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Suppose you drove by yourself one evening to meet some friends at a bar that is about 10 miles from your house. You have been drinking throughout the evening and by the time you’re ready to leave, you suspect your blood alcohol level might exceed the legal limit. Suppose you have to be at work early the next morning. You can either drive home or find some other way home, but if you leave your car, you will have to return early the next morning to pick it up. (Pogarsky 2004, p. 119)
Hypothetical scenarios like the one above are commonly used to study criminal decision making. In the typical study, participants are asked to envision themselves experiencing the situation described in the scenario and then to self-report how likely they would be to respond in an illegal manner (e.g., drive while drunk). They also rate various costs and benefits that might result from engaging in the offense. Using these data, researchers attempt to reconstruct the decision to offend by modeling participants’ self-reported criminal intentions as a function of the perceived costs and benefits, along with other individual and situational factors.
This research paper discusses the contributions of the hypothetical scenario method (HSM) to the study of criminal decision making. The rise of the HSM within the deterrence/rational choice literature is first presented, followed by a summary of the key findings from this literature. Finally, emerging areas of research and future challenges for HSM scholars are highlighted.
The Rise Of The HSM
The deterrence and rational choice perspectives are the dominant theoretical frameworks in which to study criminal decision making. Both theories assert that human beings freely chose to engage in (or abstain from) crime after assessing the consequences of the act. Both theories also contend that differences in the qualities of these consequences – such as their certainty, swiftness, and severity – will lead to different decisional outcomes. However, the two theories diverge with respect to the types of consequences that influence criminal decision making. In its purest form, deterrence theory focuses on the crime-inhibiting effects of formal legal sanctions, such as arrest and incarceration (Nagin 1978). In contrast, the rational choice perspective recognizes that informal sanctions as well as the benefits of crime operate in conjunction with formal sanctions to shape the decision to offend (Grasmick and Bursik 1990; Piliavin et al. 1986).
Although the philosophical underpinnings of deterrence and rational choice can be traced back to the eighteenth century, empirical research on these theories did not appear until the 1960s (Paternoster 2010). These initial tests typically compared objective measures of punishment (such as incarceration rates) to aggregate rates of crime, and in general, the results showed weak/mixed support for the notion of deterrence. Scholars subsequently argued that instead of relying on objective measures of punishment, test of criminal decision making should focus on individuals’ perceptions of punishment, regardless of how accurate those perceptions may be. From a methodological standpoint, this shift from objective to perceptual measures meant that researchers would now need to survey individuals and have them self-report their involvement in crime as well as their perceptions of the legal consequences of their behavior. Initially, this vein of research relied heavily on cross-sectional surveys; however, given the inherent temporal ordering problems in cross-sectional data, many scholars turned to longitudinal studies to study criminal decision making.
Notwithstanding their methodological advantages, longitudinal studies of deterrence and rational choice theory are unable to capture participants’ perceptions of consequences at the exact moment the decision to offend (or abstain) is made. Instead, these studies capture self-reported perceived consequences at Time 1 and then use these perceptions to predict participants’ subsequent involvement in crime occurring prior to the Time 2 testing period (which may be as much as 1–2 years in the future). With such a large time interval, the opportunity for perceptions to change is ever present. Although evidence suggests there is some similarity in the perceived consequences at Time 1 and Time 2, one cannot be fully certain that these perceptions remained stable throughout the duration of the study interval – including the moment when participants came face to face with a real-world criminal opportunity (see Piliavin et al. 1986, pp. 115–116).
In order to better measure the perceived consequences of crime at the moment the decision to offend/abstain occurs, some researchers began focusing on whether participants believed they would engage in a particular criminal act, as opposed to focusing on whether participants had actually committed the act (e.g., Grasmick and Bursik 1990). As participants then contemplated their penchant toward the offense, researchers could query them on the perceived consequences of offending. While this technique seemingly allows researchers to study criminal decision making at the moment it unfolds, it does not provide participants with adequate contextual information about the potential criminal opportunity – information that participants may need in order to accurately assess the consequences of the offense. As a result, participants’ perceived consequences in these studies may be unreliable (Klepper and Nagin 1989).
