Classical Criminology

VIII. Conclusion

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.

Read more about Criminology.


  1. Beccaria, C. (1986). On crimes and punishments. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett. (Original work published 1764)
  2. Becker, G. (1968). Crime and punishment: An economic approach. Journal of Political Economy, 76, 169–217.
  3. Bouffard, J. A. (2007). Predicting differences in the perceived relevance of crime’s costs and benefits in a test of rational choice theory. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 51, 461–485.
  4. Cooter, R. D. (2000a.) Do good laws make good citizens? An economic analysis of internalized norms. Virginia Law Review, 86, 1577–1601.
  5. Cooter, R. D. (2000b.) Three effects of social norms on law: Expression, deterrence, and internalization. Oregon Law Review, 79, 1–22.
  6. Cornish, D. B. (Ed.). (1986). The reasoning criminal: Rational choice perspectives on offending. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  7. Dau-Schmidt, K. G. (1990). An economic analysis of the criminal law as a preference shaping policy. Duke Law Journal, 1, 1–38.
  8. Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason and the human brain. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
  9. Ehrlich, I. (1996). Crime, punishment and the market for offenses. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 10, 43–67.
  10. Fender, J. (1999). A general equilibrium model of crime and punishment. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 39, 437–453.
  11. Gottfredson, M., & Hirschi, T. (1990). A general theory of crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  12. Grasmick, H. G., & Bursik, R. J. (1990). Conscience, significant others, and rational choice: Extending the deterrence model. Law & Society Review, 24, 837–861.
  13. Hechter, M., & Kanazawa, S. (1997). Sociological rational choice theory. Annual Review of Sociology, 23, 191–214.
  14. Hirschi, T. (2004). Self-control and crime. In R. F. Baumeister & K. D.Vohls (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory and applications (pp. 537–552). New York: Guilford Press.
  15. Listokin, Y. (2002). Efficient time bars: A new rationale for the existence of statutes of limitations in criminal law. Journal of Legal Studies, 31, 99–118.
  16. Listokin, Y. (2007). Crime and (with a lag) punishment: Equitable sentencing and implications of discounting. American Criminal Law Review, 44, 115–145.
  17. Matsueda, R. L., Kreager, D. A., & Huizinga, D. (2006). Deterring delinquents: A rational model of theft and violence. American Sociological Review, 71, 95–122.
  18. McCarthy, B. (2002). The new economics of sociological criminology. Annual Review of Sociology, 28, 417–442.
  19. McCarthy, B., & Hagan, J. (2001). When crime pays: Capital, competence, and criminal success. Social Forces, 79, 1035–1060.
  20. Nagin, D. S., & Pogarsky, G. (2003). An experimental investigation of deterrence: Cheating, self-serving bias, and impulsivity. Criminology, 41, 501–527.
  21. Pezzin, L. E. (1995). Earnings prospects, matching effects, and the decision to terminate a criminal career. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 11, 29–50.
  22. Piquero, A. R., & Tibbetts, S. G. (Eds.). (2002). Rational choice and criminal behavior: Recent research and future challenges. New York: Routledge.
  23. Piquero, N. L., Exum, M. L., & Simpson, S. S. (2005). Integrating the desire-for-control and rational choice in a corporate crime context. Justice Quarterly, 22, 252–280.
  24. Pogarsky, G. (2002). Identifying deterrable offenders: Implications for deterrence research. Justice Quarterly, 19, 431–452.
  25. Pogarsky, G., Kim, K., & Paternoster, R. (2005). Perceptual change in the National Youth Survey: Lessons for deterrence theory and offender decision making. Justice Quarterly, 22, 1–29.
  26. Posner, R. (1998). Rational choice, behavioral economics, and the law. Stanford Law Review, 50, 1551–1575.
  27. Pratt, T. C., Cullen, F. T., Blevins, K. R., Daigle, L. E., & Madensen, T. D. (2006.) The empirical status of deterrence theory: A meta-analysis. In F. T. Cullen, J. P. Wright, & K. R. Blevins (Eds.), Advances in criminological theory (Vol. 15, pp. 367–396). Edison, NJ: Transaction.
  28. Simpson, S. S. (2002). Corporate crime, law and social control. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  29. Sullivan, R. F. (1973). The economics of crime: An introduction to the literature. Crime & Delinquency, 19, 138–149.
  30. Walters, G. D., & Contri, D. (1998). Outcome expectancies for gambling: Empirical modeling of a memory network in Federal prison inmates. Journal of Gambling Studies, 14, 173–191.
  31. Ward, D. A., Stafford, M. C., & Gray, L. N. (2006). Rational choice, deterrence, and theoretical integration. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 26, 571–585.
  32. Wright, B. R. E., Caspi, A., Moffitt, T. E., & Paternoster, R. (2004). Does the perceived risk of punishment deter criminally prone individuals? Rational choice, self-control, and crime. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 41, 180–213.