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II. Rational Choice Theory and Get-Tough Policies
III. Classical and Rational Choice Theorists and Their Heirs
IV. Recent Studies
V. Further Perspectives on Deterrence
VI. Costs and Benefits: The Economic Mod
VII. Crime, Self-Control, and Patterns of Influence
Classical criminology usually refers to the work of 18th-century philosophers of legal reform, such as Beccaria and Bentham, but its influence extends into contemporary works on crime and economics and on deterrence, as well as into the rational choice perspective. The entire range of social phenomena can be understood more or less accurately using models of economic transactions and the assumption that people make rational choices between opportunities to maximize their own utility. This was a foundational assumption of classical criminology. Sociological theory viewed crime through economic models, and this assumption is called rational choice theory. For criminologists, rational choice theory has origins in sociological theoretical thought and in various perspectives on economics and markets, but, more prominently, its influences are found in the classical school of criminology.
II. Rational Choice Theory and Get-Tough Policies
Drawing on the classical contention that man is a calculating creature, rational choice criminology begins with the assumption that behaviors of groups and individuals will reflect attempts to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Theorists in this tradition hypothesize how varying conditions shaping the payoff of an endeavor in combination with varying utilities and desires will contribute to aggregate and individual levels of crime. Most adherents agree that the utilities, or desirability, of activities are varying and subjective, so that crime may have attraction for some people that is not seen by others. There also is widespread agreement that the strength and quality of individual or group preferences can be taken into account in studying the occurrence of criminal behavior. Therefore, in criminology rational choice theory usually is a variant of expected utility theories and portrays the process of considering (or ignoring) criminal opportunities as part of a rational calculation based in part on subjective assessments wherein the expected costs and benefits of actions are considered.
The fundamental assumptions and methods associated with rational choice theory and its classical predecessor undergird a great deal of modern criminology, but its theoretical proponents and defenders have been in and out of fashion throughout criminology’s history. The perspective fell from favor in the eyes of many criminologists in the last several decades in part because of its resonance with audiences prepared to “get tough” on crime through mass imprisonment and in part because it was seen as an attack on sociological, psychological, cultural, and structural explanations. It was often portrayed as a reductionist and simplistic theory due to the fact that proponents often emphasized the most obvious costs and benefits of crime commission, such as monetary payoff versus terms of imprisonment. Moreover, its foundational assumptions sometimes are critiqued for being so broad as to be meaningless. In very recent years, however, the theory has attracted investigators drawn by its potential for making clear sense of why people commit crime and its ability to communicate the theoretical reasons behind research results to any audience. In contemporary forms, it also can conveniently integrate structural and perceptual models of offending, and the perspective easily makes sense of the use of a wide array of variables from multiple levels of analysis. The rational choice framework has great capacity for incorporating knowledge and techniques garnered from across the social sciences, because its central premises are extremely broad and conflict directly with few extant statements from other perspectives. In broad form, the rational choice perspective has as much potential for integrating knowledge from various spheres of criminology as does any other grand theory. For all its shortcomings, which derive mainly from economic assumptions about human and aggregate decision making and the tendency to focus on the most tangible variables, it makes efficient sense of complex questions.
Accompanying a more even-keeled political approach and more rigorous empiricism in criminology than was prevalent in more ideologically combative times has been a realization that there is nothing necessarily punitive in classical or rational choice theory and that therefore the perspectives should not be faulted when it is misapplied or misunderstood. Articles framed by the perspectives usually examine the possibility that punishment reduces crime, and often that is found to be the case in at least some examined conditions. However, for people who would use the perspectives as ideology to support getting tough on crime, the approach has as many inherent inconsistencies as convergences. Contemporary versions of rational choice specify countless complications of simple postulated relationships between increased punishment and decreased crime, for example. There clearly the rational choice tradition acknowledges that there are limited conditions under which one should expect punishment increases to lead to reductions in rates of crime or to impede individual decisions to commit crime.