In response, researchers turned to the hypothetical scenario method. Through the use of structured vignettes, the HSM allows researchers to present participants with an opportunity to offend – albeit an imaginary one. The vignettes, which are usually no more than a paragraph in length, contain important contextual information about the criminal opportunity (e.g., you are drunk at a bar 10 miles from your house, it’s late, you need your car early the next day). Through the use of these vignettes, researchers can present participants with virtually any type of criminal/imprudent opportunity, such as sexual assault (Bouffard 2002b), physical aggression (Exum 2002), drunk driving (Piquero and Pogarsky 2002), corporate price fixing (Piquero et al. 2005), academic cheating (Tibbetts 1999), sports doping (Strelan and Boeckmann 2006), and even police misconduct (Pogarsky and Piquero 2004).
Unlike the typical cross-sectional or longitudinal studies of decision making, the measure of offending in HSM studies is not the participants’ actual involvement in crime; instead, it is the participants’ self-reported intentions to offend.
Researchers acknowledge that such self-reported intentions are not measures of real-world behavior (Bachman et al. 1992; Paternoster and Simpson 1996) nor should they be interpreted as “synonymous with actual performance” (Tibbetts and Herz 1996, p. 203). At the same time, researchers also contend that measures of criminal intentions should be strongly correlated with actual offending (Tibbetts 1999; Piquero and Tibbetts 1996) and can be interpreted as indicators of participants’ predisposition or proneness to crime (Paternoster and Simpson 1996; Pogarsky 2004).
In sum, the HSM is wholly distinct in its approach to studying the decision-making processes proposed by deterrence and rational choice theories. Unlike research using objective measures of punishment, the HSM captures individuals’ subjective perceptions of the consequences of crime. Unlike traditional cross-sectional studies, the HSM does not have inherent temporal ordering problems. Unlike traditional longitudinal studies, the HSM allows researchers to measure participants’ perceived consequences at the moment they contemplate a criminal opportunity. Unlike studies that simply ask about participants’ intentions to commit some kind of generically defined crime, the HSM provides participants with a specific narrative for the criminal opportunity that, in turn, should make participants’ responses more reliable. As a result of all these features, the HSM stands as one of the most versatile and methodologically sophisticated techniques in which to study the decision to offend.
Key Findings From The HSM Literature
The Role Of Perceived Punishments
Much has been written about the empirical status of deterrence theory (e.g., Nagin 1978; Paternoster 2010; Pratt et al. 2008), especially as it pertains to the certainty and severity of formal legal sanctions. In general, these reviews find that the deterrent effect of sanction certainty – though weak – is greater than the effect for sanction severity. However, these reviews generally provide a summary of the deterrence literature as a whole and therefore cannot isolate the findings from only those studies using the HSM.
Pratt et al.’s (2008) meta-analysis is the exception. It disaggregates effect size estimates for punishment certainty and severity across studies of differing research methodologies, including the HSM. Interestingly, the findings from these HSM studies largely mirror those of other, more global reviews of the deterrence literature. The certainty effect for formal legal sanctions was found to be weak (mean effect size = -0.14) but nevertheless stronger than the effect for sanction severity (mean effect size = -0.05). The threat of nonlegal sanctions, such as the loss of respect or employment, was found to exert a deterrent effect that was identical to that of the certainty of formal sanctions (mean effect size = -0.14). (Note that the severity effect for these nonlegal sanctions was not estimated in the study.) Collectively, these meta-analytic findings suggest that punishment certainty and severity play a minor role in the decision to offend.
