Self-Control Theory

A. The Context of the 1980s

Lilly, Cullen, and Ball (2007) declared that Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) theory has remained a robustly empirically supported criminological theory throughout the almost two decades since A General Theory of Crime was published. Lilly and colleagues ascribed such popularity to the theory’s parsimonious nature; the combative stance it takes against structural theories, which draws attention from the academy; and the fact that it is elegantly testable. The theory’s popularity can also be explained in light of the context in which it was developed: the 1980s, which witnessed a renewed interest in individual-level explanations of criminal behavior (Pratt & Cullen, 2005). This renewal coincided with a conservative takeover of criminal justice policy throughout the United States, owing much to the reaction/ response to the prior two decades of secularism, hedonism, and social welfare programs (Pratt, 2009). During the 1960s and 1970s, it was common within the university environment to question the status quo and social order. Race, class, and gender inequalities were increasingly being discussed and debated, and crime became linked to such inequalities, as well as to inequalities associated with legitimate social and economic opportunities. Crime was also explained in terms of the state’s response to criminals. It was during this time that labeling and Marxist theories were popular among criminologists (Lilly et al., 2007).

The ideological pendulum swung most forcefully at the beginning of the 1980s, with the election of Ronald Reagan and the institutionalization of the “silent majority’s” agenda. This movement was characterized by patriotism, hard work, religion, and the role of the individual in directing his or her affairs. This time was also characterized by a mistrust of secular culture and a lack of patience with social welfare programs and policies (Murray, 1984). In this environment, several conservative values-based criminological theories proliferated that emphasized choice and agency among individuals in the commission of criminal acts and that shifted the focus of the criminal justice system toward a punitive orientation. Furthermore, emphasis was placed on the role of families as agents of social control. It was in this context that Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) proclaimed that they “have for some time been unhappy with the ability of academic criminology to provide believable explanations of criminal behavior” (p. xiii).

B. The Nature of Low Self-Control

Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) defined self-control as “the tendency of people to avoid criminal acts whatever the circumstances in which they find themselves” (p. 87). Thus, low self-control can essentially be defined as a lack of that tendency. Individuals with low self-control are characterized as impulsive, insensitive, physical, “risk-taking, short-sighted, and nonverbal” (p. 91). In short, these are “factors affecting calculation of the consequence of one’s acts” (p. 95). Gottfredson and Hirschi further elaborated on the behavior and attitudes of individuals with low self-control, stating that such individuals have a here-and-now orientation; they lack diligence, tenacity, and persistence; and they are self-centered, indifferent, and insensitive. Furthermore, people who lack self-control tend to exhibit adventure-someness and are active and physical; they also generally have unstable families, friendships, and professional lives. Finally, individuals with low self-control can be characterized as having a minimal tolerance for frustration; they tend to respond to conflict physically rather than verbally; and they do not necessarily possess or value verbal, academic, cognitive, or even manual skills. Because of these characteristics, individuals with low self-control may not only be involved in crime, but they may also be involved in various other risky behaviors, such as smoking, doing drugs, and engaging in illicit sex. According to Gottfredson and Hirschi, low self-control is the stable construct that ties all of these characteristics, attitudes, and behaviors together. It is a construct that is recognizable in childhood, prior to the age of accountability, and is stable throughout the life course.