Indeed, people who would turn to rational choice and classical theory for endorsement of punitive perspectives should know that they have opened themselves to attack from their desired theoretical bedfellows. This is because rational choice theorists and their classical forebears generally demand consistent and logical economic arguments and real evidence for the practicality and efficacy of state practices. Those who follow the tradition would evaluate the net payoff of punitive programs skeptically before determining them legitimate. Moreover, the tradition is closely coupled historically with utilitarian views of law wherein good laws are only those that can be enforced (which usually requires considerable popular legitimacy) and that lead to the general betterment. The latter, of course, is a difficult philosophical and empirical obstacle to surmount for people who argue that more punishment is needed.
The earliest classical theorists postulated that many punishments were necessarily irrational and excessive simply because they would inevitably be ineffective in deterring crime. This fact still exerts significant influence in both rational choice and classical theorizing. Laws that are groundless, inefficacious, unprofitable, or needless are not good laws. If any convenient liaison between the classical, rational choice perspective and get-tough policies existed, it seems to have been temporary and probably not all that important for, properly modified, almost any broad ideology can inspire or be used to defend vengeful approaches to criminal justice.
III. Classical and Rational Choice Theorists and Their Heirs
Because the intellectual seeds for classical and rational choice criminology were sown in the 18th-century Enlightenment Age, many of the central questions and biases in the approaches were formed then. When the theories are recapped in textbooks, one is as likely to see reference to Beccaria and Bentham as to lesser sociological thinkers on choice and economics of crime of the last half century. Although the mathematics in contemporary applications sometimes are overwhelming to people who are unaccustomed to reading formulas, the thinking in older and newer versions of classical criminology at least is familiar. Much in the U.S. system of justice rests on the same foundations, and we live with the cultural and intellectual legacy spawned by the scholars who inspired classical criminology. The most important historical fact to keep in mind is that classical theorists were concerned primarily with reforming a primitive, irrational justice system that often was based on privilege and vengeful ritualistic traditions with a justice system that drew legitimacy from reason.
Early classical theorists knew that crime required rational management; they intended to calibrate the law and justice system for the task and generally agreed that the state should do no more than required to protect citizens and their property. The law should be pragmatic and effective. Precise visions of the philosophical underpinnings of rights, the law, and justice varied widely, but there was near-universal agreement among classical and enlightened thinkers of the 18th century that the deterrent value of the law should expend the least possible harm to society and to the individual; that is, the law should operate without undue or unneeded cruelty to offenders. According to this perspective, the costs of committing a given crime usually would slightly outweigh potential benefits, in order to tip the decisional scales toward compliance with the law; however, any punishment beyond that needed to accomplish this task is likely cruel and unnecessary. Classical visions eventually came to reflect the utilitarian ideas that balancing private and individual interests against public interest required optimizing liberty; minimizing harm; and, wherever possible, close correspondence between the two objectives. From inception, theorists contended that implementing rational law and legal measures required dispassionate judgment of what would be most effective and scientific evaluation of attempted improvements. Crime control should be measured and its effectiveness evaluated objectively to ensure the proper balance of controllable costs and benefits of crime. Therefore, most evaluation research of legal changes and large-scale policy changes in the criminal justice system can be comfortably placed under the classical/rational choice tent.
The battles between those who rigidly adhered to purist sociological theories of crime (which generally focused on what is wrong with societies or other external social forces producing aberrant-thinking criminals) and those who took the side of a purist economics and rigid classical criminology are fading to intellectual history. As the latest generation of seasoned combatant in the fight leaves the field, one finds that their legacy is empirical support for multiple approaches to the problem of crime. It educates about the pitfalls of stringent and egotistical adherence to a single perspective and rigid defense of boundaries as much as it provides support for competing visions. With resulting invigorated faith in integration and cross-disciplinary approaches in criminology, rational choice and classical perspectives are on the cusp of revitalization and the perspective that may lead the way in sophisticated and integrated crime theorizing that is to come. The form of rational choice perspectives of the future will starkly contrast with the depictions of the school of thought that were presented in academic critiques and textbook accounts over the last several decades; these often pointed out that the theory was elementary and that it offered an unrealistic or artificial depiction of criminal choice as a rational/ economic outcome.