Far less attention has been devoted to studying the impact of the swiftness of punishment. In one of the few HSM studies to examine celerity, Nagin and Pogarsky (2001) used a factorial survey to manipulate the length of time in which the punishment for drunk driving was expected to occur. Across a variety of multivariate models and after controlling for a host of factors such as the certainty and severity of punishment, celerity did not exert a significant deterrent effect on self-reported intentions to drive drunk. In a subsequent HSM study examining police misconduct, Pogarsky and Piquero (2004) manipulated the swiftness of punishment an officer might experience from failing to charge an off-duty officer with drunk driving and from performing an unauthorized background check on a new neighbor. This time, the results for celerity were found to vary by the type of misconduct. The swiftness of punishment had a significant deterrent effect on failing to report a fellow officer for drunk driving but had no significant effect on performing an unauthorized background check. Pogarsky and Piquero speculate that these differences may be partly attributed to differences in the perceived gravity of the offenses, suggesting severity and swiftness may interact to produce an overall deterrent effect. Be that as it may, the findings from these two HSM studies tentatively suggest that the swiftness of punishment – at least, by itself – has a minimal impact on criminal decision making.
The Role Of Perceived Benefits
Many HSM studies, especially those with a rational choice orientation, have examined the influence of the perceived benefits of crime – with “benefits” defined to include some form of physical and/or psychological reward. Across a host of HSM studies examining a variety of offenses, this research generally shows that the potential benefits of crime are a critical component in the decision to offend. For example, HSM research finds that the benefits from crime exert a positive and significant effect on self-reported intentions to engage in computer software piracy (Higgins 2007), drunk driving (Bouffard 2007; Nagin and Paternoster 1994), physical assault (Carmichael and Piquero 2004; Exum 2002), sexual assault (Loewenstein et al. 1997; Nagin and Paternoster 1994), theft/shoplifting (Piquero and Tibbetts 1996; Tibbetts and Herz 1996), corporate offending (Paternoster and Simpson 1996; Piquero et al. 2005), plagiarism (Ogilvie and Stewart 2010), and test cheating (Sitren and Applegate 2007; Tibbetts 1999). Furthermore, the benefits of crime have been shown to be even more influential to the decision to offend than are formal and informal criminal sanctions (Nagin and Paternoster 1993).
This is not to say that perceived benefits are universally predictive of offending. In fact, some HSM studies find certain benefits of crime (and under certain conditions) to be unrelated to offending intentions and/or to contribute little predictive power in multivariate models of criminal decision making (e.g., Bouffard 2002b; Elis and Simpson 1995; Ogilvie and Stewart 2010; Paternoster and Simpson 1996; Piquero et al. 2005; Simpson and Piquero 2002). Nevertheless, and as a whole, the empirical evidence from the HSM literature overwhelmingly indicates that the perceived payoffs from crime promote the decision to offend.
The Role Of Consequence Salience
Bouffard (2002b) has argued that models of criminal decision making should not only consider the certainty and severity of perceived consequences but also the salience of those consequences. Conceptually, salience is distinct from certainty, severity, and swiftness in that it captures “how much weight a given factor carried in the actual decision-making process” (p. 123; see also Bouffard 2007). In other words, salience reflects how important the consequence is to the potential offender when contemplating the criminal opportunity. Additionally, salience is purported to be a dynamic quality that is influenced by state-level factors such as emotional arousal. As a result, individuals in emotionally charged states may identify consequences that are highly certain and highly severe, but in the “heat of the moment,” individuals simply do not view these consequences as terribly important. Similarly, under certain emotional states, the benefits of a criminal act – no matter how unlikely or how inconsequential – may nevertheless carry a lot of weight in the decision to offend.
To examine whether salience is a unique concept, Bouffard (2007) presented participants with a hypothetical drunk driving scenario and asked them to report the certainty, severity, and importance of the consequences associated with the offense. Factor analysis revealed mixed results, with the salience measures for perceived costs indeed loading on a unique factor, but the salience measures for perceived benefits loading on a factor with perceived certainty. To determine whether salience is a dynamic element of decision making, Bouffard (2002b) randomly assigned male participants to view either sexually explicit or neutral images prior to reading a sexual assault scenario. Participants then rated the certainty, severity, and salience of their perceived consequences. Here again, the findings were mixed. Sexual arousal appeared to minimize the salience of the negative consequences of sexual aggression, but it did not enhance the importance of the perceived benefits.
