Rational Choice Theory

Rational choice theory emphasizes the role of enlightened self-interest in individual decision-making. In many ways, this is a pre-sociological theory, deriving from behaviorism in psychology and the homo economicus model in economics. People are viewed as adding up the benefits and costs of various courses of action. Early academic sociologists, like Durkheim in France, were concerned to show the ways in which important areas of human behavior depart from these rational assumptions. Rational choice theory had a revival in sociology in the early 1960s, under the heading of exchange theory, and by the end of the decade was having a renewed influence in criminology, first as control theory and later as routine activities theory.

I. Classic deterrence theory. In the late 18th century, Cesare Beccaria published an essay called "On Crimes and Punishments" based on the Enlightenment understanding of human nature (which also influenced the early economists in Scotland). Punishments, said Beccaria, should be just severe enough to offset the utility to be obtained by committing a crime. Swiftness and certainty of punishment are essential; extreme severity is actually counterproductive.

II. Control theory. If people make their decisions based on their understanding of the rewards and costs of different courses of action, what else makes a difference besides punishments? Control theorists like Travis Hirschi emphasize that the cost of deviant behavior depends in essential ways on what you have to lose, or what Hirschi calls your "stake in conformity," and the most important part of that stake in conformity is what Hirschi calls the social bond. The social bond, in turn, has four dimensions:

A. Attachments: Ties of love and affection between yourself and other people who will be hurt if your deviance becomes known, or if you are punished by the criminal justice system.

B. Commitments. How much time and effort have you invested in society's basic institutions, particularly in terms of educational qualifications and job experience?

C. Involvement. How much of your time is tied up in socially approved activities? I sometimes give the example of night students I have had in class who are spouses and parents, hold full-time jobs, and are pursuing a degree. Someone who is that "involved" hardly has time to get in trouble.

D. Beliefs. Hirschi views this as the least significant of the four dimensions (while students who have written papers for me about why they are not criminals always put at the head of their list the good values their parents taught them). Hirschi argues that while we all share many of the same moral beliefs, some of us hold them more strongly. He also points out that we are all familiar with guilt, which happens when we act against our beliefs. If the other dimensions of the social bond are weak, beliefs in themselves are probably not enough to prevent our deviance.

There are at least two questionable assumptions in this theory, at least if we regard it as a total explanation of deviant behavior. First, it applies primarily to behavior in which someone is thinking about consequences, and quite a bit of deviant behavior seems more impulsive and even irrational. Second, the attachment dimension, as Hirschi himself acknowledges, won't work if your strong attachments are to people are themselves deviant.

III. Routine activities theory. As with control theory, the focus is less the criminal justice system than the informal systems of social control that grow out of our everyday relationships with other people. The rewards of crime are treated as self-evident; as long as you don't get caught, it's an easier route to a wide variety of pleasures. What accounts for long-term differences in crime rates is not a difference in criminal motivations but a difference in social structures that increase the range of suitable targets for crime or decrease the likely presence of suitable guardians (not just police, but anyone who might be in a position to prevent or report your wrong-doing). Theorists like Marcus Felson, Crime and Everyday Life, find a source of soaring crime rates in contemporary society in the development of what Felson calls "the divergent city." Unlike 19th century cities, in which people lived and worked in close proximity, the modern city is characterized by patterns in which parts of the extended city-suburban complex are nearly empty(at least of adults) by day and other parts are nearly empty by night. Felson calculates the territory to be covered by the average police officer in a megalopolis like Los Angeles(3000 locations per day) and concludes that the chance of being apprehended in the act of crime by a police officer is nearly negligible.

Other social trends also contribute to the increased crime rate. As mothers have moved into the paid work force, teenagers find themselves without supervision in the after-school hours. As urban high schools become larger, adolescent behavior is less and less exposed to the the intervention of teachers and administrators who know the students well. At the same time, a more materially affluent society offers more and more "targets," for example, electronic items that are very valuable in relation to their size and weight.

The routine activities theorists recommend a whole array of changes to reduce crime, most of them falling either under the category of "target hardening" or of increasing the guardians. The recent school starting time changes in the Twin Cities are a good example of the latter. If it's true that a large percentage of adolescent crime takes place in the late afternoon hours, when school is finished but parents have not yet arrived home from jobs, a later school day should make a significant dent in adolescent crime. Smaller schools will also make a difference, according to this theory. In fact, whatever creates more community and reduces the settings in which anonymous people pass each other at a distance increases the presence of informal guardians of law and order.