IV. Recent Studies
This possibility of reinvigoration of classically inspired thinking via rational choice in the form of a sophisticated, integrated, and formal theory of criminal behavior is signified by a study of high-risk youth in Denver (Matsueda, Kreager, & Huizinga, 2006). Matsueda et al. (2006) drew on longitudinal data to assess how perceived certainty of arrest is affected by individual characteristics (control variables, including age, race, residential stability, poverty) as well as theoretically inspired rational choice variables of experienced certainty (the ratio of experienced arrest or police questioning to crimes committed), unsanctioned offenses (the number of crimes committed by persons not questioned or arrested), and delinquent peers. Lagged perceived risk of arrest and self-reported risk preference (enjoyment of daring things) also were included. Perceived risk of arrest for theft and violence was regressed onto these variables.
Matsueda et al.’s (2006) results revealed that individuals who have not offended or been arrested overestimate the certainty of arrest. Experience of arrest certainty also leads to increased certainty estimates, revealing that offenders learn a desired lesson from being arrested for the crimes they commit; those who are arrested most regularly resemble the naive in their high assessments of risk. Those who offend but go unsanctioned perceive that the certainty of arrest is low and tend to move farther and farther away from naïve offenders with more criminal successes. Delinquent peers lead to decreased estimates of the certainty of arrest. On the whole, these findings show that assessments of the rewards of crime are acquired by Bayesian learning; individuals begin with a prior subjective probability estimate of an event based on accumulated information and update probability estimates as new information is gained directly or vicariously. Perceptions are formed by experiences and approximate rational outcomes.
In the next part of their article, Matsueda et al. (2006) showed the effects of certainty estimates on offending. They predicted violence and theft commission in one wave of data with previous wave reporting of rational choice/ perceptual variables including the positive experiences found in excitement from crime, seeing crime as cool, and committing crime and getting away with it. The downside of the criminal calculation is conceptualized as perceived risk of arrest (measured as perceived certainty by perceived utility) and lost investment in employment and grades. The authors assessed these effects, controlling for the effects of five measures of (1) neighborhood disadvantage, (2) basic individual control variables, (3) police contact, (4) risk preference, and (5) impulsivity. They also controlled prior delinquency to ensure that the temporal specification is clear and that current crime is a function of theoretically important variables instead of stable criminal behavior across waves.
Considerable support was found for a rational choice perspective on offending. This support is seen in significant effects for perceived risk of arrest as a cost and being seen as cool as significant benefits for both theft and violence; excitement from crime predicted theft but not violence. Perceived opportunities to commit theft and violence and get away with it also were significant predictors of both theft and violence in the expected direction.
This litany of findings is presented here only because it instructs on contemporary rational choice criminology and the attractions of the perspective today. The abstract lessons are that rational choice theory can guide the formation of intuitively valid, creative, and testable hypotheses that add to understanding of crime. The prospects for the perspective include understanding how experience and conditions shape thinking that makes some people more likely to offend than others, and this is the most promising line of inquiry for understanding why people commit, persist, or desist from committing crimes. More important for its future is that rational choice theory is completely compatible with dynamic and developmental perspectives that measure movement into, out of, and within criminal careers. Therefore, rational choice theory is commensurate with the core of contemporary criminological research: life course and developmental research. Any reader intrigued by studying crime over the life course or the prospects for interfering in the sequences of thinking that contribute to higher chances of crime commission can find guidance in rational choice theory as well as in the more commonly used control theories.
As with many theories, however, the features that distinguish rational choice and classical perspectives from other camps can be difficult to see when they are used in integrated pictures of crime. It is safe to say that the degree to which adherents view crime as an outcome of a choice that is subject to general economic principles and that results from maximizing behavior on the part of decision makers distinguishes the camps from other areas of criminology. From this perspective, offending rates result from optimizing individuals’ reactions to their estimates of incentives (referred to as perceptual deterrence, i.e., the role of an individual’s perceptions of costs because these deter crime) and are aggregate results of individuals’ assessments of costs and benefits. The offender traditionally is portrayed as a normal person (with no peculiar motives or individual defects that are thought to predispose crime) who responds predictably such that if probable costs exceed the probable benefits, he or she will not commit crime. Reflecting a tradition of methodological individualism, individuals’ combined decisions to commit or abstain from crime on the basis of judgments of its net payoff are thought to explain variation in crime rates across space and time.