Arguably, the most important question regarding consequence salience is whether it influences an individual’s decision to offend. The HSM research examining this question is scarce and somewhat inconsistent. For example, Bouffard (2002a) reports a series of bivariate correlations between participants’ intentions to drive drunk and the salience of their perceived consequences of the act. These correlations were found to be in the expected direction, statistically significant, and weak to moderate in magnitude. However, when salience measures were correlated with intentions to engage in sexually coercion, the correlations were generally weaker with only a few statistically distinguishable from zero. Furthermore, in a series of multivariate analyses of the sexual coercion data, Bouffard (2002b) found the salience of perceived benefits – but not of the perceived costs – to impact self-reported intention scores. As a whole, the extant research on salience suggests that it is a dimension of participants’ perceived consequences that appears to have some level of influence on criminal decision making. More research in this area is needed, however.
The Role Of Morality
Many HSM studies have examined the role of morality on criminal decision making. In this research, the perceived immorality of the act is treated as a type of internal sanction, with high immorality ratings predicted to be inversely related with offending intentions. Note that while immorality is similar in nature to the informal sanctions of guilt and shame, it is typically regarded as a distinct construct that is generally rated in terms of its severity (i.e., “how morally wrong would it be to.. .”), but not its certainty.
Bachman and colleagues (1992) were among the first to use the HSM to examine the influence of morality on criminal decision making. After controlling for perceptions of formal and informal sanctions, participants’ ratings of immorality exerted a significant inhibitory effect on their self-reported intentions to engage in sexual assault. This inhibitory effect of morality has been found in other HSM studies as well, including those examining physical assault, drunk driving, corporate offending, shoplifting/ theft, sports doping, and academic cheating (Bachman et al. 1992; Carmichael and Piquero 2004; Elis and Simpson 1995; Higgins 2007; Loewenstein et al. 1997; Nagin and Paternoster 1994; Paternoster and Simpson 1996; Piquero et al. 2005; Piquero and Tibbetts 1996; Simpson and Piquero 2002; Strelan and Boeckmann 2006; Tibbetts and Herz 1996).
Morality is sometimes viewed as the gatekeeper of the hedonic calculus. That is, before the perceived costs or benefits of a criminal act can be incorporated into the decision to offend, the act itself must first be a part of the person’s repertoire of morally acceptable behavior. If it is not, then the individual is fully constrained by his morality and – as a result – any threats of punishment or enticements from benefits are irrelevant. If such a gatekeeper conceptualization is accurate, then the perceived consequences of crime should have their greatest effects among those with weak moral inhibitions and have their weakest effects among those with strong moral inhibitions (Bachman et al. 1992). Although only a few HSM studies have specifically sought to examine this interaction between morality and the role of perceived consequences, there is evidence to support the gatekeeper function of morality.
For example, Bachman et al. (1992) found that among participants who rated a sexual assault scenario to be more morally offensive, perceptions of formal punishments did not significantly alter the intention to offend. Yet, among participants who found the sexual assault to be less morally offensive, formal sanctions exerted a significant deterrent effect. Similar results have also been found among business executives and MBA students who read corporate crime scenarios (Paternoster and Simpson 1996). Although more research is needed in this area, the HSM studies that are available indicate that crime is a nonmarket area among individuals with strong moral fortitude. In other words, among the righteous, the decision to act is less utilitarian and more deontological.
The Role Of Self-Control
Conceived as time-stable personality trait, self-control is purported to exert a direct effect on criminal intentions (Piquero and Tibbetts 1996). That is, because individuals with low self-control are impulsive risk takers, they should be less able to abstain from a criminal opportunity when it presents itself. However, self-control is also thought to exert an indirect effect on offending intentions by altering the individuals’ perceptions of consequences of crime. That is, given that individuals with low self-control are present oriented, they should be less able to perceive the long-term negative consequences of their criminal actions, thereby resulting in greater criminal proclivities. There is some HSM research to support both of these claims.
