Social Control Theory

V. Belief

The role of beliefs in the causation of delinquency is a matter of considerable dispute. Some social scientists argue that they are of central importance. Others ignore them, suggesting that they are nothing more than words that reflect (and justify) past behavior but are in no way responsible for it. Control theory rejects the view that beliefs are positive causes of delinquency, that offenders are somehow living up to their beliefs when they commit delinquent acts. Control theory is, however, compatible with the view that some beliefs prevent delinquency while others allow it.

Perhaps the principal benefit of the study of beliefs is that they help us understand how the other bonds work to prevent delinquency. For example, responses to the statement “People who break the law are almost always caught and punished” are related to delinquency in the expected direction. Individuals who disagree are more likely to report delinquent acts. What can be said about the factual accuracy of this belief? Do delinquents know the truth while non-delinquents have been systematically misinformed? The answer appears to be that both delinquents and non-delinquents are correct, at least from their point of view. In the short term, “getting away with it” may well be the rule. In the long term, offenders are typically caught and, in various ways, punished. A short-term orientation reflects a lack of commitment and is therefore conducive to delinquency. A long-term orientation is indicative of commitment and prevents delinquency. All of this teaches two lessons: (1) Manipulating beliefs without changing the reality on which they are based is unlikely to reduce the level of delinquency, and (2) changing actual levels of law enforcement efficiency is unlikely to change the beliefs that allow and disallow criminal conduct.