Burglars exhibit a state of Flow and good decision-making

You’re an opportunist. As you’re passing by a house, you notice an unlocked window. A moment later you’ve slipped through it and are now in an environment you know nothing about. If you’ve never done this before this is what happens next:

  • Your heart rate becomes elevated as you realize that you’re now in a risky situation where you’ve broken the law and may get caught.
  • Your blood pressure goes up.
  • Your vision becomes restricted.
  • Your brain goes on overdrive as all the possibilities present themselves.
  • Inside your head risk is suddenly magnified. Every unfamiliar sound becomes a signal of potential threat.
  • The elevated activity inside your brain battles with the elevated physiological responses of your body. Both suddenly need extra resources.
  • Motorneural efficiency and cognitive functions become impaired.
  • Decision-making becomes compromised.

Suffice to say this is a scenario where doing something stupid and getting caught is more likely than not. So are the chances of getting away with less than you should, if you happen not to get caught. The reason for this lies in the way the brain makes expert decisions.

In highly fluid situations the brain relies on achieving a state of flow in order to function. Flow allows the thinking brain to access mental schemas the optimize the way it allocates resources and makes decisions under pressure.

Yes, we are talking about breaking into a house and stealing (a.k.a. burglary), but at the same time we have to wonder how expert burglars do it without getting caught. The answer to this is that expert burglars display the same kind of mental equilibrium as snipers, pilots and top-flight athletes. They enter a state of flow that allows them to make better decisions under pressure because they bring together the same kind of dedication, observation, skill and confidence as any other top professional.

The reason we know this is because Dr Claire Nee has devoted time and energy studying the way expert burglars make decisions and perform under pressure and has mapped the similarities.

Decisions, Choices and Focus

In retrospect this should have been obvious. Entering someone’s house is a proposition that presents a high level of fluidity. In order to successfully deal with it a burglar has to rely on a high degree of previous knowledge about human behavior. Boxed in an environment where the number of rooms, items we have and things we own, determine behavior, each of us is reduced to a set of possible behaviors in where we would store our valuables and how we organize our possessions.

Burglars accumulate a lot of real-world knowledge which then allows them to navigate totally unknown terrains with a certain degree of confidence and unlock the cypher they present them with, quickly. Without glamorizing burglary any more than I do sniping, the takeaways from this are obvious:

  • Complex decision-making requires practice and dedication. It never just happens.
  • Every human activity requires some kind of mental modelling to take place.
  • Focus coupled to a specific skillset allows us to reach peak mental performance.
  • The mind and body are one unit. One cannot adequately function without the other and what affects one also affects the other.

The bottom line here is that this also becomes the blueprint for self-improvement. We live in a time when fluidity and uncertainty are the norm, when the future is hard to predict and when almost everything we do is complex.

Success is defined by the quality of our decisions and the dedication of our training. Making the effort to be the best we can be is no longer an option we have the luxury to put off.


If you’re feeling that the world you knew has changed. If you’re sensing that the work you did no longer works. It’s time for an upgrade.

Intentional: How to Live, Love, Work and Play Meaningfully by David Amerland   The Sniper Mind by David Amerland