For example, Nagin and Paternoster (1993) found evidence for a direct effect of self-control on offending intentions. After controlling for such factors as prior criminal behavior, the characteristics of the criminal opportunity, and the perceived costs/benefits of the act, a one standard deviation change in low self-control scores resulted in a 39 % increase in theft intentions, a 17 % increase in drunk driving intentions, and an 83 % increase in sexual assault intentions (see also Nagin and Paternoster 1994). In support of an indirect effect, Piquero and Tibbetts (1996) found that low self-control accentuated the perceived benefits and minimized the perceived costs associated with shoplifting and drunk driving – effects that, in turn, significantly influenced participants’ intentions to offend (see also Carmichael and Piquero 2004; Higgins 2007).
However, most HSM studies that have included a measure of self-control have found either null effects or effects that are not stable across different models of decision making. For example, neither Tibbetts and Myers (1999) nor Sitren and Applegate (2007) found evidence that self-control levels directly influence college students’ intentions to cheat on an exam. Similarly, Simpson and Piquero (2002) found no evidence to suggest that self-control levels predict corporate offending among business executives and MBA students. Furthermore, others have shown that the effects of self-control operate inconsistently across the sex of the participant (Tibbetts and Herz 1996), the operational definition of self-control (Piquero and Bouffard 2007), the dependent variable (Loewenstein et al. 1997; Pogarsky and Piquero 2004), and the participants’ anticipated mood when completing the hypothetical act (Carmichael and Piquero 2004). Thus, while there is some support for the notion that self-control levels directly and indirectly impact criminal decision making, the overarching findings from the HSM literature raise doubt as to whether these effects are, in fact, noteworthy and robust.
The Role Of Altered States Of Mind
Tests of deterrence and rational choice theory have generally ignored the offender’s emotional, physiological, and psychopharmacological state during the criminal decision-making process. This omission is striking given the proposed theoretical relationships between altered states of mind and cognition (see Exum 2002; Loewenstein et al. 1997). Fortunately, the HSM is easily capable of incorporating the study of altered states on decision making, and a few such studies have taken advantage of this.
For example, in their study on the effects of sexual arousal on sexually aggressive decision making, Loewenstein et al. (1997) randomly assigned male participants to view photographs of nude women or of fully clothed fashion models prior to reading a hypothetical date rape scenario. Compared to the non-aroused participants, those who were aroused endorsed greater sexually aggressive intentions. However, few differences were found across arousal conditions with respect to participants’ perceived consequences of sexual aggression. In a similar experiment, Bouffard (2002b) found that self-reported arousal levels were positively related to offending intentions but inconsistently related to the perceived consequences. In a subsequent and more detailed analysis, Bouffard (2011) concluded there are in fact differential deterrent effects across arousal states, with the perceived costs of crime exerting their greatest deterrent effects among those who reported lower arousal levels. Collectively, these studies suggest that arousal increases sexually aggressive tendencies – not by altering participants’ perceptions of the consequences – but by somehow moderating the underlying relationship between perceived consequences and the intention to offend.
Also using an experimental design, Exum (2002) examined the effect of alcohol intoxication and anger on participants’ responses to a physical assault scenario. Participants were randomly assigned to drink either a nonalcoholic or alcoholic beverage, the latter designed to elevate blood alcohol levels to approximately 0.08 %. Half of the participants in each group were then confronted by the researcher in such a way to induce anger, whereas the remaining half was not. Participants then read a physical assault scenario and responded to a battery of rational choice questions. Results indicated that alcohol and anger interacted to increase one of two measures of aggressive intentions; however, consistent with other research (Loewenstein et al. 1997; Bouffard 2011), there was no support for the idea that the altered states of mind affected participants’ perceptions of costs and benefits. At the same time, exploratory analyses revealed that the collection of consequences used to model decision making were not equally predictive of intentions across the experimental conditions. This suggests that – while the perceptions of costs and benefits were largely the same across all participants – those in the intoxication and anger conditions used these perceptions differently in their decision-making processes. These findings further suggest that altered states of mind moderate the decision to offend.
