not only provide reassuring messages about the criminal justice system itself, the public view of which is less linked to their understanding of crime and levels of fear than might be assumed [235] , or emphasise the threat level and hope that people will research and enact their own solutions. One meta-analysis of behaviour studies found that at least 80% of the factors influencing behaviour did not result from simple knowledge or awareness at all. [236]

This paper therefore suggests a third equal branch to communications strategies regarding organised crime, with a view to delivering the ambitions of the prevention agenda. This branch focuses on personal capability, supports the other two priorities and attempts directly to mitigate against demand, victimisation and fear:

Proposed crime messaging model, I. Campbell, 2017
Proposed crime messaging model, I. Campbell, 2017

The remainder of this paper will focus on providing an evidential basis for achieving the prevention goal through promoting personal capability, on the basis that we are already relatively able to advise on operational capability, and public levels of confidence and trust are good and improving. It is not the purpose of this paper to set out or recommend the specific awareness campaigns that should be adopted - the threats and mediums are extremely varied and it will require agreement between numerous agencies as to the exact advice and crime types which will benefit most from committed public awareness campaigns.

We have seen in previous chapters that there is sometimes a lack of clarity in terms of the desired output of prevention communications. In the overwhelming majority of cases, it is clear that "raising awareness" in fact means "persuading or enabling the public to adopt informed or safe behaviours".

Persuasion, or attempting to change attitudes or behaviours or both without using coercion or deception [237] , is a complex proposal. For example, an increased appreciation of some of the signs of human trafficking is a matter of awareness; a condemnation of those responsible and a trust in the police are attitudes; a resultant growth in reporting of it is behaviour change. One does not necessarily lead to the other - we can make people aware of the dangers and impacts of counterfeiting, but this may not mean that sales decrease; similarly we may be able to increase reports in ways which do not first require any change in attitudes.

This chapter makes the case that not only does awareness not automatically change behaviour but, depending on how the awareness is generated, it can even make it less likely that behaviour changes in future. It also argues that influencing behaviour is several orders of magnitude more complex than "awareness raising", and that if we hope to achieve even in a small way the aims of the current strategies to tackle organised crime, an increased understanding and use of these mechanisms of engagement is essential.

It should of course go without saying that there is no suggestion of coercion or deception – people will remain free to behave as they wish and to make their own judgements as to the risks and remedies described. However, it is clear that the current perception of risk itself is highly skewed – either as a general ignorance of the threats, or an absence of workable knowledge of the specifics of, for instance, how attacks may manifest themselves. This study continues on the assumption that many people, if they were aware of the true nature of many types of organised crime and the potential harm to themselves or their families, might behave, or wish to behave, differently, and that it is the key role of an effective prevention campaign to support and guide that process where possible.

To best understand how people respond to awareness campaigns, and how information about risk and remedy is received, we can look beyond organised crime to other disciplines. This chapter draws on expertise from the fields of psychology, cybersecurity, health and anti-counterfeiting to draw out the key principles of successful awareness campaigns or public statements about risk. First, it will explore the psychology of exactly how we come to decide to act differently from how we have in the past.

5.1 How Behavioural Decisions are Made

"Based on everything that we know about our brains and their bafflingly strong desires to fit in with the crowd, the best way to convince people that they should care about an issue and get involved in its advocacy isn't to tell people what they should do—it's to tell them what other people actually do."

Melanie Tennenbaum, Scientific American, 2013 [238]

Encouraging positive behaviour change of any type is not a simple proposal. It involves a thorough understanding of psychology and risk perception, and of the working knowledge of the target group and their belief in their ability to make the changes necessary. On a broad level, there are two psychological models on how people decide whether to adopt new behaviours.

The first, the "rational" or "cognitive" model, is the traditional approach taken in public policy and is based on influencing what people consciously think about. The underlying assumption is that the public will analyse the information and incentives offered to them, and subsequently behave in ways which reflect their best interests. This to some extent explains the frequent focus on "raising awareness" – it is assumed that awareness will trigger a set of appropriate actions and behaviours like a row of dominos.

