Self-Control Theory

C. Sources of Self-Control

Although the link between self-control and crime/deviance has been consistently demonstrated empirically, what is less clear at this point is how self-control is established within individuals. As stated earlier, the primary explanation regarding the “cause” of self-control according to Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) involves a parenting thesis. In short, Gottfredson and Hirschi contended that self-control will develop in children through effective parenting, whereby parents who monitor their kids’ behavior, recognize deviant behavior when it happens, and punish such behavior consistently will produce in their children the internal control mechanisms necessary for resisting the temptations that criminal and deviant behavior provide. Support for this proposition is certainly present (Hay, 2001; McGloin, Pratt, & Maahs, 2004; Perrone, Sullivan, Pratt, & Margaryan, 2004); nevertheless, empirical evidence has emerged indicating that the processes that establish individuals’ levels of self-control are more complex than those specified by Gottfredson and Hirschi. This problem is beginning to emerge as perhaps the most serious challenge to the validity of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s theory, and research related to this question comes from multiple fronts.

First, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) downplayed the possibility that low self-control has a genetic or biological component. For example, following their analysis of adoption studies, they argued that this research provides “strong evidence that the inheritance of criminality is minimal. . . . we conclude that the ‘genetic effect’ . . . is near zero” (p. 60). They also noted that “obviously, we do not suggest that people are born criminals, inherit a gene from criminality, or anything of that sort. In fact, we explicitly deny such notions” (p. 96). Gottfredson and Hirschi nevertheless raised the possibility that “individual differences may have an impact on the prospects for effective socialization (or adequate control)” (p. 96), yet they quickly countered that such differences would be important only if they resulted in problematic responses from parenting, once again echoing the importance of parental efficacy in the development of self-control.

A number of criminologists, however, fundamentally disagree with this position and have instead adopted a more interdisciplinary (as opposed to strictly sociological) view of the sources of self-control—one that recognizes the intellectual contributions of psychology and biology to the understanding of human behavior (see, e.g., Pratt, Cullen, Blevins, Daigle, & Unnever, 2002; Pratt, McGloin, & Fearn, 2006). Accordingly, despite the evidence of a parenting–self-control link, these scholars have noted a potential model misspecification problem with this line of research. In particular, much of this work has failed to consider potential biological and neuropsychological sources of self-control independent of (and in conjunction with) parental sources.

To that end, research has begun to emerge that examines these alternative sources of low self-control (Pratt, 2009).As such, two primary conclusions can be reached from this body of work. First, indicators of biological predisposition (e.g., attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; indicators of neuropsychological deficits, such as low birth weight and low cognitive ability) are significantly related to levels of self-control independent of measures of effective parenting (McGloin, Pratt, & Piquero, 2006; Unnever, Cullen, & Pratt, 2003; Walsh, 2002). Second, controls for such biological and neuropsychological factors tend to partially mediate— and in some cases fully mediate—the effect of parenting on the development of self-control (see, e. g., Wright & Beaver, 2005). Taken together, this research indicates that certain biological and neuropsychological risk factors need to be considered in the formation of self-control.

Another line of research into the sources of self-control highlights the interrelationships among community context, parenting, and the development of self-control. Specifically, to the extent that communities act “as a complex system of friendship and kinship networks and formal and informal associational ties rooted in family life and ongoing socialization processes” (Kasarda & Janowitz, 1974, p. 329), it seems particularly important to focus on how different types of neighborhoods influence parenting behavior and, in turn, the development of self-control in children. Researchers have begun to do just that. The first study in this tradition was Pratt, Turner, and Piquero’s (2004) analysis of data drawn from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which found that conditions of neighborhood deprivation significantly influenced measures of parental monitoring and socialization. Furthermore, such neighborhood conditions directly affected the development of self-control in children independent of the measures of parental efficacy. A subsequent study by Hay, Fortson, Hollist, Altheimer, and Schaible (2006) went a step further and found a significant interaction between neighborhood conditions and parental efficacy on the development of self-control. This work clearly indicates that community context is yet another factor that must be seriously considered by scholars with regard to the development of self-control in children.

Furthermore, although attributing the main sources of self-control to parental socialization, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) also acknowledged that school has certain advantages to socializing children. First, schools, and teachers in particular, have the ability to monitor several students at one time. Second, because of their interest in maintaining a healthy educational environment, teachers are in a good position to recognize antisocial behavior when children are exhibiting it. Third, many schools and teachers are given the authority to maintain order and to implement effective discipline. Therefore, Gottfredson and Hirschi suggested that “like the family, the school in theory has the authority and the means to punish lapses in self-control” (p. 105).Also, as Denise Gottfredson (2001) observed, “Schools have the potential to teach self-control and to engage informal social controls to hold youthful behavior in check” (p. 48).

Empirical work has recently emerged that has tested these various propositions. Turner, Piquero, and Pratt’s (2005) analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth data revealed two conclusions along these lines. First, indicators of school socialization (which closely resembled typical parenting measures associated with the monitoring and supervision of children) were significantly related to the development of self-control, independent of parental efficacy. Second, the effects of school socialization on youth’s levels of self-control varied according to (i.e., interacted with) levels of parental efficacy as well as conditions of neighborhood deprivation. In particular, the effect of school socialization on children’s development of self-control was strongest when parental efficacy was low and when neighborhood conditions were criminogenic. These results therefore highlight the ability of social institutions—in this case, the school—to pick up the slack for instilling self-control in children when other mechanisms, such as parents and the community, break down.