Self-Control Theory

IV. Critiques of Self-Control Theory

Scholars have taken issue with a number of tenets of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) theory, from its seeming inability to explain white-collar offending to problems with how researchers should go about measuring self-control. Others have called attention to the potential problem of rectifying the explanation of crime—that such behavior is due to a single latent trait that is stable over time—with the well-known age–crime curve (the observed empirical pattern in which adults tend to reduce their rate of criminal behavior following a peak in their late teens). Although these debates are certainly important in their own right and will most definitely continue into the future, Gottfredson and Hirschi face their most serious challenges with regard to the following: (a) the influence of adult social bonds in the criminal desistance process, (b) the enduring importance of deviant peer influences on one’s criminal behavior, and (c) the sources of self-control.

A. Adult Social Bonds and Life Course Criminology

Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) were clear in their assertion that changes in one’s social circumstances from childhood, to adolescence, to early adulthood and beyond are irrelevant to the explanation of crime. In particular, according to Gottfredson and Hirschi, the age–crime curve cannot be predicted by traditional sociological variables, such as marriage and work. Instead, the authors claimed that the attachments to employment and spouses are merely consequences of self-control; that is, people with higher levels of self-control are more likely to self-select into healthier relationships with work and family. That such factors are, in turn, associated with reductions in criminal behavior therefore comes as no surprise to Gottfredson and Hirschi. Indeed, one would expect relationships to exist between an adult’s bonds to social conventions (e.g., marriage and work) and criminal behavior, because both emerge from the common source of self-control.

Recent developments in life course theory and research, however, paint a much different picture. To be sure, the work conducted by Sampson and Laub (1993; see also Laub & Sampson, 2003) has taken levels of self-control into account in an assessment of the role that adult social bonds play in the criminal desistance process. Specifically, their study of men’s criminal behavior up to age 70 revealed that, independent of one’s level of self-control, attachment and involvement with prosocial activities through employment and marriage significantly reduce levels of offending. Thus, although it is certainly true that individuals with lower levels of self-control find it more difficult to form the kinds of social relationships necessary for a stable work and family life, those who do nonetheless do a better job of controlling whatever criminal impulses they were previously in the habit of letting loose. These findings are particularly challenging of Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) because they indicate that the explanation of criminal behavior over the life course clearly requires more than the specification of a single variable that is assumed to be fixed within individuals by age 10.

B. The Enduring Importance of Deviant Peers

In extending the importance of understanding the context in which people (both children and adults) live their lives, scholars have also taken issue with Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) rather bold assertion that deviant peer influences—a staple of criminology for years—are also irrelevant to the explanation of crime. Like the influence of adult social bonds, Gottfredson and Hirschi argued that individuals with low self-control will seek each other out because of their common interests in engaging in risky behaviors that provide immediate gratification. Thus, the concept of the deviant peer group, which has been a mainstay in the social learning tradition in criminology for at least six decades, is merely the consequence of self-control, according to Gottfredson and Hirschi.

The problem again, however, comes when the empirical evidence is examined. In particular, Pratt and Cullen’s (2000) meta-analysis of the self-control literature found that the relationship between deviant peers and one’s own criminal behavior was every bit as strong as that between self-control and crime. These peer effects stood up even in studies that included statistical controls for self-control. Thus, Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) claim that peer influences should not matter once self-control is taken into account is inconsistent with the social scientific evidence. Instead, the research indicates that both self-control and deviant peer influences are important to the explanation of criminal behavior.