The second, the "context" model, is based on appealing to the automatic, or subconscious, processes of judgment and influence which underpin behaviour. This model recognises that people are sometimes seemingly irrational and inconsistent in their choices, often because they are influenced or limited by surrounding factors, and therefore focuses more on the power of changing the context within which people act, or how they perceive certain elements of the issue, rather than facts and information alone.

These models are not mutually exclusive and both systems of decision-making are at work at the same time; our behaviour is driven both by self-aware analytic processes as well as subconscious, emotionally-driven responses – for instance, the difference between counting calories and the desire for cake. [239]

The primary persuasive influences on behaviour can be summarised as below, captured by the mnemonic MINDSPACE:

  • Messenger: We are heavily influenced by who communicates information
  • Incentives: Our responses to incentives are shaped by predictable mental shortcuts such as strongly avoiding losses
  • Norms: We are strongly influenced by what others do
  • Defaults: We "go with the flow‟ of pre-set options
  • Salience: Our attention is drawn to what is novel and seems relevant to us
  • Priming: Our acts are often influenced by sub-conscious cues
  • Affect: Our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions
  • Commitments: We seek to be consistent with our public promises, and reciprocate acts
  • Ego: We act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves [240]

5.2 Behaviours, Circumstances, Tools and Motivations

It is easy to be drawn into focusing on the end goal. We may wish to encourage people away from purchasing counterfeit goods, or we may want to help people feel empowered about recognising cold-calling scams. However, in order to succeed in these goals, several key aspects of the problem need first to be determined.

Firstly, the so called "vital behaviours" must be identified – these are most powerful or influential choices that people make in relation to the issue. They must be specific and measurable. [241]

Secondly, we must identify the circumstances in which people are most likely to fail to demonstrate positive or secure behaviours.

Third, we need to ensure that people have the tools to deal with these issues in advance.

Fourth, we must provide sufficient motivation, either by demonstrating how behaviours can reflect a positive self-image, by making it easier to adopt them, or through showing what benefits there have been to those who have already done so. [242]

A different way of framing this model suggests that we consider motivation, opportunity and capability as the three key factors informing behaviour – a trio of terms originally drawn from the prerequisites for criminal guilt in the US justice system. [243] It should be noted that in this model, threat or risk awareness is often one of the "motivating" factors. However, it would perhaps be best to see threat as a distinct subset of this group; while threat is often the primary or sole motivator used in crime safety messages, when used alone it can have negative impact on personal motivation. Any messages highlighting threat must be supplemented either in their framing or their content with a promotion of self-efficacy and other more positive motivating messages.

Motivation can be far broader. In general terms, those asked to take a new action should be given a reason to do so; some studies have shown that simply including the word "because" in a request is sufficient to dramatically increase the likelihood of compliance, even if the reason provided thereafter does not actually give any further justification for doing so. [244]

Similarly, once we have made an overt commitment to something, we are more likely to follow through – we value consistency. In this way too, analogies can be used to present the hoped-for behaviour change as internally consistent with behaviours which the audience already undertake. [245] This tactic was widely utilised by the Cyber Streetwise campaign, with slogans such as "You wouldn't do this in the real world, why do it online?"

We must also be aware that a single apparently similar behaviour can be driven by widely varying motivations – for instance, someone may carry a knife to elevate their status within a gang, or someone carrying one out of fear of victimisation. The same message may not convince both to change their behaviour. [246] Personal experience, or well-told stories of others' experience, is the most powerful way of demonstrating not only relevance but also the real possibility of change and the capability of the listeners. [247] The related use of "social proof" - showing the actions of others and observing the positive outcome – has also been credited with the power to achieve a wide array of powerful behaviour or attitude changes. [248]

In order to effectively persuade the public to disengage from and protect themselves from organised crime, the behaviours that we encourage them to adopt should be presented in a positive way, and one which shifts the emotional response from boredom or inaction to one of engagement and capability. Capability is fostered by appropriate framing of messages, and of specific, manageable pieces of advice.

