"Do it now before they pass a law against it" (anonymous)

    The classical school of criminology founded by CESARE BECCARIA (1738-1794) was enormously influential, especially in the field of criminal justice policy, despite being neglected by criminologists for many years, particularly during much of the 20th century, until James Q. Wilson's 1975 book Thinking About Crime came to symbolize renewed interest in classical ideas and Roshier's (1989) book Controlling Crime came to symbolize the neoclassicist (postclassicist) movement.  To be sure, most criminologists (perhaps at least 60% or so) still embrace positivism, parts of it, or the idea that people are most frequently influenced by structural and/or external forces beyond their control (radical/conflict criminology presents the fullest extension of this determinism).  But by contrast, classical criminology -- from which choice theories are derived -- holds some core ideas which include: (1) people freely choose all their behavior; that motives such as greed, revenge, need, anger, lust, jealousy, thrill-seeking, and vanity are just expressions of free will or at least expressions of personal choice, perspectives, or aptitudes that people have; (2) choices can be controlled by fear of punishment; because people weigh the potential benefits and consequences of any action, and most people conclude that the risk of punishment is not worth the meager satisfaction of doing something wrong; and (3) the more certain, swift, and severe the punishment, the greater is its ability to control criminal behavior, especially if the punishment is fair and serves some rational and legitimate purpose (i.e., a tangible incentive to obey the law).  Although it all seems rather elegant and simple, the working literature on the core principles has produced mixed results and unenthusiastic acceptance, on both empirical and theoretical grounds (Siegel 2006).

    James Q. Wilson (1931-2012) was the best exponent of choice theory.  He had been accused of being a political conservative, although he denied that.  Patrick Moynihan once called him "the smartest man in the United States" and as a political scientist/criminologist, he left a distinctive legacy.  Most people will remember him for his “Broken Windows thesis” (the idea that tolerating slight criminal infractions leads to more serious crime), which Rudy Giuliani applied practically as mayor of New York City, but he contributed much more than ideas for crime control policy.  Much of his work, like his 1997 book, The Moral Sense, was a philosophical reflection upon the human condition.  George Will wrote the following about Wilson's ideas in this regard, and they provide a good starting point for understanding choice theory:

   Try, as you might, to think of a human want or difficulty that is not always defined as a public policy problem. Defining a problem in such a way is often done by politically liberal elites and not from changes in public opinion but from changes in the way elites think. Liberal elites always define problems as amenable to government engineering. Conservative elites emphasize the cultural roots of many problems and hence their intractability.
   America, Wilson said, increasingly faces “problems that do not seem to respond, or to respond enough, to changes in incentives.” This is because culture is often determinative, and is harder to change than incentives and impedes individuals’ abilities to respond to incentives.
    Also, largely because of genetic factors and partly because of advantages of nurturing that cannot be redistributed by government, people differ in aptitudes. Society tends to reward useful aptitudes. This produces hierarchies of pay and power that are resistant to rearrangement by government, including government attempts to redistribute income. Such attempts often ignore how income differences are necessary to reward activities and ignore history, which suggests that economic growth, which redistribution often inhibits, does more than redistributionist measures to narrow inequalities.
   Wilson warned that we should be careful about what we think we are, lest we become that. Human nature, he said, is not infinitely plastic; we cannot be socialized to accept anything. We do not recoil from Auschwitz only because our culture has so disposed us. Children are intuitive moralists, but instincts founded in nature must be nurtured in families. The fact that much of modern life, from family disintegration to scabrous entertainment, is shocking is evidence for, not against, the moral sense, which is what is shocked. And the highest purpose of politics is to encourage the flourishing of a culture that nurtures rather than weakens the promptings of the moral sense.


