Rational Choice Theory

2. The Theory

As implied by its title, rational choice theory presumes that criminal behavior, like legal behavior, is not determined by biological, psychological, or environmental factors acting on the person, compelling him or her to commit crimes (Cornish & Clarke, 1986; Kubrin et al., 2009). RCT argues that people voluntarily, willfully choose to commit criminal acts such as burglary, car theft, and assault just like they willfully choose to do other things, such as work in a grocery store, go to college, or use recreational drugs. In this theory, then, criminal acts are the product of choice, which means that people make decisions about whether to commit crimes. Viewed as the product of human choice, RCT (and deterrence theory) gives human beings what is called in the criminology field agency (McCarthy, 2002). People with agency act as if they have free choice or free will over which courses of action they can take—they act as agents on their own behalf. The other side of agency might be thought of as determinism—people behave in a particular way not because they want to or choose to do so but because some cause has acted on them to compel them to behave in a certain manner. An example of a more deterministic theory might be some forms of biological theories of crime, such as the theory that violent behavior is caused by an extra male, orY, chromosome. In the XYY theory of violent offending, males unfortunate enough to be given an extra Y chromosome at birth are at greater risk of violent behavior than males with a more common XY complement.

Rational Choice TheoryRCT believes that crime is due to people making choices to commit crimes (Nagin, 2007). If this is the case, why do some people commit crime only some of the time? In other words, on what basis is the choice made to commit crime (and, by implication, non-crime)? The answer is that, in deciding whether to commit crime, people are guided by their consideration of the costs and benefits of criminal behavior and the costs and benefits of alternative, noncriminal behavior. Put most simply, criminal activity comes with both costs and benefits (which are discussed momentarily), and the theory presumes that when people are thinking about committing a crime, they consider the related costs and benefits (McCarthy, 2002). However, there are costs and benefits of not committing crime, and theory presumes that, before making a decision, people consider the costs and benefits of non-crime as well. Consider the following simple example. If I have a need for money that I need to satisfy, there are (let’s assume for simplicity’s sake) two ways I can behave to satisfy that need. One way to get the money that I think I need is to sell drugs. This involves a deliberate decision to sell drugs to get the money I need, and before I decide to do that, I consider the costs and benefits of selling drugs. A second way that I can get the money that I think I need is to get a job in a factory, or driving a taxi, or working at a construction site. This second line of behavior will get me what I need—money—but also involves various costs and benefits. According to RCT, before deciding which of the two behaviors to undertake, I consider the costs and benefits of both the criminal and noncriminal activity. Notice here that RCT is broader and more general than deterrence theory because whereas deterrence theory argues that criminal behavior is affected by the costs of crime (formal and informal punishments), RCT argues that the decision of whether to commit crime is affected by the expected rewards of crime and the costs and benefits of non-crime as well. There are a few unanswered questions here, such as: What are the costs and benefits of crime and non-crime that have to be considered? What ultimately determines my decision?

In thinking about selling drugs to obtain the money that I need, we now understand that I consider the costs and benefits of drug dealing. The costs of drug dealing would include such things as the risk of getting arrested and convicted for selling drugs and the legal penalty that may befall me if I get convicted, such as jail time or a fine. It would include the cost of personal harm to me should I go to jail. I would have to consider how easy it would be to sell drugs again if I went to jail and were released back into the community and how easy it would be to get a legitimate job once I started drug dealing and was arrested. Other costs would be the personal danger I would face in selling drugs, such as getting robbed, beaten up, or shot by disgruntled buyers or another dealer. Still other costs would include the possible shame and embarrassment I would feel if the people close to me found out that I was a drug dealer. Finally, there are other personal costs of drug dealing, such as the financial uncertainties involved (Where do I find a consistent supply of drugs? How much do I charge?), the poor working hours and conditions, and the lack of any formal benefits for drug dealing (i.e., no pension plan, no paid vacations). In addition to these costs, however, I would consider the various benefits of drug selling. These benefits could include the possibility of making a lot of money but working a limited number of hours; the ability to sample my own wares; and being able to secure the things that might accompany successful drug dealing, such as a fancy car, beautiful companions, and a fast lifestyle. There may even be prestige and status in some circles for being known as a drug dealer. In the RCT model of criminal behavior, the would-be offender would weigh these various costs and benefits, and the weights attached to each would vary from person to person (i.e., what is costly or beneficial to one person might not be for another).

In addition to the costs and benefits of drug dealing, before deciding which course of action to take I would also consider the costs and benefits of non-crime. In this example, assume that the alternative course of action is to drive a taxi in order to make money. There are many benefits to consider in taxi driving to secure money. First, if I am paid a wage in addition to a percentage of my fares and tips, it will be a fairly steady source of income. My taxi company may offer benefits such as a retirement plan, medical coverage, and some paid vacation time. Driving a taxi is also honest work. I may get to meet interesting people, and the job does not involve heavy lifting. There are, however, competing possible costs of driving a taxi that I would have to consider. For example, taxi drivers are dependent on taxi riders, so I might not make a lot of money on a slow shift when I have few customers. It is likely that I would have to work some nights and be away from my family, and going back and forth from day shift to night shift will be physically and mentally grueling. Taxi drivers do not usually make a lot of money, many people fail to tip, and some even run away without paying their fare, leaving the cost to the driver to cover. In addition, a taxi driver is an easy target to rob or even shoot and rob. Finally, although it is honest work, driving a taxi does not carry a lot of prestige in most social circles. In the RCT model of criminal behavior, before deciding what to do, the person would also weigh the costs and benefits of the noncriminal alternative course of action (McCarthy, 2002; Piliavin, Thornton, Gartner, & Matsueda, 1986).