Fostering opportunity is perhaps the hardest for a communications-only campaign, in that successful tweaks to the environment in which decisions are made may require to be dealt with under broader government policy – for instance the 5p plastic bag charge explored in more detail below.

5.3 Case Study 2 – Counterfeiting and the Awareness Hurdle

"Only when consumers appreciate the full repercussions of their counterfeit purchase can they be expected to stop the practice. Only when governments fully understand the factors that drive their constituencies toward illegal activity can they institute programmes to educate and protect consumers – and society – from the dangers of counterfeiting and piracy."

Business Action to Stop Counterfeiting and Piracy, International Chamber of Commerce, November 2009 [249]

A key driver of both recruitment to organised crime and the purchasing of its products is the appeal of what it can offer. Sometimes, a lack of public condemnation of a certain issue, for instance counterfeiting, can drive users towards it and criminals towards trading in it - both groups will perceive the risk as low, the potential monetary benefit high, and the crime itself victimless. [250]

A 2009 report by the International Chamber of Commerce's 'Business Action to Stop Counterfeiting and Piracy' group ( BASCAP) analysed 176 existing consumer perceptions studies, 202 consumer awareness campaigns from some 40 countries, and worked directly with consumers in Mexico, Russia, the U.K., India and South Korea.

The initiative set out to "address the demand side of the problem", recognising that enforcement and supply-side focused policy was insufficient and that an "equally aggressive" tackling of the demand‐side of the market would be necessary for any substantial gains to be made.

Despite its extremely wide-ranging nature, the study found many commonalities around the world in terms of general attitudes to counterfeits - chiefly that the consequences of purchasing counterfeits were poorly understood, and that the risks had been insufficiently demonstrated by traditional authorities.

They identified three primary issues which would impact purchasing habits, combining both awareness and enforcement:

  • Awareness: Potential physical harm to buyer or their family
  • Enforcement: Reduced supply of counterfeit/pirated products
  • Awareness/enforcement: Threat of prosecution or incarceration [251]

The study also found that consumer attitudes could be categorised as below:

  • A lack of resources – "There's no way on earth I'd be able to afford the real thing, so I'm not harming anyone. Why should I be denied a look alike because of my socio‐economic standing?"
  • A lack of recourse – "There is no risk I'm going to go to jail for this, and if it was a big deal, the government would be doing something about it"
  • A lack of remorse – "What's unethical is that I cannot afford the item I want?"

The primary factors driving engagement with counterfeits were found to be that the purchaser cannot afford the genuine product, that they believe the genuine product is over‐priced, or that they did not know they are purchasing a fake.

The primary deterrents were found to be potential health risks, the perception that the goods were a waste of money, and that counterfeits would have no warranty.

The most effective messengers were those who have been harmed by a counterfeit product, parents of children harmed by counterfeits, or medical experts. Police and other authority figures had substantially less impact, with only 29% of consumers in the UK stating that a "policeman saying [counterfeit or pirated goods] dealers are criminals" would be credible. [252]

The research also revealed a lack of audience targeting or message testing prior to the formation and execution of awareness campaigns, and that very few ever attempted to measure effectiveness of their messages in deterring consumer purchases of counterfeit and pirated products. Campaigns with a local focus were more likely to generate empathy, but buyers still only responded strongly to messages that raised potential personal ramifications such as prosecution or health risks to them or their family. Campaigns seen as preaching or shocking were rejected, and even with more complex presentations of the issues, the focus groups commonly expressed the need for proof of the damage done. This becomes difficult for instance with piracy, where health concerns are not a factor. [253]

Awareness of the existence of counterfeiting and piracy itself is widespread, but the absence of awareness of its effects, the variety of the risks posed by different types of counterfeits, and the disinclination of many purchasers to believe messages from traditional authorities present a hurdle that many jurisdictions are finding it difficult to cross, and which only beyond which many of the more nuanced campaigns to drive behaviour change can take place.