Carmichael and Piquero (2004) also examined the effect of perceived anger on physical assault. Anger was not experimentally manipulated in this study; instead, participants were asked to read a bar fight scenario and then self-report how angry they thought they would feel in that particular situation. Controlling for the perceived costs and benefits of the assault, anger scores were positively and significantly related to aggressive intentions. Furthermore, the perceived negative consequences of assault exerted significant deterrent effects among the low anger group but not in the high anger group, again suggesting that anger moderates the decision-making process. Collectively, this small body of HSM research serves as a reminder that decision making does not occur in a vacuum and that emotional, visceral, and pharmacological forces shape the decision to offend.
Conclusions From The HSM Literature
The HSM research on criminal decision making finds that the certainty of punishment (both formal and informal) has a weak deterrent effect and the severity of punishment has an even weaker effect. Although rarely examined, the swiftness of punishment also seems to carry little weight in the decision to offend. In stark contrast, the perceived benefits from crime appear to be a key element in criminal decision making. However, some criminal acts appear to be so morally objectionable to participants that they will simply refrain from the act regardless of the benefits. Similarly, dynamic factors such as one’s state of mind may alter the salience of these perceived consequences as well as moderate the rational process thought to underlie criminal decision making. Trait-level characteristics such as low self-control may not only make it more difficult for individuals to self-regulate their behavior in the presence of a criminal opportunity, but they may also change the way individuals assess the risks and benefits associated with that opportunity (but note, however, that the self-control effects may not be very robust). As a result of these various stateand trait-level factors, criminal decisions that appear to be completely “irrational” to the outside observer be seen as wholly rational from within the perspective of the actor.
Emerging Areas Of Research And Challenges
Given that the HSM is a relatively new technique within the study of criminal decision making, one could consider most any line of HSM research to be an “emerging” area. With that being said, below are four areas of criminological HSM research that deserve special attention. These four issues have great potential to advance (or challenge) much of what criminologists claim to know about the decision to offend.
Studying Deterrence Among Deterrables
Although there is reason to believe that individuals vary in their responsivity to the perceived consequences of crime (see Bachman et al. 1992; Carmichael and Piquero 2004; Paternoster and Simpson 1996), tests of deterrence theory typically ignore these individual susceptibilities and instead examine the properties of punishment across an aggregate sample of participants. Pogarsky (2002) challenged this approach, arguing that deterrence theory should be tested only among those who are truly deterrable, as opposed to those who are either so bound to conformity or so wedded to deviance that extralegal sanctions have no impact on their behavior. Using the HSM and participants’ self-reported intentions to drive drunk, Pogarsky (2002) developed a method of identifying the subsample of “deterrables” within a group of study participants. He then examined the impact of formal sanctions among the deterrables and, for comparison, among the full sample.
Results from the full sample largely confirm the findings from past studies of deterrence theory – namely, that certainty has a greater effect than severity. However, in the analysis of only the deterrables, severity had a greater effect than certainty. Thus, the conventional wisdom that “certainty is more important that severity” appears to be challenged when studying only those people who are, in fact, swayed by sanction threats. Future HSM research should build on Pogarsky’s method of disaggregating samples into deterrable and non-deterrable groups and continue to examine the role of formal and informal sanctions among those most responsive to punishments. The findings have important implications not only for criminological theory but for public policy.