There are costs and benefits to be weighed for criminal conduct and costs and benefits to be weighed for noncriminal conduct. The decision to commit crime or not is based on a rational weighing of both of these types of costs and benefits. RCT does not presume that people are perfectly rational in their decision making; that is, they do take shortcuts in collecting information about the costs and benefits of each course of action, they may be misinformed about the various costs and benefits, and they may not properly weigh each factor—but they possess sufficient rationality to engage in some information collection, and they do consider and weigh the consequences of their actions before deciding what action to take. People may be poor decision makers, in other words, but they are decision makers nonetheless, and if they do not possess perfect rationality, they do at least possess minimal or limited rationality.

It is also important to understand that these costs and benefits that are weighed by decision makers are the costs and benefits as they are perceived or understood by the person doing the decision making. In other words, the costs and benefits are subjective rather than objective (Paternoster, Saltzman, Waldo, & Chiricos, 1983). For example, one of the costs associated with dealing drugs is the possibility that one could get arrested by the police. There is a certain objective likelihood or chance that people are arrested for drug dealing in the area where I want to deal drugs. For example, if last year there were 100 drug deals in the area where I want to sell drugs, and if only one of the dealers was arrested at some point during the year, then the objective probability that I would be arrested would be 1 out of 100, or .01. Objectively speaking, this is a very low risk of arrest. However, chances are I would not know how many drug deals were going on last year, or exactly how many dealers were arrested, but maybe the word on the street and my own understanding of police competence puts my own estimate of the risk of arrest at .25. This is my subjective risk of getting arrested, and it is this subjective risk, not the objective one, that guides my conduct. The same issue of objective versus subjective would hold for the benefits as well. Most important to me are the subjective benefits I think I would acquire by driving a taxi, not what the objective benefits might be. The important thing to remember is that the various costs and benefits that are considered by the would-be offender are the subjective ones.

So, a person contemplating crime rationally considers the costs and benefits of both crime and noncriminal courses of action. These are weighed much like fruit is weighed on a scale in a grocery store. If the benefits of crime (when considered against the costs of crime) outweigh the benefits of non-crime (when considered against the costs of non-crime), then for a potential offender there is more utility in committing crime than in not committing crime. Utility is the combined outcome of the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action that will satisfy a need (in this case, the need for money), and it might be helpful to think of utility as the profit involved in crime and non-crime. So, if I see more overall utility in crime than non-crime I will be more likely to commit a criminal act to satisfy my need; if I see more utility in non-crime, then that is what I would most likely select. Because I am presumed to be a rational person, the prediction is that I will select the behavior with the greatest utility for me. Moreover, because the utility is the gain I expect to get on the basis of my own subjective judgment, RCT is often thought as a subjective expected utility theory of offending (Clarke & Cornish, 1985). In a nutshell, RCT can be described with the following simple equation:

Offend If: Utility of Crime > Utility of Non-Crime

It may be that the utility of crime is greater because the expected benefits are greater than non-crime or because the expected costs are less than non-crime. Whichever the case, the rational choice model of offending presumes that, on average, the behavior promising the greater utility will be chosen. It might be helpful at this point to discuss a concrete example of what an RCT theory of offending might have to say about particular kinds of criminal conduct. Let’s start with marijuana use.

Strain theory might account for marijuana use by saying that a person who was under great stress or strain because something bad happened to him or her (failed a test, broke up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or moved to a new school) and that this stress provided sufficient motivation for that person to use marijuana (Agnew, 1992). Differential association theory might explain marijuana use by noting that some people associate in groups in which marijuana use is practiced and where the norms of the group view marijuana use tolerantly (Matsueda, 1988). This group provides fertile ground for the learning of the technique of using the drug, the opportunity to learn how to interpret its effects, and to receive social support and reinforcement rather than condemnation for using it. According to RCT, however, in deciding whether to use marijuana on any given occasion the would-be user would consider and weigh the following factors:

A. Costs of Crime

A person who is considering marijuana use might consider the following questions when evaluating the potential cost of the crime:

  • Certainty of formal sanctions: What is the chance that I would get caught by the police or someone in authority? Could I minimize this risk in some way?
  • Severity of formal sanctions: If I did get caught by the police or another authority, would something very bad happen to me? Would I have a police record; would I go to jail?
  • Informal certainty of punishment: What is the chance that I would get caught not by someone in authority but someone whose opinion of me matters and who would disapprove of me using marijuana, such as a parent, teacher, coach, or employer? Would that person be disappointed in me?
  • Informal severity of punishment: If that person did catch me, would something very bad happen to me as a result?
  • Guilt or shame: If I were to get caught by anyone, would I think less highly of myself?
  • If I were to use marijuana, would I have to admit drug use on any job applications, or if I wanted to join the armed services? Would marijuana use disqualify me?
  • Could I successfully fake my way in school, at home, at work, if I got high?
  • How much does the marijuana cost?

B. Benefits of Crime

  • How much pleasure or fun would it be to get high?
  • How much would my friends respect me and think I was cool if I got high?
  • Would my self-esteem increase if I demonstrated to myself that I could get high and hide it from others?

C. Costs of Non-Crime

  • Would my friends ridicule me if I just walked away and did not get high?
  • Would I not have as much fun if I were not high?

D. Benefits of Non-Crime

  • Would I be able to do my homework, perform better at my job, if I were straight and not high?
  • Would I feel better about myself if I were able to resist this temptation?
  • Could I use the money that I would have spent on the marijuana on a better cause?

If, after weighing all of these considerations, the would be offender determined that the utility of using marijuana was greater than the utility of not using it, then he or she would be at greater risk of marijuana use.