Gary Becker’s work best represents the purist economic camp and thus may best represent a contemporary application of traditional classical thinking; it is grounded on the assumption that offenders are by and large normal and for the most part are responding to measurable incentive structures. Becker has been awarded a Nobel Prize and a Medal of Science, as well as a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and he is Distinguished Professor of Economics, Business and Sociology at the University of Chicago. Becker proposed what is now known as the subjective expected utility model of crime, which has proven to be surprisingly controversial. According to this theory, crime will be more likely if the individual’s perceived expected utility (expressed in monetary terms) for criminal behavior is greater than the expected utility of some legal alternative. This model is often represented mathematically with the following formula: EU = pU (Y – f) + [1 – P_ U (Y)], where EU represents the expected utility from the behavior, p is the probability of punishment, and U represents the utility (the severity) of costs or benefits. Becker contends also that people who might consider crime calculate the following: (a) practical opportunities of earning legitimate income, (b) amounts of income offered by these opportunities, (c) amounts of income offered by various illegal methods, (d) probabilities of being arrested for illegal acts, and (e) probabilities of punishment if caught. The act or occupation with the highest discounted return is likely to be chosen (Sullivan, 1973). As an economic purist, Becker asserts provocatively that there is little reason for theorizing that treats offenders as if they have a special character that leads them to crime. Becker extends his logic to conclude that the most prominent theories of motivation in criminology are not needed; basic economics addresses their problem sufficiently. Criminal offenders are normal, reasoning economic actors responding to market forces. This dogma understandably leaves him out of favor with many sociologists of crime who specialize in other criminological theories and, as one might imagine, he is not a favorite of criminal psychologists either. If classical criminology theory as used by Becker is accurate, then one should expect that rates of crime will be stable if the costs and benefits of it remain so; however, in modified versions that are endorsed most often among scholars who claim rational choice as their perspective, allowance is made for the fact that the population of likely criminals and prevalence of criminal thinking might also vary.
V. Further Perspectives on Deterrence
Underlying much writing in the classical tradition is the objective of determining what a reasonable system of justice would look like, and this leads to the assessment of the effects of varying policy on criminal behavior. This includes evaluation of what the optimum level of enforcement and sanctions should be and whether deterrent measures have worthwhile prospects. Following the belief that criminal law must minimize the social cost of crime, and that social costs are calculated by adding the harm crime causes and the cost of punishment, researchers who focus on deterrence, which is an offshoot of classical criminology, analyze penalties and their effects.
Research that does not allow for varying perceptions of costs and benefits across types of would-be offenders, places, or time periods are referred to as objective deterrence studies. The study of the relationship between imprisonment rates and crime rates, for instance, usually falls within this category. In contrast, perceptual deterrence theorists focus on varied perceptions of costs and benefits across types of would-be offenders, places, or time periods. In practice, the distinction between the objective deterrence and perceptual deterrence/rational choice perspectives also rests on the former’s focus on aggregate variation and tendency to use macrolevel variables that reflect variation in opportunity for crime and spatial and temporal differences in payoff and punishment. Objective deterrence theorists are likely to use the most general economic variables and predictions that emphasize variation in state policies and economic conditions, whereas perceptual deterrence/rational choice theorists are more likely to focus on individual variation in crime and varying individual criminal propensity. They also are more likely to incorporate a wider array of variables into explanations, often drawing insight from traditional domains of psychology and sociology.