The Positive Punishment Effect
Contrary to the notion that sanctions deter future behavior, some studies find a positive relationship between punishment and subsequent offending (e.g., Piquero and Pogarsky 2002). Pogarsky and Piquero (2003) outlined two possible explanations for this positive punishment effect: selection and resetting. The selection explanation contends that offenders with stronger criminal propensities are more likely to come to the attention of the police (i.e., get punished) and also be more likely to recidivate. In contrast, the resetting explanation argues that offenders who experience a stroke of bad luck (e.g., get punished) are more apt to take elevated risks in the future (e.g., recidivating) because they believe their bad luck is not likely to return anytime soon. In other words, shortly after experiencing punishment, the offender’s perceived certainty of sanctioning is “reset” to a nominal value.
To examine the possibility of resetting, Pogarsky and Piquero (2003) administered a hypothetical drunk driving scenario to a sample of undergraduates and asked them a series of questions about their perceptions of punishment and prior punishment experiences. Support for the resetting explanation was mixed and varied by the participant’s level of risk for offending. That is, consistent with the notion of resetting, low-risk offenders who had previously been punished reported lower certainty estimates than those low-risk offenders who had not been previously punished. However, no evidence of resetting was found among high-risk offenders, with all high-risk offenders perceiving comparable sanctioning risks regardless of past punishment experiences. While more research is needed in this area to better understand the nature of positive punishment effects, future studies should also seek to integrate research on “deterrables” with that on resetting. Although it is too early to tell, it may be the case that those who are most responsive to sanction threats (the deterrables) are also the very same “low-risk” offenders who tend to reset their perceived threat levels following punishment.
Researcher-Generated Versus Self-Generated Consequences
When potential offenders encounter a criminal opportunity in the real world, they freely deduce their own set of costs and benefits to contemplate. However, in the typical HSM study, participants are asked to contemplate a predetermined, uniform set of consequences generated by researchers. Such a reliance on researcher-generated consequences inevitably forces an artificial structure on the otherwise organic decision to offend. Bouffard, Exum, and Collins (2010) examined the impact of this artificial structure by presenting participants with a hypothetical shoplifting scenario and then randomly assigning them to either (1) assess a standard battery of researcher-generated consequences or (2) assess a set of costs and benefits that the participants themselves self-generated. By comparing and contrasting the two sets of consequence ratings, Bouffard and colleagues could begin to examine the extent to which individuals’ decision-making processes were being influenced by the study’s methodology.
The findings show that when participants are asked to assess the benefits of crime that were identified by the researcher, they are more likely to regard the consequences as possible outcomes (Bouffard et al., 2010). Illustratively, when participants were specifically asked to consider the “thrill” derived from the hypothetical theft, 64 % reported the act would afford some degree of fun/ excitement. In contrast, when participants were asked to self-identify all the “good things” that might happen to them if they committed the hypothetical act, only 10 % indicated it would be fun/exciting. Similarly, participants were more likely to see the costs of shoplifting as potential outcomes when these costs were identified by the researcher versus when they were self-generated. A noteworthy example is the cost of deviating from one’s morality. Whereas 99 % of participants who received researcher-generated consequences reported that shoplifting felt immoral, only 3 % of participants who self-generated consequences reported feelings of immorality.
Recall that past research using the HSM finds moral inhibitions to be influential considerations in the decision to offend (e.g., Bachman et al. 1992; Loewenstein et al. 1997; Paternoster and Simpson 1996). The findings from Bouffard et al.’s (2010) study suggest that the morality effect reported in this literature may, in part, be a methodological artifact and largely attributed to the use of researcher-generated consequences. However, future research is needed to better understand how the hypothetical scenario methodology (in general) and the manner in which costs and benefits are presented (in particular) impact the findings from HSM studies.
