Strain Theories

III. Why Strains Increase the Likelihood of Crime

Strains are said to increase the likelihood of crime for several reasons. Most notably, they lead to negative emotions such as anger, frustration, depression, and fear. These emotions create pressure for corrective action; that is, strained individuals feel bad and want to do something about it. Crime is one possible response. As indicated earlier in this research paper, crime may be a means for reducing or escaping from strains, seeking revenge against the source of strain or related targets, or alleviating negative emotions (through illicit drug use). Anger occupies a special place in GST, because it energizes individuals for action, reduces inhibitions, and creates a strong desire for revenge.

Several attempts have attempted to determine whether strains lead to negative emotions and whether these emotions, in turn, lead to crime. Most studies have focused on the emotion of anger, and they tend to find that strains increase anger and that anger explains part of the effect of strains on crime—especially violent crime (Agnew, 2006). For example, Jang and Johnson (2003) asked individuals to indicate the strains or personal problems they had experienced. Many such strains were listed, including different types of financial problems, family problems, and criminal victimizations. Jang and Johnson found that individuals who experienced more strains were more likely to report feeling angry and that this anger had a large effect on crime.

A few studies also suggest that emotions such as depression, frustration, and fear may sometimes explain the effect of strains on crime (see Agnew, 2006). Recently, researchers have suggested that certain strains may be more likely to lead to some emotions than others. For example, strains that involve unjust treatment by others may be especially likely to lead to anger. Also, strains that one cannot escape from may lead to depression. Furthermore, certain emotions may be more likely to lead to some crimes than others. As suggested earlier, anger may be especially conducive to violence. Depression, however, may be more conducive to drug use. Researchers are now examining these ideas.

Strains may also lead to crime because they reduce one’s level of social control. Strains often involve negative treatment by people such as parents, teachers, spouses, and employers. Such negative treatment can reduce the individual’s emotional bond to these conventional others. It can also reduce the individual’s investment in conventional society, particularly if the negative treatment involves such things as low grades or the termination of employment. Furthermore, negative treatment can reduce the direct control exercised over individuals (i.e., the extent to which conventional others monitor the individual’s behavior and sanction rule violations). This may occur if strains such as child abuse cause individuals to retreat from conventional others. Individuals who are low in these types of control are more likely to engage in crime, because they have less to lose by doing so.

Furthermore, strains may foster the social learning of crime; that is, strains may lead individuals to associate with others who reinforce crime, model crime, and teach beliefs favorable to crime. As Cohen (1955) and Cloward and Ohlin (1960) have suggested, strained individuals may associate with other criminals in an effort to cope with their strains. For example, abused or neglected juveniles may join gangs in an effort to find acceptance and support. Individuals who are threatened by others may join gangs for protection. Also, individuals who are subject to those strains conducive to crime may develop beliefs favorable to crime. For example, individuals who are regularly bullied by others may come to believe that violence is a justifiable, or at least excusable, way to cope. Individuals who are chronically unemployed may come to believe that theft is sometimes justifiable or excusable.

Finally, individuals who experience strains over a long period may develop personality traits conducive to crime, including traits such as negative emotionality. Individuals high in negative emotionality are easily upset and become very angry when upset. The continued experience of strains reduces their ability to cope in a legal manner. As a consequence, new strains are more likely to overwhelm them and make them very upset. Not surprisingly, such people are then more likely to cope through crime.

Several studies have found support for these arguments; that is, strains do tend to reduce social control, foster the social learning of crime, and contribute to traits such as negative emotionality (see Agnew, 2006; Paternoster & Mazerolle, 1994). Strains, then, may increase the likelihood of crime for several reasons, not simply through their effect on negative emotions.