A small but increasing share of the voluminous literature on deterrence reflects emerging interest in modeling formally and testing game theoretic and other exchanges occurring between individuals who would deter crime and those who would commit it (Fender, 1999). One notion is that aggregate offender (and state) choices reflect the ongoing mouse-and-mousetrap relationship as crime fighters and the people who might consider illegal acts learn and react to changing environments of exchange. There also is increasing theoretical attention to the possibility that lawmakers can use deterrent penalties to shift moral and cultural qualms about crime and change the public’s cost–benefit analyses as a result (Dau-Schmidt, 1990). The integration of game theory and other dynamic views on feedback between penalties and assessments of crime into classical criminology is in its infancy, however. Investigating how changes in policies affect the subsequent behavior of population aggregates, such as by examining the effect on drunk driving of stringent enforcement of laws prohibiting drunk driving and accompanying public information campaigns (they worked), or the number of crimes prevented by executions (a highly contested series of findings), remains the thrust of deterrence research.
If there are contingencies in efforts to deter crime by raising its costs, the most apparent is that the point of diminishing return for investing in deterrent efforts varies by crime, probably according to the size and characteristics of the population that remains undeterred when a new policy is imposed. Crimes committed by many people, by nondesperate or lightly motivated people, or by legally informed people and crimes with currently lenient penalties must be easier to reduce with new measures than are crimes committed by a few desperate persons who are capable of ignoring penalties that already are stiff. In the former case, the easy work is yet to be done. Partially because natural consequences and shame are powerful deterrents (Pratt, Cullen, Blevins, Daigle, & Madensen, 2006), relatively rare crimes that have tremendously devastating natural or informal consequences are difficult to deter further by formal means. For some of these reasons, the great classical criminologist Beccaria famously observed that 18th-century laws forbidding suicide necessarily are ineffective. Crimes with already stiff penalties also are unlikely to effect significant additional deterrence by adjusting formal penalties upward; some people do not scare easily. Even those who might be scared should they consider a consequence may not be deterred if, at the moment of decision, that consequence is not recalled, or if they are so intent on committing an act that little else matters.
Only a few criminology scholars use experimental methods to assess whether rewards and punishment affect cheating or risk-taking on assigned tasks (Ward, Stafford, & Gray 2006). There are numerous studies in which participants of varying background have put pen to paper to explain how they would evaluate costs and benefits presented in vignettes and have answered background questions about their own decisions and experiences to see whether they are able to predict costs and benefits. When presented vignettes that contain calculable and finite costs and benefits, respondents usually answer accordingly, leading to the conclusion that the decision to commit crime generally is predicted by cost–benefit assessments. On the whole, and with many caveats, there can be no doubt, on the basis of the results of this research, that deterrence works when other relevant factors can be controlled and that there is considerable rationality undergirding criminal choice.
Similar survey techniques for examining criminal decisions include exercises in which known offenders, responding to vignettes, describe in detail what they consider when deciding to commit or selecting real crimes. There also have been interviews about rationality in the target selection process and on how offenders sequentially proceed through decisions leading to crime. Here, it has been confirmed what researchers who study target selection and routine activities approaches have already shown by survey and geographic methods: Where crime is easy to commit and the odds of getting away with something are made high by environmental arrangements and circumstance, offending is likely.
VI. Costs and Benefits: The Economic Mod
A case can be made that a general and accurate picture of crime can be presented with grand economic theories containing only the most apparent variables representing the market for crime. This form of theorizing holds most true to the classical tradition. Analyses of aggregate variation tend to smooth out some of the complexities and detail found in decisions; however, such analyses generally attempt to model the effects of only a few variables that might influence the rate of occurrence of crime generally. The trade-off of such a general approach is that it necessarily obscures important details and peculiar thinking that affect decisions in many offenses. This empirical– theoretical divide in rational choice/classical literature is not unique to criminology. Economists might examine how purchasers respond to price changes by graphing the number of purchases by increasing prices, and that approach obviously can provide general knowledge on the subject. However, the microconsiderations of real buyers and their idiosyncrasies are more likely to be found in interviews, captured in surveys, or seen in laboratories by observing would-be consumers. Marketers might be more intrigued by the information gained in the last approach. The analogy reveals that aggregate and bottom-up studies of decision making approach the same phenomena from different angles and levels of analysis.
