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.