Definitions are one’s own orientations and attitudes toward a given behavior. These personal as opposed to peer and other group definitions (i.e., differential association) are influenced by an individual’s justifications, excuses, and attitudes that consider the commission of a particular act as being more right or wrong, good or bad, desirable or undesirable, justified or unjustified, appropriate or inappropriate. Akers considered these definitions to be expressed in two types: (1) general and (2) specific. General beliefs are one’s personal definitions that are based on religious, moral, and other conventional values. In comparison, specific beliefs are personal definitions that orient an individual either toward committing or away from participating in certain criminal or deviant acts. For example, an individual may believe that it is morally wrong to assault someone and choose not to partake in or condone this sort of violence. Yet, despite his belief toward violence, this same individual may not see any moral or legal wrong in smoking a little bit of marijuana here and there.
Akers also has discussed personal definitions as comprising either conventional beliefs or positive or neutralizing beliefs. Conventional beliefs are definitions that are negative or unfavorable toward committing criminal and deviant acts or favorable toward committing conforming behaviors. In contrast, positive or neutralizing beliefs are those that are supportive or favorable toward crime and deviance. A positive belief is a definition an individual holds that committing a criminal or deviant act is morally desirable or wholly permissible. For instance, if an individual believes that it is “cool” and wholly acceptable to get high on marijuana, then this is a positive belief favorable toward smoking marijuana. Not all who hold this attitude will necessarily indulge, but those who adhere to these definitions have a much higher probability of using marijuana than those who hold to conventional or negative definitions. A neutralizing belief also favors the commission of a criminal or deviant act, but this type of belief is influenced by an individual’s justifications or excuses for why a particular behavior is permissible. For instance, one may have an initially negative attitude toward smoking marijuana but through observation of using models and through associating with users come to accept it as not really bad, or not as harmful as using alcohol, or otherwise come to justify or excuse its use.
Akers’s conceptualization of neutralizing definitions incorporates notions of verbalizations, techniques of neutralization, and moral disengagement that are apparent in other behavioral and criminological literatures (see Bandura, 1990; Cressey, 1953; Sykes & Matza, 1957). Examples of these neutralizing definitions (i.e., justifications, rationalizations, etc.) include statements such as “I do not get paid enough, so I am going to take these office supplies”; “The restaurant makes enough money, so they can afford it if I want to give my friends some free drinks”; “I was under the influence of alcohol, so it is not my fault”; and “This individual deserves to get beat up because he is annoying.” These types of beliefs have both a cognitive and behavioral effect on an individual’s decision to engage in criminal or deviant behavior. Cognitively, these beliefs provide a readily accessible system of justifications that make an individual more likely to commit a criminal or deviant act. Behaviorally, they provide an internal discriminative stimulus that presents an individual with cues as to what kind of behavior is appropriate/justified in a particular situation. For example, if a minimum-wage employee who has been washing dishes full-time at the same restaurant for 5 years suddenly gets his or her hours reduced to part-time because the manager chose to hire another part-time dishwasher, then the long-time employee might decide to steal money from the register or steal food because she believes that she has been treated unjustly and “deserves” it.
Akers and Silverman (2004) went on to argue that some personal definitions are so intense and ingrained into an individual’s learned belief system, such as the radical ideologies of militant and/or terrorists groups, that these definitions alone exert a strong effect on an individual’s probability of committing a deviant or criminal act. Similarly, Anderson’s (1999) “code of the street” can serve as another example of a personal definition that is likely to have a significant role in motivating an individual to participate in crime or deviance. For example, if an urban inner-city youth is walking down the street and observes another youth (who resides in the same area) flaunting nice jewelry, then the urban juvenile might feel justified in “jumping” the kid and taking his jewelry because of the code of the street or the personal belief that “might makes right.” Despite these examples, Akers suggested that the majority of criminal and deviant acts are not motivated in this way; they are either weak conventional beliefs that offer little to no restraint for engaging in crime/deviance or they are positive or neutralizing beliefs that motivate an individual to commit the criminal/deviant act when faced with an opportunity or the right set of circumstances.