The Accuracy Of Self-Reported Intentions To Offend
Recall that the typical dependent variable in HSM studies is not participants’ actual offending behavior but is instead their self-reported intentions to offend. According to the theory of reasoned action, such intentions can be viewed as valid estimates of real-world behavior because “.. .barring unforeseen events, a person will usually act in accordance with his or her intention” (Ajzen and Fishbein 1980, p. 5). Consistent with this notion, research generally finds the correlation between participants’ intentions to act and their corresponding behavior to be positive and significant (Ajzen and Fishbein 1980; Armitage and Conner 2001). However, this correlation is largely based on the study of conventional behaviors such as voting, watching television, or going to church. Only a handful of studies have examined the intentions/behavior relationship for deviant behaviors, and while the results from these studies are promising on the surface, a closer examination reveals potential methodological and/or measurement problems that may weaken the interpretation of these intentions/behavior correlations (Exum et al. 2011; cf. Pogarsky 2004).
To further examine the predictive accuracy of self-reported intentions to offend, Exum et al. (2011) gave undergraduate students a copy of a fictitious newspaper article describing an ongoing music piracy operation on campus. Students were led to believe the article was real and had recently appeared in the local paper. The article described a graduate student who was reportedly emailing illegal copies of digital music files for free to anyone with a university email account. Also included in the article were the graduate student’s name and email address. After reading the article, study participants were asked to self- report their likelihood of contacting the graduate student and requesting illegal files from him. In the following weeks, the graduate student – who was a research confederate – monitored his email account for any requests from participants. In this way, participants’ self-reported intentions to offend could be validated against their own requests for illegal music files.
Despite the variability in offending intentions, including a few participants who reported a 100 % chance of emailing the graduate student, no one in the study actually requested music files from the confederate. This suggests that self-reported criminal intentions (at least, as they apply to this form of music piracy) have a low false-negative rate but a high false-positive rate. Stated differently, all participants who reported little-to-no intentions of contacting the confederate abstained from the behavior, resulting in a false-negative rate of 0 %. However, all participants who reported strong-to-definitive intentions of contacting the confederate abstained as well, resulting in a false-positive rate of 100 % (Exum et al. 2012). This suggests that when presented with a hypothetical offending scenario, participants may fall prey to a false sense of bravado and self-report strong intentions to offend, only later to cower at the real-world opportunity. Given that self-reported intentions to offend are an essential element of HSM studies of deterrence/rational choice, additional research is needed to examine the accuracy of these offending intentions (see also Pogarsky 2004). The implications of this line research have the potential to challenge most everything we know about the nature of criminal decision making.
More than 200 years ago, Jeremy Bentham (1970/1789) described the deliberative process in which all individuals are thought to engage as they contemplate a criminal act:
Sum up all the values of all the pleasures on one side, and those of all the pains on the other. The balance, if it be on the side of pleasure, will give the good tendency of the act upon the whole with the respect to the interest of that individual person.. .. (p. 40, emphasis in the original)
Two centuries later, criminologists continue to struggle with the best way to test these ideas. The biggest impediment appears to be obtaining a measure of participants’ perceived “pleasures” and “pains” at the moment participants decide to engage in or abstain from crime. The hypothetical scenario method is arguably the best technique to date for doing this, thereby making it uniquely situated to study criminal decision making at the moment it unfolds. Today, much of what we now know about the decision to offend – e.g., the negligible effect of punishment, the lure of perceived benefits, and the different calculative processes across individual-and state-level factors – has been either discovered through or confirmed by HSM research.
As scholars seek to build upon our current understanding of criminal decision making, they will inevitably rely on the HSM to some degree. The technique’s versatility, its ease of administration, and its ability to accommodate experimental manipulations make it an ideal platform for designing and implementing research studies. At the same time, the HSM’s greatest strength – i.e., its ability to get inside the “black box” of the mind and study decision making during the contemplation of a criminal opportunity – comes with a great weakness. The HSM can only allow researchers to model the decisions that underlie criminal intentions and not actual criminal behavior. As a result, the HSM can inform our understanding of real-world criminal decision making only to the extent that individuals’ self-reported intentions are predictive of their actual criminal conduct. Until the predictive accuracy of criminal intentions is more fully understood, the study of criminal decision making will benefit most from triangulating the findings from a host of studies that use a variety of research methodologies, including the HSM.
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