The product of rational choice

Introduction

  1. Terms And Aims Of Essay

  2. What Is A Rational Theory?

Rational theories have been around for some time. This essay will focus on two of the main ones to answer the question:

‘What Is Gained By Assuming That Most Crime Is The Product Of Rational Choice?'

The two theories it will make reference to are deterrence theory (DT), and rational choice theory (RCT) as proposed by Cornish and Clarke. The essay will discuss the latter of these in a more in depth nature, drawing on the former generally as a foundation of RCT. The essay will argue that these rational choice theories have some value in explaining and preventing crime, but that value is limited. It will make reference to the source of DT and RCT and explore their connections to crime. Further it will address whether they are good theories of explaining and preventing crime and it will also consider their criticisms and answer the above question. In doing so, this essay will refer in large parts to situational crime prevention (SCP). This essay will argue that assuming that most crime is the product of rational choice is useful in some respects, but not all. Importantly, whilst rational theories can and do provide useful ways of reducing most crimes, they often to not provide ways of reducing the most serious crimes.

Essentially, a rational choice theory perceives the human as one whose interests lie in maximising pleasure and minimising pain. This concept comes from classical criminological ideas proposed largely by Bentham and Baccaria. This classical theory is based on the idea that ‘man is a calculating animal' and he has free will in making decisions.

DT is the theory that a human will consider the repercussions of punishment or retribution before he acts. He or she will commit the act in the absence of effective punishment. RCT is adapted from classical criminology (CC) and builds upon deterrence theory. RCT is different from DT as it also takes into account factors outside of deterrence. It refers to other factors, such as intelligence of the individual, peer pressure and situational features. Further it takes notice of the existence of “gains”, as well as “losses”. Both DT and RCT are alike in that they see humans as rational actors. The difference between them is in the factors that determine the actor's rationality.

Relation To Crime

  1. How Do Rational Theories Relate To Crime?

  2. What Do They Do?

  3. What Are Their Qualifications?

DT

DT relates to crime very simply. It says that humans are less likely to commit crime if the rational calculation of the pain of punishment or sanction outweighs the motivation for crime. Motivation for crime in deterrence theory is presumed to be constant across all offenders but not across offences. Also, DT tends to focus on formal sanctions (e.g. prison, arrest) rather than informal ones (e.g. shame, disappointment).

Policymakers can increase expected punishment in two ways. These are - increasing the severity of punishment, and increasing the certainty of punishment. Deterrence theorists note that punishment is an effective deterrent when it is normally carried out quickly, severely and certainly.

RCT

RCT sees criminal behaviour no differently from non-criminal behaviour. It says that the reason a person commits crime is because he or she thinks it will be more rewarding and less costly for them to do so - a ‘cost-benefit analysis' is made. So a person rationally chooses to commit a criminal act in the same way as he or she would choose to walk the dog, or eat a sandwich, or play football. Essentially, the actor will take the action (lawful or criminal) that maximises payoff and minimises cost. Hence, the actor makes a cost-benefit analysis of what he or she is doing (subconsciously or not). RCT allows for both formal and informal sanctions. Further, the benefits can be tangible (e.g. money) or intangible (e.g. thrill, respect). Cornish and Clarke relate RCT to crime in this way:

“...offenders seek to benefit themselves by their criminal behaviour; ... that this involves the making of decisions and choices, however rudimentary on occasion these processes might be; and ... these processes exhibit a measure of rationality, albeit constrained by the limits of time and the availability of information.”

In reference to crime, RCT requires three main elements. Firstly, a reasoning and rational actor; secondly, a crime-specific focus; and finally, separate analyses of criminal involvement and criminal events. This first element has been discussed, and it is accepted that RCT assumes humans to be rational actors. The crime specific focus is important in explaining crime too, though, RCT says. This is because each different offence has different factors that are taken into account by the actor. The separate analyses of criminal involvement and criminal events means that the rational decision making process refers to both the decision to ‘be a criminal' in general, and to the decisions made during the actual criminal events. This is another important feature of RCT that it uses to explain crime and establish ways of reducing it.