Combating this mindset is complex, and the research suggests that in order to do so messages will require to be focused not on "counterfeits" as a whole but on particular types of product, and informed by data as to specific purchasing habits of key groups. When awareness is raised of the topic at present, it appears either too general to make an impact, or framed in a way that the public are simply not prepared to believe.

5.4 Case Study 3 – Nudge Campaigns and Sidestepping the Awareness Hurdle

The concept of "nudge" campaigns was first placed into the public consciousness by the 2010 Coalition Manifesto, which committed the then UK Government to "harnessing the insights from behavioural economics and social psychology". The most notable manifestation of this commitment was the launch of the Behavioural Insights Team ( BIT) as part of the Cabinet Office, often referred to in the press as the 'Nudge Unit', which drew from a wide range of disciplines including sociology, anthropology and design to guide effective campaigns and to promote the use of behavioural sciences into Government strategy and policy. [254]

The concept of 'nudging' in effect seeks to use the insight into behaviour and psychology afforded by multiple academic disciplines to circumvent the need to further convince of, or even raise awareness of, the central issue. Instead it seeks to make other changes, for instance by making the recommended behaviour as easy as possible, or making small environmental changes which trigger the appropriate behaviour. The more that messages can be personalised or at least made to feel personal, the better - one study found that simply affixing a hand-written note to the front of a survey drastically increased the rate of completion. [255]

Nudges are most effective, or most useful, in decisions which are difficult or rare, for which they do not get prompt feedback, or when aspects of the situation are not easily understood – in short, the situations where people are "least likely to make good choices" [256] . All three of these apply to decisions made around involvement in, or potential victimisation of, serious organised crime.

The insights afforded by the BIT were used by HMRC to encourage payment of tax debts. Their strategy drew on the power of social proof, and involved the simple addition of certain statements to their letters, such as '9 out of 10 people in Britain pay their tax on time', or specific information about rates of payment in the recipient's local area. The trial led to a 15% increase from the old-style control letter which contained no such messages. Scaled up, the potential impact of this strategy was huge - HMRC estimated that if trialled across the country, the scheme could collect approximately £160 million of tax debts to the Exchequer in as little as six weeks. [257]

A nudge can also be used to address an absence of willpower. Sometimes awareness of an issue, and even attitudes in favour of change, do not always result in the active uptake of new behaviour. However, a small nudge can be sufficient to tip the user into a new mode. The introduction of a 5p charge for plastic bags is a strong example – the implementation of an environmental change, which was relatively easy and which involved behaviour taking place in public, was estimated to have the equivalent environmental benefit for the UK of taking 35,000 cars off the road. [258]

It did not rely foremost on convincing people of anything, or of highlighting the threat of environmental damage caused by plastic bags – likely working on the assumption that these matters were already relatively broadly understood. Instead the campaign targeted the very moment when people make the decision to purchase a plastic bag, and tweaked the circumstances in which such behaviour took place, nudging them into a new behaviour pattern.

5.5 Case Study 4 – Anti-Smoking Campaigns and Appeals to Fear, Values and Self-Efficacy

As well as being one of the main impacts of organised crime, fear, or a reminder of threats, is used widely as a persuasive technique or motivator. As we have seen, a description of the scale of threat frequently forms the first sentence of public statements on organised crime and, indeed, many other issues. This is used as a primer, which is then followed by a "solution" – often, in the case of current organised crime messaging, this solution is the capability of law enforcement. [259]

While fear of crime can provide a functional, appropriate response, for instance the decision to secure your home before leaving, it can also lead to negative results, particularly for the most vulnerable. Health awareness campaigns can provide useful insight into issues relating to crime, as they both seek to encourage people to recognise an ongoing threat, feel able to do something about it, and then take the appropriate action. Many health campaigns have moved past simple fear appeals and now take a more aspirational approach, making emotional appeals to the individual's existing sense of self.

