Strain Theories

IV. Factors That Increase the Likelihood of Criminal Coping

There are a variety of ways to cope with strains, most of them legal. Juveniles who are having trouble with schoolwork, for example, might devote more time to their homework; seek help from teachers, parents, or friends; convince themselves that school is not that important; exercise or listen to music in an effort to feel better; and so on. Individuals who experience strains typically cope using legal strategies such as these. Given this fact, it is critical for strain theories to explain why some individuals choose crime as a means of coping. According to GST, criminal coping is most likely to be enacted by individuals with certain characteristics:

  • Possess poor coping skills and resources. Some individuals lack the skills and resources to legally cope on their own. They have poor problem-solving and social skills, including skills such as the ability to negotiate with others. They possess traits such as negative emotionality and low constraint. Individuals with these traits are easily upset and tend to act without thinking. Furthermore, they have limited financial resources. Money is a great coping resource, because it allows one to purchase needed goods and services (including the services of people such as tutors, counselors, and lawyers).
  • Have low levels of conventional social support. Not only are some individuals unable to legally cope on their own but also they lack others to whom they can turn for assistance. This assistance might include advice on how to cope, emotional support, financial assistance, and direct assistance in coping. For example, children who are having trouble in school might seek assistance from their parents, who may comfort them, give them advice on how to study, and arrange special assistance from their teachers. Individuals who are unemployed may obtain assistance from their friends, who may help them find work and loan them money.
  • Are low in social control. Some individuals also have little to lose if they engage in criminal coping. They are unlikely to be punished if they engage in crime, because their family members, neighbors, and others do not closely supervise them and rarely impose sanctions when they do misbehave. They have little to lose if they are punished, because they do not care what conventional others, such as parents and teachers, think of them. Also, they are doing poorly in school, do not plan on going to college, are unemployed or work in “bad” jobs, and do not have a good reputation in the community. They also do not view crime as wrong or immoral.
  • Associate with criminal others. Other criminals model criminal coping, frequently encourage individuals to engage in crime, and often reinforce crime when it occurs. Imagine, for example, a gang member who is insulted by someone. This gang member is more likely to respond with violence because that is how other members of the gang respond to similar provocations; other gang members directly encourage a violent response, and they reinforce violent responses—most often with social approval. Furthermore, they may punish nonviolent responses. For example, gang members who do not respond to provocations with violence may be called cowards (or worse) and regularly harassed.
  • Hold beliefs favorable to criminal coping. Some individuals believe that crime is an excusable, justifiable, or even desirable response to certain strains. For example, they believe that violence is an appropriate response to a wide range of provocation (Anderson, 1999). They learn these beliefs from others, especially criminal others. Also, as indicated previously, they sometimes develop these beliefs after experiencing chronic or long-term strains (e.g., being bullied over a long period).
  • Are in situations where the costs of criminal coping are low and the benefits high. In particular, strained individuals are more likely to turn to crime when they encounter attractive targets for crime in the absence of capable guardians. An individual with a desperate need for money, for example, is more likely to engage in theft if he or she comes across a valuable item that is unguarded.

In sum, individuals are most likely to engage in criminal coping when they (a) are unable to engage in legal coping, (b) have little to lose by criminal coping, (c) are disposed to criminal coping because of the people with whom they associate and the beliefs they hold, and (d) encounter attractive opportunities for crime.

Researchers have examined the extent to which certain of these factors influence the likelihood of criminal coping. The results of their studies have been mixed (Agnew, 2006). Some have found that individuals with these factors are more likely to cope with strains through crime; for example, some research indicates that criminal coping is more likely among individuals who are high in negative emotionality or who associate with delinquent peers. Other studies, however, have not found this.

Criminologists are now trying to make sense of these mixed results (Agnew, 2006; Mazerolle & Maahs, 2000). One possibility for the conflicting results has to do with the fact that researchers often examine the preceding factors in isolation from one another. However, it may be that individuals engage in criminal coping only when their standing on all or most of the preceding factors is favorable to such coping. Mazerolle and Maahs (2000) explored this possibility. They examined three factors: (1) low constraint, (2) association with criminal peers, and (3) beliefs favorable to criminal coping. Mazerolle and Maahs found that when all three of these factors were favorable to criminal coping, highly strained individuals were quite likely to engage in crime.