Further, RCT does not see criminals as a distinct group of persistent offenders. It assumes that all people are capable of committing crimes given the right circumstances. Clarke and Cornish put it this way:

“it is useful to see criminal behavior [sic] not as the result of psychologically and socially determined dispositions to offend, but as the outcome of the offenders' broadly based rational choices and decisions.”

RCT has a different perspective on the ‘benefits and costs' section of analysing crime. Whilst deterrence theory focuses mainly on the presence or absence of punishment as the deciding factor in whether to commit a crime, RCT allows for numerous other variables. It has developed into a more intricate perspective than deterrence theory. It should be noted that RCT does not assume motivation or rationality to be constant across offenders. It is the perceived costs and benefits as calculated by the individual that sets it apart from other rational choice theories.

In summary, RCT interprets criminal behaviour as the product of decisions and choices made by the offender. The offender commits the crime because he or she makes a rational choice to do so by effectively weighing up pros and cons. The actor will commit the crime if the perceived pros outweigh the perceived cons and conversely he or she will not commit the crime if the perceived cons outweigh the perceived pros. Engaging in criminal behaviour is a result of numerous individual and contextual factors being used to weigh up perceived benefits and costs of action.

Finally, the concept of ‘limited rationality' will be discussed further in the essay. This is the idea that an actor may come to the conclusion that it is beneficial or not to commit a crime based on incomplete information. The important point to stress is that it is not the actual rationality that matters here - it is the rationality as perceived by the actor when he or she takes into account all relevant information available. The role of emotions in rationality is not widely considered within RCT and this is a potential weakness which will be explored.

The concept of situational crime prevention (SCP) will be investigated later in the essay. It is seen as one of the most promising initiatives to develop out of RCT.

Are Rational Theories Good At Explaining Crime?

DT

DT has found difficulty in explaining crime. This is because its main purpose is in preventing it through punishment and law. As such it would appear that DT is not good at explaining crime. The only explanation it can give is that actors will offend less if punishment is severe, swift and certain. Numerous studies come to this conclusion. Where punishment is not severe, swift and certain actors are more likely to commit crime. It does, however, offer something in the way of crime reduction and this will be discussed in a later section of the essay.

RCT

RCT is considered one of the broadest theories in criminology. This makes it a good foundation for explaining crime. Some theorists argue that this is one of the main criticisms of RCT, and it will be discussed further in the essay. Its simplicity, though, is often presented as one of RCT's strong points.

Crime Specificity.

Critical scholars of RCT sometimes mistakenly believe the word ‘rational' to be defined by its literal meaning of sensible, reasonable and realistic. They are partially, but significantly, mistaken though. RCT used the word rational to mean sensible, reasonable and realistic based on perception of rationality, not actual rationality. The concept of limited rationality is key:

“[the choice model] does not see decision-making as always being fully rational or even properly considered; instead the model employs notions of ‘limited rationality' in which economic explanations of crime are modified by taking cognizance [sic] of other motivational and cognitive factors”.

Rationality in this case is subjective, confined by, and dependent on, time, cognitive ability and information available. The principle is that factors affecting the actor can vary both during the particular offence and amongst different offences. This means that many criminal acts can be justified as ‘rational'. This is because perceived rationality can change from person to person and also from crime to crime. For example, an actor may deem it rational to rob an elderly lady today when he has no money, but not tomorrow when he has money. This ever varying and seemingly infinite form of rationality certainly lends itself in explaining crime very well. In layman's terms RCT's limited rationality principle means the most crimes can be explained through expressing that the offender simply perceived his or her crime as rational at that precise moment due to all of the affecting factors. The main reason this is such a good theory of explaining crime is that it cannot easily be disproved. However, even though it can explain crime within its own parameters perfectly, RCT often fails to provide adequate methods of crime prevention. This is because of its widely varying perceptions of rationality amongst offenders and offences.

Advantages Of Rational Theories

  1. What Can Be Gained By Assuming That Most Crime Is The Product Of Rational Choice?

DT

The relative simplicity of deterrence theory is piloted as its main advantages. Because of this, it is an effective weapon in politics. The political advantages of rational theories are discussed below. Besides simplicity, deterrence theory lacks any other potent arguments for its celebration. It has not been found that punishment is a sufficient deterrence to prevent crime, especially where it is not carried out efficiently and effectively.

