Where We Report Crimes: Lessons from Afghanistan

April 10, 2023 • By The UCI Paul Merage School of Business

It’s just after 4 a.m. in a remote village in Afghanistan. Gunshots ring out. Voices shouting. Women crying. More shots. Then nothing. Only silence. Another late-night raid has left one man dead and another wounded. In the morning there are whispers and rumors. Some say a woman was arrested for teaching her daughter to read, but everyone knows one thing: It was the Taliban. The only question now is, do you—a village resident—report this crime to the village elders, or to the National Police? Either option could lead to serious consequences.

Scenarios like this one were not uncommon in Afghanistan during the occupation by the United States, when the Taliban still maintained influence within rural villages.

Key Factors

What professor Patrick Bergemann of The UCI Paul Merage School of Business and his co-author, professor Austin Wright of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, wanted to know was this: What factors influence those difficult decisions to report—and to whom—among villagers in Afghanistan?

In their forthcoming article, From Social Alignment to Social Control: Reporting the Taliban in Afghanistan,” to be published in the upcoming issue of the journal Sociological Science, Bergemann and Wright present the results of their study and explore the lessons that can be drawn from the Afghan experience.

“Most of my research revolves around understanding why people report others to the authorities,” says Bergemann. “But one question that hasn’t been sufficiently addressed is ‘where do people decide to report?’, because in a lot of situations individuals can report to different authorities. If someone is assaulted on a college campus, they can go to university officials or the police. Victims of child abuse within the Catholic Church can report to officials within or church or to law enforcement. If someone witnesses financial fraud in their workplace, they can report to organizational authorities or the FBI. My question is, why do people choose one over the other?”

Extensive Surveys

Bergemann’s coauthor, Austin Wright, has done extensive research on informing in war zones. They found a common interest in these sorts of questions and decided to partner together for this article.

They used data from a survey conducted in Afghanistan between 2017 and 2018—before the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan—which asked villagers about their experiences with illegal Taliban activity in thousands of villages. This allowed the authors to “get a unique window into how people’s views of the Taliban influenced their decisions to report them, and to whom they reported,” says Bergemann.

Connecting Dots

Some might question whether a survey of villagers in Afghanistan can tell us anything about human behavior outside of the specific context of central Asia. For Bergemann, the universal relevance is clear.

“My perspective is that reporting other people is a very human behavior,” he says. “Ultimately what we see in this paper is the importance of peers and how they influence whether an individual reports, and that’s been found to be true in many other settings.”

As it turns out, the sheer size and scope of the data used in their research allowed them to break new ground. “That’s part of the reason I was excited about this research,” says Bergemann. “I don’t know of any other comparable data source. We were able to look at thousands of villages and see the reporting behaviors of villagers within them. We were also able to measure the views of individuals and their fellow villagers toward the Taliban.”

This exceptional level of depth made it possible for Bergemann and Wright to see how the attitudes of peers influenced individual decisions of whether and where to report illegal behavior by the Taliban. “It was an unprecedented opportunity to ask certain questions that people haven’t been able to answer before,” says Bergemann.

Surprising Results

One of the factors Bergemann and Wright looked at was a person’s view of the Taliban compared to the views of other people in their same village. Bergemann explains, “What we found was that people were most likely to report when their views aligned with their fellow villagers. If an individual who strongly disliked the Taliban saw then committing a crime—and if their fellow villagers also strongly disliked the Taliban—the individual was likely to report. But if the individual had positive views of the Taliban and other villagers also had positive views of the Taliban, they were also likely to report. You might think that if a person and their community both have positive views toward the Taliban, that person would decide not to report. But that’s not what we found.”

This alignment between the individual and the rest of the village regarding attitudes about the Taliban proved to be the critical factor. In fact, when there was a misalignment between the individual and the rest of the village in their views toward the Taliban, people were less likely to report. “What’s really interesting is that people were reporting to different authorities,” he says. “When an individual and other villagers were aligned in opposition against the Taliban, that person tended to report to external authorities like the national police or the military. But when an individual and other villagers were aligned in support of the Taliban, that person tended to report to local village elders. So, they’re reporting but they’re keeping it internal rather than going outside of the village.”

Bergemann continues, “An implication of this is that people were least likely to report when they were misaligned with their village, meaning that they had opposing views of the Taliban than other villagers. If a village was pro-Taliban and an individual was not, that person was unlikely to report. Similarly, if a village was anti-Taliban and a person was pro-Taliban, that person was also unlikely to report.”

Us Versus Them

The essential factor in resolving the disparity between when and to whom people report wrongdoing appears to lie in resolving our own personal biases towards one group or the other. As Bergemann explains, “One takeaway that applies to many other contexts is about the importance of attitudes towards different groups. Suppose you work for a company where people tend to be biased against a certain group. If someone from that group is found to have committed a crime, they are likely to be reported externally to the police or law enforcement. But if the crime were committed by someone who is not a member of that group, they are more likely to be reported internally, such as to HR or a supervisor.

“If this repeats over time, then members of one group are consistently reported externally while others are reported internally, even for the same crime. And most likely things are going to be worse for those who get reported to external authorities like the police. This can lead to biases where groups are treated unequally, even if wrongdoers are consistently reported.”

Under Pressure

This important research also reveals how social environments can suppress reporting practices. “If people who are misaligned with those around them tend to not report, then we’re missing all these instances of wrongdoing that are never coming to the attention of the authorities who might improve the situation,” he says. “Because these social pressures influence people when they’re in misalignment with their group.”

Of course, there’s no silver bullet answer to prevent these sorts of misalignments from happening, but if executives and managers are made aware of these factors and understand better how these societal pressures influence reporting, they will certainly become better equipped to handle situations as they arise.