In this context, there are three factors which influence the adoption of preventative health behaviours:

  • the realisation that the person is at risk
  • the expectation that behaviour change will reduce this risk
  • the expectation that the person is capable enough to adopt preventive behaviour or to refrain from risky health behaviour [260]

"Risk" itself is distinct from fear, and can be divided again into the perceived susceptibility to the threat, and the perceived severity of the threat. Fear appeals have been widely studied and the findings can be split into several models, which suggest, among other things, that a moderate amount of fear is more likely to produce behaviour change than too little or too much; that fear can produce separate responses both to mitigate the threat or to mitigate one's own fear; and that perceptions of high threat and high self-efficacy appear to produce the most positive behaviour change. [261]

A model, known as EPPM, combined many of these factors and has been summarised as below:

"According to the EPPM, the evaluation of a fear appeal initiates two appraisals of the message, which result in one of three outcomes. First, individuals appraise the threat of an issue from a message. The more individuals believe they are susceptible to a serious threat, the more motivated they are to begin the second appraisal, which is an evaluation of the efficacy of the recommended response. If the threat is perceived as irrelevant or insignificant ( i.e., low perceived threat), then there is no motivation to process the message further, and people simply ignore the fear appeal.

"In contrast, when a threat is portrayed as and believed to be serious and relevant ( e.g.,"I'm susceptible to contracting a terrible disease"),individuals become scared. Their fear motivates them to take some sort of action—any action—that will reduce their fear. Perceived efficacy (composed of self-efficacy and response efficacy) determines whether people will become motivated to control the danger of the threat or control their fear about the threat." [262]

- K Witte and M Allen, 2000

In 1948, at around the height of the popularity of cigarette smoking, 82% of men and 41% of women in the UK smoked. Six years' later, the first scientific paper confirming the link with cancer was published, and sixty years after that, after extremely widespread advertising campaigns and changes to advertising and smoking laws, almost one in five still smoke. Though this number is decreasing, the rate has slowed in recent years. [264] [265]

It is clear that knowledge of the risk, peer pressure and environmental changes such as smoking bans are not sufficient to quickly and widely influence behaviours, and the various techniques which have been used to convince people to stop smoking demonstrate in practice some of the main types of appeals which aim to draw peoples' attention and encourage them commit to a change.

Recent research suggests that positive appeals may be more effective than fear, especially when, as with smoking, the risk is already well-known – and again reinforces the finding that campaigns of all types are most likely to be effective when individuals already have high levels of self-efficacy, or the ability to plot out and imagine the process of change which they will undertake. [266] [267]

A 2016 study by the Frameworks Institute found that appeals to certain values, in particular those of problem solving, human potential, and national progress, could be particularly effective in cultivating public support for criminal justice reforms. [268] Research also suggests that when the public are used to receiving information framed in one way – either positive or negative – then reversing the presentation against expectations can also boost its impact. [269]

The campaigns most likely to succeed therefore look to not only provide a motivation to change, through highlighting the risk or other means, but also bolster the belief that the audience can change and provides the tools to do so. [270] It is important to note that actual self-efficacy, and perceived self-efficacy, may not be the same. [271] There are also ethical concerns about the use of fear appeals in certain circumstances, in that they can be more likely to have negative effects on those of lower socioeconomic status. [272]

Mass media appeals of this nature are, however they are executed, a crucial part of raising the baseline awareness of risk necessary to then influence attitudes and behaviours. When risk is already well known, it becomes less important to reference it again. Their eventual success or failure relies on sufficient preparedness by the campaign organiser in testing the messages on target groups, refining their approach, and dedicating sufficient commitment or funding to ensure widespread and frequent exposure to the messages over an extended period of time. [273]

Once these appeals have elicited the interest of the reader, the advice that follows is largely practical and positive. The "Stop Smoking" section of the NHS website, for instance, does not mention the risk of smoking at all, but simply sets out positive choices and busts various myths in straightforward language. [274]

5.6 Case Study 5 – Cybersecurity and Reducing Victimisation

Cybersecurity is an industry of large and growing importance, and the ways in which campaigns influence employees or other users to undertake good IT practices have been rigorously studied.