    The phrase "choice theory" subsumes a nomenclature of other names for numerous ideas, some of which are indeed theories, some of which are less than fully-fledged theories, some of which are philosophical ramblings, some of which are harsh policy disguised behind the pretense of a theory, and some of which are just other names for "lifestyle" factors, "proximity" factors, or "opportunity" factors of interest.  For example, in no particular order, one can find the following names related in one way or another to classical or revised thinking in choice theory -- "rational choice theory" (Cornish & Clarke 1986) "displacement" theory (Cornish & Clarke 1987); "economic" theory (Reynolds 1985); "routine activities" theory (Cohen & Felson 1979); "situational crime prevention" theory (Clarke 1992); "desert" theory (Von Hirsch 1976); "deterrence" or sanctions theory (Tittle 1980); retributivist notions about better calibration corporal and capital punishment (Van den Haag 1975); crime prevention through "environmental design" (CPTED pronounced "sep-ted" - Jeffery 1971; Newman 1972, the Newman model incorporating less biology and psychology than the Jeffery model); "lifestyle" or proximity theory (Sampson & Lauritsen 1990); "hot spots" theory (Sherman 1995); "spatial justice" theory (Rengert 1989); "desistence" theory (Tracy & Kempf-Leonard 1996); and "survival analysis" (Dejong 1997).  This last one, survival analysis, is actually the name for an advanced statistical technique in studying deterrence, and it might be noted that much of the literature on choice theory has contributed to statistical sophistication in criminology.    

    Sometimes "control" theories are treated as choice theories, as in Hirschi's (1969) control theory of crime, but "general" (or more recent) control theory (Wilson & Herrnstein 1985; Gottfredson & Hirschi 1990) may be more compatible since the fundamental difference is that choice theories explain variation in the supply of criminal opportunities but take the supply of criminal offenders as given; while control theories usually do the opposite.  Also sometimes, learning theories are discussed as comparable or compatible with choice theory (see Akers 1990 for discussion of this).  Strain theories are less often so compared, and are more contrasted as follows:  both strain and choice theories try to explain the creation of criminal opportunity structures, but strain theory does it by emphasizing the impact of economic factors and choice theory does it by emphasizing propinquity (the spatial and temporal features of opportunity factors, or in other words, the increased frequency and intensity of contacts between motivated offenders and suitable targets).  It turns out you can explain a whole lot about crime just by explaining propinquity.  The failure of strain theory to fully explore opportunity factors like propinquity was part of Kornhauser's (1978) devastating critique of the social-structural perspective.  Other theories which sometimes pass for choice theories are "drift" and/or neutralization theories (Matza 1964), but that is usually because such theories make much of a "soft determinism" approach and allow for some exercise of free will.      

    In the world of criminal justice policy, choice theories primarily fuel the following kinds of policies: get-tough tactics, police crackdowns and/or saturation policing; some kinds of problem-oriented policing; selective incapacitation; deterrence strategies of almost all kinds; and sometimes, ideas about using shame or embarrassment rituals for offenders (a notion shared primarily with labeling theories, but not belonging to any one theoretical group (see Special Issue on Criminology and Emotions: Theoretical Criminology, August 2002, Vol. 6, Issue 3).  Most notably, choice theory, as Siegel (2006) notes, is popular because it renounces rehabilitation as a cornerstone of criminal justice policy.  Most choice theorists regard it as a waste of time (and taxpayer money) to try and rehabilitate cold, hardened criminals.  As James Q. Wilson (1975) said: "Wicked people exist, and nothing avails except to set them apart from innocent people."  Conservatives since the Reagan presidency (circa 1980) have embraced choice theory, classical criminology principles, and advocacy of the death penalty, all despite the fact that the "original" classical school was opposed to the death penalty.  More than one criminologist (e.g. Cook 1998) has noticed that such positions usually involve contradictory stances on free will issues, such as the common conservative stance against abortion and in favor of the death penalty.


