Neutralization theory: Gresham Sykes and David Matza

One of my favorite social psychologists, Elliot Aronson, in his book, The Social Animal, raises the question of whether humans are a rational animal (making the choices that maximize rewards and minimize costs, in relation to their current state of knowledge) or whether they are a rationalizing animal (doing things for all kinds of crazy and not-so-crazy reasons and justifying themselves after the fact). Sykes and Matza support the second option. They developed their original theory in an effort to explain delinquent behavior.

In the first place, they argued, many delinquent youth do not hold unconventional values, or if they do, those values are layered onto conventional ones. They too grow up learning thou shalt not steal, covet, kill, etc. The idea that delinquent youth inhabit a subculture where those values just don't apply is not something they find supported in their research. Their contention is that delinquent youth are almost as likely as their more conformist counterparts to feel guilt and shame over behaviors that violate the basic norms of our society, BUT THEY FIND A WAY TO JUSTIFY IT. They and their friends develop rationalizations (another word would be justifications) that neutralize their potential guilt BEFORE THEY BREAK THE LAW. What's more, those rationalizations fall into several typical patterns, which Sykes and Matza call "techniques of neutralization."

1. Denial of responsibility. It wasn't really my choice. "I succumbed to peer pressure," or "she made me so angry," or "I was drinking or high on drugs," or perhaps a combination of these factors. Forces beyond my control, or mostly so, made me do it.

2. Denial of injury. There's no real victim, and therefore there's no harm. "Women like strong men; they just play at being victims." (Scully and Marolla, in a study of violent rapists, find them justifying their behavior by rationalizations that fit well with the Sykes and Matza categories.) "That store is insured." "I was just borrowing the car."

3. Denial of the victim. "Women who hitch-hike are asking for it." "xxxxxx (some ethnic or racial or religious group) deserve whatever they get."

4. Condemnation of the condemners. "The police break the laws." "Judges are corrupt." "How do you think the rich got their money?"

5. Appeal to higher loyalties. There's a hierarchy of moral values, such that some are more important than others. If you're familiar with Ain't No Making It, by Jay MacLeod, you'll remember the Hallway Hangers, who say they put loyalty to their group above just about anything else.

Clearly we all do some rationalizing when we've done behaviors that we know are wrong, but the really critical part of the Sykes and Matza argument is that these rationalizations come first and are a key factor in making deviant behavior possible. What's more, what makes their theory very sociological, is the idea that these ideas are developed in groups, or transmitted from older boys to younger boys. They may in fact be viewed as one of the key products of differential association, and Sykes and Matza say their theory is consistent with Sutherland's theory--in effect, giving it more substance and detail.