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Purpose. The aim of this study was to establish which visual cues are used within CCTV images to accurately predict a criminal act and to investigate observer descriptions of the meaning of such cues. This study also tested whether professional CCTV surveillance experience influenced the ability to predict antisocial acts using real CCTV footage.

Method. CCTV operators (N = 12) and inexperienced observers (N = 12) were shown 24 short scenes in which half led to an antisocial act. An eye-tracker was used to identify the visual cues attended whilst participants predicted whether or not each scene led to criminal behaviour. Participants also verbalized their impressions of selected scenes and reported any features arousing suspicion.

Results. More accurate predictions of impending criminal action were associated with looking at the face/head of lone individuals and the bodies of individuals engaged in reciprocal social interaction or communication. Qualitative data revealed that accurate observers attended to the spatial configuration of individuals within the scene and were able to appropriately identify distinct social entities (i.e., subgroups of people that appear to belong together within the scene as a whole).

Conclusion. The perception of social entities sensitizes successful observers to violations of normative conduct. Thus, better prediction accuracy in CCTV images appears to be associated with a more sophisticated awareness of the social context present in the scene.