    Free will is often a popular favorite because saying one believes in it jumps over a whole lot of philosophical complications in getting to a stance where one can say all criminals ought to be held accountable.  However, the free will-determinism debate is very complex and deserving of intense study.  The principle of free will has many implications; e.g., religious, philosophical, legal, ethical, scientific, etc.  It should NOT be confused with the sense of freedom.  The sensation of freedom involves an intuitive or subjective grasp of something that could very well be an illusion.  Free will is something quite different.  It involves the more-or-less observable behavior of "reflecting" or "deliberating" upon the consequences of a choice.  The principle of free will is one component of the mind-body problem in philosophy (how something physical and tangible - like the body - can be controlled by something non-physical - like the mind).  The standard, Western way of resolving the mind-body problem is to postulate the existence of something called an unconscious or subconscious, which explains what happens when the mind takes the body in unexpected ways.  The standard way (following Locke) of assessing whether free will is evident is to observe whether a subject "postponed" a decision long enough to allow reflection or deliberation.  The criminal law usually recognizes this in the form of looking for signs of abandonment, withdrawal, or at the very least, signs of remorse or regret. 

    Most of those who advocate free will are compatibilists, which means they recognize a role for determinism in one form or another.  There are many different kinds of determinism, ranging from notions of luck to predestination.  Most compatibilists see themselves as either "hard" or "soft" determinists.  The strongest form of hard determinism is called necessitarianism (the idea that there is only one way for things to turn out), and the strongest critics of this idea are libertarians.  Libertarian notions of free will have a rather acute stance on the concept of volition (the scientific word for will or willpower), as a high-level thinking process with a built-in element of indeterminism which can only be overcome by subjecting the passions and emotions to rational self-control.  The most common form of soft determinism is the Kantian version of the "is-ought" problem in philosophy (the problem of living in a world where what "ought" to be is not what "is" encountered).  Many criminological theories utilize soft determinism by allowing a role for feelings of frustration or deprivation.  Kant said that criminals should not simply be seen as driven by a blend of determining forces but that they also have a choice in the matter (you can call it "free" if you want) by re-thinking (in ethically imperative fashion) what "ought" to be.  Along these lines, many choice theorists in criminology conceive of free will as the expression of some innate morality, ethical decision-making capability, or quality of just being a sensate human being.   


    Rational choice theory is the customary name for the idea that criminals engage in some intelligent thought before choosing to commit a crime.  As put forward by Cohen & Felson (1979), rational choice theory is strongly similar to the model of the "reasoning criminal" put forward by Cornish & Clarke (1986).  Routine activities theory argues that there must be three (3) elements of the situation present for any crime to occur: (1) potential offenders; (2) suitable targets; and (3) incapable, unwilling, or absent guardians.  Theoretically, motivation is seen as a function of opportunity, and in practice, the theory is used more to explain victimization than the causes of criminal behavior.  Several known factors influence whether victimization (criminal contact between an offender and victim) will occur, but the two main ones are demographics and lifestyle.  Research has consistently shown that victimization rates are highest for men, adolescents, African Americans, those who have never married, those who use alcohol and/or drugs, those who lead an active lifestyle, those who live in big cities, and those who live near bars or taverns (Tewksbury & Mustaine 2005).  While demographic factors are appropriate to add to a criminological theory, no theory should be made up entirely of them.  However, the future seems to look bright for rational choice theory, with the proviso that rational choice is a broad theoretical approach encompassing a number of social science disciplines.  It received its first formal treatment in the field of economics where it has remained one of the dominant paradigms.  Let's look at an Encyclopedia of Sociology definition:

Encyclopedia Definition of Rational Choice

     Rational choice theories explain social behavior via the aggregated actions of rational or purposive actors. The actors are rational in the sense that, given a set of values and beliefs, they calculate the relative costs and benefits of alternative actions and, from these calculations, make a choice that maximizes their expected utility. Rational choice models assume that the range of alternatives open to actors is constrained by the environment or by institutions within which they make their decisions. In their purest form, these theories also assume that actors possess complete information about their values and the various courses of action through which they can pursue them. Actors collect, organize, and analyze this information prior to making a decision. Thus, rational choice theories are means-end theories. That is, they describe the means or rational calculus through which actors go about obtaining their desired ends, or values.  All rational choice sociologists subscribe to some form of methodological individualism, holding that a theory must begin by stating how a social system affects the options available to individuals, and then the theory must build back up to the macro level by describing how individual choices "aggregate" to impact a system-level variable like economic development.   (Simpson 2006)

