Self-Control Theory

C. The “Development” of Low Self-Control

Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) contended that, ultimately, one does not develop low self-control. Instead, possessing low self-control is more a matter of having not developed self-control as a young child. Accordingly, low self-control manifests itself in the “absence of nurturance, discipline, or training” (p. 95). Stated otherwise, “The causes of low self-control are negative rather than positive; self-control is unlikely in the absence of effort, intended or unintended, to create it” (p. 95). Here Gottfredson and Hirschi are stating that if a person does not develop self-control, the default is low self-control. Acquiring self-control is a matter of socialization.

Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) placed the onus of this socialization primarily on parents. A child with low self-control then becomes the product of “ineffective childrearing” (p. 97). Specifically, the authors stated that consistent supervision and discipline, coupled with affection, results in the proper development of self-control. They noted that several things may impede this socialization process, however, including parents who may not feel affection toward their children or who lack the time or energy to devote to supervision, and parents who may not see problem behavior for what it is and who may, having witnessed and processed their child’s inappropriate behavior, not be so inclined to punish them. Such situations may become exacerbated when parents engage in behavior indicative of low self-control themselves.

It is important to note that this perspective differs in a fundamental way from Hirschi’s (1969) social bond theory. Specifically, Hirschi’s original social bond theory held that, once social bonds were formed between a child and parents, parents would then be able to indirectly control the behavior of their children. Put differently, once the bond was established—even if the child was quite young—the child would voluntarily control his behavior even in the absence of a parent watching over him, because he would feel the psychological presence of the parental guardian, who would be disappointed in the child should he misbehave. For Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990), however, the faith in indirect control was abandoned in favor of a model that emphasized the importance of direct parental control; that is, parents should not expect children to control themselves (at least not prior to the formation of self-control, which should happen by around age 8–10), but instead it is only through direct supervision and control that self-control may be instilled. In the end, Gottfredson and Hirschi conceived of self-control as a singly unitary factor that is formed early in life through effective parenting, fixed by a relatively young age, stable over the life course, and solely responsible for explaining the variation in criminal/ deviant behavior across individuals.

D. Self-Control and Crime

Classical theories of crime did not assume that some individuals were more predisposed to criminal conduct than others; instead, such theories assumed that it was one’s location in the social system, or whether one understood the nature of sanctions, that determined whether one was a criminal. Criminals and non-criminals alike had one purpose in mind: to enhance their exposure to pleasure and to reduce their exposure to pain. Therefore, classical criminologists sought to combat crime by increasing painful sanctions through the legal and moral systems of the time. Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990, p. 85) therefore referred to classical theories as theories of social control.

On the other hand, positivism did assume differential propensities to commit crime; that is, that criminals and non-criminals were different in some fundamental respect (be it biological, psychological, economic, or sociological). Early positivists, however, denied the impact of social location, assuming that criminal propensities remained stable regardless of social location. Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) answer to these opposing views was to join them under the category of low self-control; that is, they explained crimes in terms of both individual propensity (positivist theory) and in terms of the desire to enhance pleasure while reducing pain (classical theory). One’s ability to avoid criminal acts (keeping in mind Gottfredson and Hirschi’s expansive definition of crime) and analogous behaviors are dependent on his or her level of self-control in light of environmental contingencies. Crime, and its analogous behavior, is simply a manifestation of low self-control.

To illustrate, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990, pp. 89–90) sifted through a number of attitudes, behaviors, and characteristics of individuals with low self-control and demonstrated how each relates to crime. First, low self-control is associated with having a present orientation, as opposed to being able to defer gratification. Accordingly, individuals with low self-control are likely to commit crimes because such acts amount to the immediate gratification of one’s desires. Similarly, those with low self-control tend to lack diligence, tenacity, and persistence. Again, crime events are easy and represent a simple means of gratifying one’s appetites while not requiring pesky or inconvenient long-term planning or commitment. Low self-control is also associated with adventurous, physical activities, making such individuals especially prone to crime. Individuals with low self-control generally have shaky marriages, unstable friendships, and spotty job histories. This demonstrates an inability on their part to form long-term plans, which is equally amenable to the short-term nature of crime and analogous conduct. Similarly, the fact that individuals with low self-control are more likely to engage in such analogous behavior indicates a preference for immediate pleasure and an inability to defer gratification. Finally, low self-control is associated with minimal tolerance thresholds and a self-centered, indifferent attitude, which allows criminals to remove themselves from the harm they do to their victims and gives them the justifications for committing crimes (i.e., in an effort to remove frustrations and pains).

Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) noted that the criminological literature demonstrates that, for the most part, offenders are generalists, not specialists (Blumstein, Cohen, Roth, & Visher, 1986; see also Sullivan, McGloin, Pratt, & Piquero, 2006). This makes sense in light of the concept of low self-control: Individuals with low self-control are unable to focus to the extent required to specialize in one area, even within crime. This is evident in the fact that individuals with low self-control do not maintain marriages, jobs, and other activities that require commitment and diligence. Furthermore, Gottfredson and Hirschi considered crime to be simple and easy in general, begging the question as to why one would specialize when it is easier and quicker to generalize in one’s offending preferences. Finally, that offenders generalize is evidenced by Gottfredson and Hirschi’s contention that individuals with low self-control engage in criminal, risky, and antisocial behavior because opportunities to engage in such behavior are constantly present. Furthermore, according to Gottfredson and Hirschi, low self-control predates and predicts all other correlates of criminal behavior. Moreover, Gottfredson and Hirschi maintained that their theory can robustly predict criminal behavior across gender, time, sex, and ethnicity. They ultimately claimed that their theory succeeds in revitalizing the classical assertion that pleasure and harm avoidance guide human behavior, including criminal behavior.