As with health, such campaigns are crucially driven by data – it is relatively easy to quantify (compared with engagement with some other crimes) how many times spam is clicked on, or security tutorials completed – and the data has forced refinements and re-examination of behaviour. It has required practitioners to recognise that even campaigns delivered by recognised authorities to those who are aware of the general risk, with advice backed by powerful evidence, sometimes simply do not work, even after many years of attempts. [275] A wide-ranging study in 2011 found that, while cyber-awareness campaigns are commonplace both at national level and within businesses, "a large number of campaigns have been undertaken, subject to very limited evaluation or even discussion of their effectiveness." [276]

The provision of information alone is only the first of many steps, and even then must be executed correctly. [277] Perhaps in an attempt to mitigate against the risks of describing threat without offering solutions, and drawing on evidence that even very simple changes to security practices would help prevent 80% of cybercrime [278] , recent cyber-security campaigns have focused on small, specific actions that users can take. This also caters to the low levels of computer literacy (see Chapter 4). In 2014, the UK Government launched Cyber Streetwise, a "major behavioural change campaign" aimed at improving the national engagement with cyber security by individuals and businesses. [279] The campaign had five key elements, the first of which emphasised the benefits of the use of strong passwords. [280]

Cyber Streetwise and similar programmes, including Get Safe Online, were fully funded, with dedicated resources and professional websites, social media channels, and buy-in from a very wide range of other organisations who helped to amplify its messages. While it is not clear if the data is directly comparable, during the almost 3-year lifetime of the Cyber Streetwise campaign, Government releases suggest that the number of those using passwords of sufficient complexity rose from 30% to 35%. [281] [282]

This is not to make criticism of Cyber Streetwise. It, and its recent successor, Cyber Aware, seek to make specific, small behaviour changes, and focus primarily on empowering the user rather than describing the scale of the threat. They have doubtless reached a large number of people. However, it is clear that the conversion of awareness to behaviour remains a barrier to swift success in the cybersecurity sphere, and we should apply the learning and expansive research conducted in this area in our presentation of other crime types.

Whenever we speak of awareness raising, and assume it will lead to behaviour change, or when we suggest behaviour change as an apparently simple solution to any problem, it is worth bearing in mind that even with high levels of support, and with commitment to straightforward messages sustained over years, achieving widespread and lasting behaviour change can remain elusive.

A 2014 UK Government study set out a worst case scenario for attempts at cybersecurity behaviour change, as below:

  • We continue to communicate to users that there is a substantial risk associated with interacting online
  • Users do not directly experience negative consequences of the risks that are being communicated to them and/or if they do experience a negative consequence, they cannot relate it back to a specific behaviour that they have the power to change
  • We continue to inadvertently communicate to users that there is little they can do to protect themselves and that even the experts don't agree between themselves [283]

Taken in a broad view, we can perhaps rewrite this analysis of ineffective behaviour-change messaging to also cover other types of organised crime, where it could be summarised as:

  • Raise awareness of a general threat or danger, without translating it into potential personal impact
  • Promote conflicting solutions, or no solutions at all
  • Fail to present and reinforce specific, achievable behaviours which could mitigate against the threat


Email: Jim Hislop,

Phone: 0300 244 4000 – Central Enquiry Unit

The Scottish Government
St Andrew's House
Regent Road

Back to top