    Almost too elegant of a theory, rational choice suffers from some difficulties in being researched properly.  First of all, it is not easy to define and operationalize the key variables.  How does one define "potential" offenders presumably possessed of "criminality" (crime is an event; criminality is a personal trait which involves the willingness to commit a crime given enough provocation and/or opportunity)?  How does one define "suitable" targets given the tremendous variation in lifestyles by men vs. women, and ethnic and age groups for that matter?  Some offenders may, in fact, interpret the "vulnerability" of their victim(s) in different ways.  How does the notion of "guardianship" stack up with what is known about community disorganization variables?  Schwartz & Pitts (1995) point out the need for routine activities theory to be more sensitive to gender variation, among other things.  Likewise, the greatest weakness of routine activities theory, according to Tewksbury & Mustaine (2005), is an inability to pinpoint exactly where the crime-prone "domains" are located (not a minor shortcoming for a criminology of place).  At best, then, rational choice is a theory of crime prevention.  The theory may help with the "Three D's" of crime prevention (Deter, Detect, and Delay), but it does not live up to its promise of being a theory about when, where, and under what conditions crime is likely to occur. 

The Critique of Rational Choice in Political Science

      The rational choice approach to the study of politics has experienced similar problems as those found in criminology. In political science, Arrow's (1951) model has been dominant, but not without its critics (Green & Shapiro 1994; Friedman 1996).  The so-called "free rider" problem permeates the approach, necessitating the increased passage of laws and hiring of police because people, collectively and rationally, come to consume things regardless of whether they've contributed to its provision, legitimacy, or protection.  Apathy, ambivalence, antipathy, and expressive rather than instrumental behavior appear to be the norms rather than reflective, thoughtful decision making.  Green & Shapiro's (1994) other "pathologies" of the approach include: (1) post hoc theory development; (2) reliance on unmeasurable or unobservable entities; (3) arbitrary domain restrictions; (4) vague specification of the magnitude of effect predicted; and (5) a search for confirming rather than falsifying evidence.  

    The question always seems to come up if there are any intelligent criminals, super-intelligent ones, that is.  After all, choice theories seem to imply a certain ingeniousness, at least when it comes to calculations involved in the decision to commit crime.  Given that it should be noted we are talking about "rationality" which is NOT exactly the same thing as intelligence, it should be further noted that high-IQ is extremely rare, as Oleson (2002; 2006) has demonstrated:

Are There Any High-IQ Criminals?

     The archetype, paragon, or stereotype of a high-IQ criminal (like Hannibal Lector in the movie Silence of the Lambs) who enjoys committing crime and is very good at it is a social construction which doesn't exist in reality.  To be sure, there have been doctors who kill, but like Jack Kevorkian did it for benevolent reasons. Smart people could indeed be dangerous if they did bad things, but there is nothing more mysterious to it other than the enjoyment of getting away with something, which isn't all a matter of IQ anyway. In other words, there is no additional enjoyment of committing crime simply because one is smart. High-IQ provides no guarantee of success and doesn't seem to incline anyone towards crime anyway. Nonetheless, the stereotype of "criminal mastermind" endures, and the occasional child prodigy appears (Willliam James Sidis, 1898-1944, holding the record of being the most intelligent person to ever live). Sidis's IQ was off the scale (between 250 and 300), and by comparison, Napoleon Bonaparte's was 145, Thomas Jefferson's 160, and Leonardo da Vinci's 180. Only about one in a billion people would have an IQ in those ranges, and from what we know of such people, they seem attracted to beautiful things and regard crime as rather ugly. 

    Rationality does not require high-IQ.  Rationality only implies the presence of planning and/or the lack of spontaneous, impulsive, foolhardy action.  Miller et. al. (2006) define rationality as the "human ability to anticipate the consequences of different actions and to calculate the most beneficial outcomes."  Siegel's (2006) textbooks tend to review the "Is Crime Rational?" debate about as well as anyone else, although deeper analysis can be found elsewhere (e.g. Roshier 1989), and the debate is as old as 19th century debates in criminology about whether crime is expressive (emotional) or instrumental (cognitive).  Here are some things to think about:

Is Crime Rational?