These divides are revealed in debates among researchers who study crimes as economic decisions. Despite debates, diverse approaches are commensurable, and in some cases each type of analysis might incorporate variables discovered in models done in the other. As is often the case with large numbers, many idiosyncratic influences on decisions cease to exist, but both normal and exceptional psychological patterns can be discovered and modeled in aggregate data. In fact, almost all contemporary economists recognize that there is a complex psychology of markets that incorporates external variables and logics but that affects the aggregate outcome significantly. It is widely accepted that learning, ignorance, convenience, and the tendency to satisfy (as opposed to maximize) all affect choice.
Some scholars who attempt to model relevant and recurring behavioral components into macrolevel models are at the forefront of the discipline of economics. There are subfields devoted to decision making under uncertainty and prospect theory, which models heuristic shortcuts that depart systematically from principles of probability shaping choice. There have also been advances in theorizing behavioral/economic approaches to law, which attempt to improve models of rational choice by relaxing assumptions that people are only rational optimizers of self-interest and by incorporating complexities of learned strategies for decision making under uncertainty. Criminology has far to go in understanding how even the simplest intersections of psychology, decision-making considerations, and changing markets influence crime and further still before it can incorporate cultural shifts and changing preferences into traditional aggregate economic or classically inspired models.
There is an emerging consensus within the classical camp, especially among legal scholars with an interest in moral shifts, that crime rates probably reflect fluctuation in the size and tastes of a likely customer base as well as in changing estimates of incentives and sanctions by the general population (Cooter, 2000a, 2000b). Crimes with payoff that objectively is stable over time, for example, might ebb and flow in their perceptual attractiveness in part because of the public’s multifaceted response to law. This view acknowledges that, if there is a market for crime, there may be limited numbers of participants under normal historical conditions. However, many citizens will ignore completely variation in the factors intended to raise or lower net criminal benefits, for one reason or another. There is almost no reason to think that the size of the likely offender population is stable or contingent only on economic variables, and models of crime that want to increase explained variation probably should take that into account. There is less reason for assuming that individual offenders’ thinking is intractable rather than developed over time and contingent on varying ways of thinking, events, and previous outcomes.
Many of the complications of applying the rational choice perspective are due to preferences, commitments, and mental impediments that can influence choice and make crime more or less likely. Preferences, commitments, and mental impediments may be disproportionately characteristic of identifiable groups of persons that are prone to offending. Individuals or categories of people may desire things that are not apparently objective costs or rewards of a given decision for all observers. Advertisers, for example, know that they can play on consumers’ irrational preferences by cleverly and expensively packaging goods even when that packaging is thrown away immediately on purchase; marketers know that some consumers are more enticed than others and how to play to the tastes of particular groups. Preferences affect what is chosen when one is confronting criminal opportunity as much as they determine what persons choose when deciding whether to purchase or walk away from a product in a store. For example, problem gamblers have not only an increased desire for arousal that comes from the activity but also increased expectations that gambling will result in positive and arousing experiences, as has been shown in a sample of criminal offenders (Walters & Contri, 1998). Therefore, rational choice applications that fail to account for varying tastes and sensations related to crime may be neglecting important variables and limiting explanatory power. Despite the admonition that explanations of crime that focus on abnormality are superfluous by advocates of pure economics, it is likely that offenders are drawn to elements of criminal activity in a way that others are not.
Individuals or groups also may have ways of thinking that skew their analysis of costs and benefits, apart from utilities. It is now widely accepted that there are thinking mistakes associated with addiction, for example. These mistakes include a willingness to act without full information, mistaken retention of practiced behaviors in simple tasks, and the discounting of future consequences. If one looks to gamblers, and experiments that emulate gambling, one can see that a great many people are overoptimistic about their ability to calculate outcomes, consider sunk costs errantly, are too loss averse to play rationally, see only the most available options, and misinterpret near-misses as near-wins instead of as losses. Indeed, the earliest statements of classical criminology recognized that the severity of punishment generally is discounted according to the amount of time (celerity) until it will be imposed, implying that the discount might be greater for some than others. There is a long and continuing history of examining whether offenders discount future costs more than nonoffenders and of extrapolating the implications for law (Listokin, 2002, 2007). Discounting potential negative consequences at greater rates than others may be one manifestation of impulsivity, a construct increasingly integrated into individual-level analyses of crime. Many of these analyses are inspired by and designed to improve on earlier versions of rational choice and classical criminology.