RCT

If crime is rational then it follows that it can be controlled, or even eliminated altogether. It is this premise that SCP is based on. SCP is the idea that crime can be reduced by increasing the costs of, and decreasing the opportunities for, criminal activity. It is also one of the main gains of assuming that most crime is the product of rational choice. In other words, the emphasis is on preventing ‘soft targets' for criminals - thus making it more irrational to commit crime. Examples include barred windows, alarms, metal detectors etc. Unlike RCT, though, SCP does not seek to explain all types of crime. It simply acts as a crime prevention tool. It acts as a crime specific approach that stresses the important of situational factors. This is because these factors are vulnerable to manipulation in a way which can reduce crime. Though because SCP is a product of RCT, it is clear that something is gained by assuming at least some crime is the product of rational choice.

Unlike social crime prevention, employing SCP programs can be used as a political tool to gain votes. Whilst it may be the case that social crime prevention is more effective in the long run, SCP can provide near instant results effectively. More importantly results can be quantified so that voters see the changes in crime. For example, the government could say that implementing ‘x' number of CCTV cameras in a certain area has reduced crime by ‘y' percent. This is an example of increasing the likelihood of being caught as a deterrent. This type of ‘administrative criminology” is popular with politicians and seen as a relatively inexpensive way of battling crime figures.

Another important technique of SCP is decreasing the opportunities for crime. The ‘British Gas Suicide' story is a good example of this. Between 1963 and 1975 the annual number of suicides in England and Wales decreased dramatically from 5,714 to 3,693. This was at a time when suicide was increasing in most of Europe. The decrease was a result of the removal or poisonous carbon monoxide from the public gas supply. In 1963, suicide by domestic gas accounted for 40 percent of suicides. By 1975 it was all but eliminated. Further, those that were prevented from gas assisted suicide tended not to find other ways of killing themselves. This suggests that suicide is a rational choice, based on opportunities, benefits and costs and is demonstrative of the implications of SCP, and RCT. Clearly, something can be gained from assuming that most crime is the product of rational choice. This case also adds weight to the defeat of the displacement argument - that criminals will find another way to commit crime (in this case, suicide).

Whilst the criticism that RCT is too broad and inapplicable is in reality, valid, it can still be applied in very restricted circumstances - i.e. where rationality can be calculated. Creating a formula whereby the actions of humans are perfectly predictable defeats the purpose of RCT, though. Its objective is achieved by accepting that rationality varies from offender to offender and crime to crime. That being said, if rationality can be calculated accurately there is certainly something to be gained by assuming that most crime is the product of rational choice. However, full rationality is virtually untenable. This concept of a calculated rationality within certain circumstances is the predominant gain to be made from assuming that most crime is the product of rational choice.

What Are The Criticisms Of Rational Theories?

DT

Deterrence theory is criticised for placing too much emphasis on punishment as one of the ‘costs' of crime. It is inaccurate to say that actors are solely driven by the potential penalties of crime.

DT does not explain crime well. Its hypothesis that people will commit crime if insufficient punishments exist is weak. Further, variations in the certainty and severity of punishment weaken the applicability of the theory. Effectiveness is challenged based on the individual's risk tolerance. There are too many existent variables for a blanket approach like deterrence theory to achieve acclaim.

RCT

RCT's definition of rationality is piloted as one of its strong points. Critics argue, though, that limited rationality makes the theory too broad. As such it is impossible to establish a formula by which to prevent crime. As explained, it is easy to assume all criminals are rational according to RCT. This flexibility of the application of RCT is one of its main criticisms. Whilst it is good at explaining crime within its own parameters, a formula for explaining and preventing it cannot be devised due to the limited rationality principle. It seems paradoxical that the literature refers importantly to ‘the rational man' and the ‘rational component' in crime and then RCT makes a great effort to explain its concept of limited and partial rationality. Can man, in fact, even be called ‘the rational man' then? Should he instead be called ‘the man who can act in any way and still be deemed rational within the parameters of this theory'? Cornish and Clarke's theory of rationality, then, differs very little from the level of rationality present in most utilitarian criminological theories.