     The search for rational criminals by rational choice theorists is usually on two fronts: a search for rationality among offense-specific patterns (i.e., burglars, drug dealing, violent crime); and a search for rationality at the offender-specific level (i.e., a personality trait of rational criminality). Combining the two usually means a search for crime that pays well.  Trembley & Morselli (2000) have investigated this, finding, on average, that that there is only a small subset of criminals who enjoy earning about $50,000 a year from crime. Prostitution and drug dealing tend to earn the most money (for street crime), and $50,000 seems to be a "safe" income level for most criminals.  Criminals do indeed learn techniques that help them avoid detection, i.e., security measures that should be taken; such as how to look normal, how to stash things, how to size up a vulnerable (permeable) neighborhood, etc., but cunning more than intelligence is involved. Many criminals also see their criminal activity as nothing more than business, but again, these business-like signs of crime do not make for either intelligence or rationality because there is usually something else "demented" or whatever about the offender. Serial killers, for example, may seem rational and calculating in their victim selection, but they've got some very serious personality disorders.  Serial rapists, on average, travel exactly 3 miles from their homes to select victims (Siegel 2006), but not only may this be part of their derangement, it's a foolish, predictable pattern.  The argument that crime is clearly rational by any clear "signs" of obvious rationality in the behavior is not a strong argument. On the other hand, there is support for the idea that criminals pick their time and day of crime carefully (temporal and spatial rationality). Kleck & Gertz (1998) found that cities with higher than average gun-carrying rates generally have lower rates of unarmed robbery. Numerous other studies and evaluations (too many to cite) show that crime prevention measures taken by a neighborhood works in getting criminals to look elsewhere (displacement of crime).      

    More commonly encountered in criminology than full-blown (maximization principle-based) rational choice theories are learning or reinforcement theories (satisficing principle-based).  The satisficing principle-based, "bounded rationality" approach comes from the field of decision science, particular Simon (1982).  It holds that people can only process a finite or limited number of choices, and once they've found a course of action, any course of action, that meets or exceeds some aspiration level they've set for themselves, they take that first choice and stop collecting or processing any further information.  Cognitive biases also come into play.  Various learning theories in criminology take this approach when they try to come up with various reinforcement principles.  


    Deterrence theory was born historically in 1764 as part of classical criminology's quest for a more humane alternative to torture and hanging.  It probably cannot be fully understood without going back to the writings of CESARE BECCARIA (1738-1794) and JEREMY BENTHAM (1748-1832).  For that, Myers (2005) as well as others provide concise reviews, but it should be noted that much criminological thought in this area is directed toward the study of law enforcement effectiveness (e.g. Sherman 1993 etc.) and has a somewhat anti-theoretical flavor.  There are two main kinds of deterrence: (1) general; and (2) specific, but sometimes textbook writers like Siegel (2006) will make reference to a third kind, like (3) marginal.  It is best to examine the assumptions of deterrence theory before explaining these types.

    The basic assumptions are that: (1) the vast majority of potential law breakers are sane/rational thinking persons; (2) the amount of crime in society should equal the opportunities perceived by criminals; and (3) the greater the costs & losses, the lower the willingness to engage in crime & vice versa (i.e., cost and willingness are inversely related).  In addition, deterrence theory (to work in practice) requires the following: (1) the certainty/probability of getting caught should be directly related to the severity of punishment; i.e., certainty <=> punishment severity; and (2) the punishment should be quick; i.e., punishment => quick.  Among the many findings that Nagin (1998) reports, it is more commonly known that severity of punishment has NO effect, quickness (celerity) of punishment has NO effect, and only certainty of punishment has an effect (a moderate effect, slight to no-effect on murder rates).  In other words, the only thing the research shows is that certainty of punishment seems to have a greater impact than severity or speed.  It is commonly regarded as a mistake, however, to emphasize one element of deterrence at the expense of the others.