VII. Crime, Self-Control, and Patterns of Influence
A currently prominent general theory of crime that claims descent from classical criminology and takes significant inspiration from rational choice perspectives asserts that offenders are likely to have low levels of self-control. They are hyperphysical, self-centered, impulsive, hot-tempered risk-takers who enjoy simple, unchallenging tasks (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990).The opposite of these characteristics is termed self-control. For persons with low self-control, crime is a particularly attractive prospect. There is considerable evidence in psychology and criminology that some persons are predisposed by such tastes for offending. The source of the thinking problems may lie in inattentive parenting. In the language of rational choice perspectives, individuals without self-control, which is conceptualized as a stable characteristic, prefer crime and similarly present-oriented activities more so than other individuals. Given equivalent costs and benefits, we should expect people who have exhibited limited self-control to be more likely to choose crime than those who have not. Such impediments, in combination with the fact that many active criminals are intoxicated much of the time and the significant percentage of criminals who are on the lower end of intellectual abilities, might indicate that offenders occupy the high tail of the curve for impediments to reason. In fact, in a recent restatement on the measurement of self-control, Hirschi (2004) suggested that self-control is best measured as the number of costs considered during an offending decision, coupled with the perceived importance of these costs. Clearly, Hirschi is suggesting a correspondence between self-control and rational choice as explanation of crime.
Preferences that lead to crime need not be the ones that lead to stupid decisions, and they need not be especially peculiar. Some are widely shared and can lead to other healthy outcomes. For example, base desires for money and material trappings underlie a great deal of offending but also can lead to hard work. McCarthy and Hagan (2001) showed that a disposition for risk taking and competence interact to raise the rewards of crime, much as the characteristics lead to successful entrepreneurship. This suggests that some people are suited to crime and gaining its returns, just as some are suited to becoming entrepreneurs. It is a small inference to assume that the latter might find crime more attractive than criminals who are destined to achieve low returns. In a study of predictors of white-collar crime, N. L. Piquero, Exum, and Simpson (2005) showed that a desire for control is correlated with such crimes. It is also known that some rewards of crime are interpreted differently by known offenders and others; for example, subcultural dictates lead some offenders to interpret interpersonal confrontations using a particular set of costs and benefits that likely will elude people outside their cultures. People who stand up for themselves might also be rewarded by deference from those who would harass them otherwise.
It might be said that some people have a strong preference for law abidance and some do not. Where one falls on the spectrum of preference for and against illegality can determine attentiveness to rational choice considerations. Likewise, there is considerable reason to think that criminally prone individuals are influenced differently by sanctions (Wright, Caspi, Moffitt, & Paternoster, 2004). Greg Pogarsky’s (2002) survey of 412 university students about drinking and driving is illustrative of this point. After reading a vignette about deciding to drive from a bar or find another means home after drinking too much, students estimated the chances of being caught and the severity of the punishment if they were. They were then provided with the same vignette and asked whether they would drive if they knew there were no chance of being caught. Students were classified into those who would not consider drinking and driving at all (acute conformists), those whose chances of drinking and driving increased when they had knowledge that they would get away with it (deterrables), and those who reported that they were more than likely to offend in both the first instance and with no risk of being caught (incorrigibles). Acute conformists were influenced heavily by self- and social disapproval. Predictors were analyzed further by comparing incorrigible and deterrable offender categories. It is important to note that incorrigibles’ offending likelihood was not subject to certainty or severity estimates of the varied consequences. The effects of severity operated strongly on deterrable students. Certainty of being caught and self-disapproval had significant effects in the expected directions. This serves as one of the many sources of evidence for the interaction of rational choice variables with other variables and what should by now be an obvious point: There are patterns of influence for rational choice variables in subcomponents of the population that affect the general population differently.