It is often said that RCT cannot explain impulsive crimes and crimes committed under the influence of drink/drugs. However, it can explain them. It is just often powerless to do anything about them. An almost ‘future-telling power' is required to stop some crimes. Take child molestation as an example. The psychological need and want to molest a child could be seen as a ‘benefit' to the offender. Contrasted with the ‘costs' of possible punishment and other consequences, it may seem beneficial to the offender to commit the crime. RCT explains this well, but what does it offer in the way of crime prevention? The answer is little, particularly in this example. Most cases of child molestation involve an adult in a position of trust and are difficult to prevent via SCP. As a method of crime explanation, then, RCT is second to none within its own parameters. Unfortunately, little is gained by assuming that most crime is the product of rational choice in this sense.

Whilst rational theories are undoubtedly useful as a means of reducing acquisitive crimes and crimes against property (through SCP, for example) they are often criticised as not being able to explain so called “expressive crimes”. These crimes contain an ‘irrational actor' and as such are not susceptible to explanation via rational theories. The rational approach is therefore less effective against violent, passionate or sexual crimes. This is especially relevant because these are the types of crime that cause the most concern amongst the public. The decrease in property and petty crime is miniscule compared to the impact of these expressive crimes. What would RCT propose, for example, in cases of child molestation, rape, drunken assault or gang crime? Yes, there are measures that can be taken to avoid such crimes, but said measures are not easily attained. Also, it only takes one case of child molestation to slip through the net before there is public outcry. Again, this is why SCP in relation to lesser crimes is preferred in politics. The inability of rational theories to stop expressive crimes is definitely one of its disadvantages. Hence, something can be gained (the ability to prevent lesser crimes) from assuming that most crime is the product of rational choice. It is simply the case that the most heinous of crimes are often not.

Displacement theory is the theory that when crime is avoided, say by SCP, it manifests itself somewhere else. Certainly this is not the case in all crime as the British Gas Suicide case defeats the argument. It may, however, be a valid point in reference to other crimes, such as burglary, where an individual intent on committing the crime will choose a house without an alarm, or steal from a car, or a person. Displaced crimes mean that it is often difficult to establish exactly how effective any one crime prevention technique has been.

Another criticism of RCT is that it offers nothing new to criminology. Its apparent fresh outlook on rationality is seen in other criminological perspectives. The level of rationality assumed in RCT is often, on the face of it, minimal. Critics argue that this makes it indistinguishable from previous criminological theories. The level of rationality offered has already been seen in the social learning approach, for example.

Conclusion

Come to a conclusion on what is gained by assuming that most crime is the product of rational choice.

It has been argued in this essay that assuming most crime is the product of rational choice can be useful. Proof of this is found in the decrease of less serious crimes. However, the main drawback of rational theories is that they often fail to explain, and hence prevent, the more serious and dangerous crimes.

RCT purports to be able to explain many of these crimes due to its fine tuned qualifications. These qualifications that allow for differing personalities, intelligence and so on make the theory inapplicable in the prevention of these serious crimes. So assuming that serious and expressive crimes are the product of rational choice is often irrelevant. If a rational theory could be created whereby emotions and individual factors were taken into account and amalgamated with RCT into an applicable theory then some progress could be made. Unfortunately this is an untenable ideal. To account for so many variables means that crime prevention would be inefficient and probably unsuccessful. A rational choice study by Exum said:

“[t]he current study suggests that emotional states such as anger may impact the perceived consequences of a violent, criminal act. Future researchers should therefore consider expanding tests of the rational choice perspective to include the role of emotions, an area of study that has been commonly omitted from choice based theories of offending. At the same time...rational choice should also recognize [sic] the potential impact psychopharmacological agents such as alcohol may play in the decision making process...Finally, future research is necessary to examine the rational choice model's assumption of generality. Perhaps the rational choice model does not explain violent behaviour equally well across different states of mind. Instead...perhaps the model may only explain ‘cool-headed- behaviour but then breaks down when individuals are in an emotionally charged state. It is this ‘emotionally charged state' that is of interest here, especially in the way it opens up RCT to the type of critical analysis already under way within the burgeoning field of cultural criminology.”

This quote adds to the evidence that assuming that most crime is the product of rational choice does not help in respect of violent, drunken or emotional crimes. As explained, the assumption does provide a useful foundation for prevention of lesser crimes.