    Any system of criminal law is going to have some kind of deterrence effect anyway (Zimring & Hawkins 1973).  Beccaria (1764) simply proposed that "better" deterrence would occur if the harm of a punishment exceeded its potential gain, or perceived benefits as Bentham (1823) put it.  Beccaria lumped general and specific deterrence together while Bentham treated them as separate psychological processes.  There is reason to believe that Beccaria and Bentham either meant "fair" as "better" or were suggesting that informal sanctions (as well as formal ones the law provides) should be part of the equation.  Several studies since Andenaes (1974) suggest that formal sanctions deter best when they lead to informal sanctions.  Disapproval from significant others and/or self-inflicted guilt feelings (informal sanctions) work better than the threat of formal sanctions (Nagin 1998).  If a formal sanction is seen as "unfair" or unduly harsh, then this will act to diminish the credibility of the punishment, resulting in diminished general deterrence.  Some definitions follow:

    The deterrence research literature is not easy to summarize, but it has progressed (and continues to progress) in some well-defined directions.  In the 1960s and 70s, most research was conducted at the "objective" level, comparing, for example, jurisdictions with one type of penalty (say, the death penalty) with other jurisdictions (say, without the death penalty).  Blumstein et. al. (1978) is an example of this type of research.  Generally, it was found that at some minor levels (for minor crime), punishment certainty and severity failed to deter, but at higher levels, a "tipping effect" occurs when punishment becomes a credible threat.  One must watch out, of course, for the possibility of "marginal deterrence" which occurs when petty offenses become subject to the same punishments as serious crimes -- in such cases, offenders would likely choose the worst possible crime to commit, because the resulting punishment would be about the same.  It has also been known ever since Ross (1982) that "crackdowns" work best when accompanied by a media campaign of some sort to impact public opinion.  Sherman's (1995) research has shown that "residual deterrence" may be left behind by initial deterrence.  Paternoster et. al.'s (1995) research has shown that personal beliefs (individual perceptions) are far more important than actual risks at the objective level.  Juveniles, for example, are well aware that juvenile courts are generally lenient about imposing meaningful sanctions on even the most serious juvenile offender. 


    Specific deterrence is also called "special" or "particular" deterrence.  Gibbs (1975) also discussed "absolute" deterrence when an offender totally desists from crime, as well as "restrictive" deterrence when an offender simply reduces the seriousness or frequency (lambda) of their criminal involvement.  Wilson & Herrnstein (1985) provided the closest thing to a good theory of specific deterrence, and the theory holds that punishment works if a connection can be established (in the mind of a punished offender) between a planned criminal action and memories of the consequence for a previous criminal action.  In other words, this memory or recollection element must be sufficiently vivid and intense.  Hence, sometimes specific deterrence theory is used to justify scared straight programs and the like.  Research, however, does not support specific deterrence theory (Seigel 2006).  Studies of recidivism have found, among previously punished offenders, more a pattern of "defiance" than a pattern of deterrence (Sherman 1993; Dejong 1997).  Further, the stigma of a ex-criminal career tends to lock people more into a criminal career.  Indeed, there are many "amplification" or "backfire" effects associated with specific deterrence efforts (Myers 2005).  The consensus of the criminological community is that the association between crime and specific deterrent measures is uncertain at best (Siegel 2006) and that deterrence theory, as a whole, works "well enough" (Miller et al 2006), but no better than positivist theories.

At Both Ends of the Gun: Community Violence Exposure and Violent Behavior
Cohen & Felson's Routine Activities
Ernest van den Haag: Legal Scholar
Hot Spots of Crime (pdf)
Linking Choice and Control Theories (pdf)

Resurgence of Classical Ideas Outline
Rational Choice and Deterrence Theory
Wikipedia Entry on CPTED

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Last updated: Mar. 05, 2012
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O'Connor, T.  (2012). "Choice Theory." MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from