Commitments are externally created considerations that are imported into a discrete decision; they would have little bearing on its outcome and would not shape immediate costs and benefits except for the fact that the people who harbor them assign them importance. These people’s behavior often seems irrational to people who are not aware of the outside obligations affecting their decisions. Imagine a rational choice theorist attempting to understand when a loan shark shoots the indebted by looking only at a particular transaction with a deadbeat. An investigator might assume that the loan shark will do what maximizes the chances of financial return. However, it is necessary to understand that the usurer has an image to uphold that allows the work to be done. Apart from the job and best strategy for sustaining a career, if the loan shark has promised that delinquent borrowers will be hurt, the general value of credibility for interpersonal exchange might lead to an unfortunate result. A promise is a promise.
Of course, commitments also can work to impede crime. Travis Hirschi asserts that his control theories of crime are extensions of classical theory and highly compatible with rational choice theories. In calculating the costs of crime, individuals consider their investments in conformity and institutions. Sally Simpson has conducted multiple studies that bear on rational choice and prospects for deterrence among people with differing opinions. In one such study (2002), she administered surveys to business students and corporate executives containing vignettes of white-collar decision-making contexts and possible criminal responses. Estimates of personal benefit predicted intentions to offend, as did risk perceptions. Respondents who saw opportunity for career advancement and thrills also were more likely to choose crime than others. Scores on an ethical reasoning scale; shame; and the possibility of informal sanctions from family, friends, and business associates affected criminal intention. The threat of being fired or corrected by superiors decreased intent, and being ordered to commit crime increased intent. Most relevant for understanding the place of commitment is that for highly moral “good citizens,” neither threat of sanctions nor other variables made much difference. Respondents who scored low on personal morality (low commitment to a moral code) were another matter; they were deterred by threat. Evidence for similar interaction between morality (self-disapproval, capacity for shame) and perceived opportunity has been reported by many other researchers.
Perspectives that imagine crime to be the outcome of a deliberative calculation have limitations. They sometimes contain an uncomplicated view of the rational man as homo economicus. It is clear that the strengths of classical criminology and rational choice are not found in their sophisticated depiction of the intricacies and diverse workings of human cognition and psychology. The mind and meaning are not where the core of tradition suggests that investigators look for answers about the occurrence and distribution of crime. Moreover, the fact that crime is often a stupid mistake leads many scholars to incorrectly and intuitively believe that rational choice perspectives miss the mark on the basis of the colloquial use of the word rational as a synonym for prudent, careful, or cautious. No reasonable rational choice or classical camp scholar has ever contended, however, that deliberating criminals choose their courses of action carefully. All scholars recognize that decisions and options can be constrained and that most daily and significant decisions are not made with ledgers in hand. In fact, recent research in neuropsychology and the decision-making sciences suggests that human decision making is aided, for instance, by the individual being in an optimal state of emotional arousal—that the arousal state is not too “hot” so as to make rash decisions but not so “cold” as to be unmoved by potential consequences (see Damasio, 1994). Similarly, emotional processing of information has been demonstrated to aid decision making by allowing heuristic “shortcuts” in the decision process. However, no perfect knowledge, lightning-fast calculation, or any of the other caricatures of economic theory are required to make efficient sense of crime with economic logic and methods (Becker, 1968).
Even rational choice theories, which typically add complexity not found in traditional classical models, sometimes are criticized for being too general. However, rational choice theory is best seen as a “framework, a rubric or a family of theories” that serves to “organize findings, link theoretical statements and logically guide theory constriction” (Hechter & Kanazawa, 1997, p. 194). In criminology, attempts to dismantle or criticize the general perspective rather than specific hypotheses derived from it might be particularly futile, because rational-choice theorists acknowledge that they support the perspective for its sensitizing principles and because it suggests variables that one ought to examine. Scholars who adhere to even purist, or thin, versions of rational choice and classical depictions of crime are not blinded to the way things really are, or to the complexities of crime and cognition, inasmuch as they have clear notions about where to begin: with a focus on the content and process of individuals’ decisions to engage in criminal behavior as well as the belief that cost–benefit analyses occur on the part of the offender.
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