Rational Choice Theory
The literature supports that many criminals go through
a rational choice process when committing crime. The
purpose of this paper is to show why the legal system of the
United States is based on this theory, and why it is a
strong basis for the justice system. This paper will focus
on burglary, and the various surveys collected to support
rational choice in burglars.
The justice system of the United States is based
heavily on the works of Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1833) and
Cesare Beccaria (1738 1794). Their idea of criminology
was a utilitarian one that came to be known as the classical
school. This theory was based heavily on the underlying
theory of rational choice. Rational Choice Theory states
that criminals utilize a hedonistic calculus when
attempting crimes. That is that they weigh rationally the
good and bad consequences of their actions, and conclude
whether or not committing the crime is a good calculated
risk. Many crimes, however, seem to be completely
irrational, which would not support this theory. The
purpose of this paper is to explain which crimes this theory
best explains and why it is a good basis for law.
The terms used in the classical school must first be
explained. Smart (1956, 86.) explains Utilitarianism is
the doctrine that rightness of actions is judged by their
consequences. Both Bentham and Beccaria were utilitarians.
The classical school promotes punishment for crime as a
means of deterrence. Because people are morally
egotistical, they must be afraid of punishment to overpower
their natural tendencies towards crime (Cornish and Clarke,
The Classical School held the attention of American
criminologists throughout the 19th century. Other theories
arose after this time and the theory was set aside for some
time. About the 1970 s, the higher crime rates and public
fear called for a resurgence of Classical Theory. This came
to be known as Choice Theory. In a 1975 book by James Q.
Wilson purported a tough on crime approach, which was
readily adopted by politicians of the era and today, to
alleviate the fears of the public (Wilson, 1983). This harsh
punishment outlook is still present in much of today s
EXAMINATION OF THEORY
As a basis for all of these theories, and also and
extension of these theories is Rational Choice Theory.
Rational Choice theory assumes that the criminal is first a
rational being. It assumes second that he considers his
crime rationally, weighing both personal factors, (such as
being poor, wanting excitement or entertainment) and
situational factors, (such as the availability of the
target, the likelihood of being caught, and the seriousness
of the crime) (Cornish and Clark, 1986b).
Many are confused as to the meaning of these
assumptions, especially the latter. When speaking of a
criminal considering things rationally, many assume that
this is a long process and do not believe that criminals
undergo this process. The rational choice approach,
however, does not define this as a long process (Cornish and
Clark, 1986a.) Rather, it can occur in the matter of a few
moments, or can be a plan worked on for months.
Some crimes are more difficult to explain using
rational choice theory. The first would be drug use.
However, one must consider the personal factors and see
that, for the drug user, the thrill or excitement is likely
to outweigh the likelihood of being caught. So, initially,
the drug use is a rational choice (Petraitis et al., 1995).
Drug addiction is an unavoidable consequence of these
actions, and will then affect the personal factors being
weighed before committing a crime. When need for a drug is
calculated in, many crimes that would have otherwise been
discarded may be committed by this more highly motivated
When looking at most crimes where monetary gain is an
outcome, it is most obvious why Rational Choice Theory is
appropriate. As for street crimes, especially violent ones,
it is more difficult. Consider assault. Studies have shown
that perpetrators rationally consider their victims based on
availability and ease of submission as well as based on
personal factors, such as saving face before friends (Liska
and Bellair, 1995).
Another proponent of Rational Choice Theory was Oscar
Newman. He wrote a great deal about defensible space and
Crime Prevention Through Environmental design. He believed
that natural surveillance and other factors of opportunity
influence crime (Newman, 1972). This theory of CPTED was
based upon the idea of OTREP, that is Opportunity is the
result of Target, Risk, Effort, and Payoff (Cornish and
Clark, 1986b). The assumption of this is that criminals
weigh these factors before committing a crime (Kaplan et
Although Rational Choice Theory is the basis for the
Classical School theory, it is also a modern extension of
it. Modern Rational Choice theorists analyze crime as
offender-specific and offense-specific. Offense-specific
focuses more on the situational aspects of the rational
choice and offender-specific focuses on the personal aspects
of the decision (Cornish and Clark, 1987).
EMPIRICAL TESTS OF THE THEORY
The crime that this paper will focus on is burglary.
Burglary is an appropriate focus, because it is a crime that
involves a monetary gain and therefore can be evaluated most
easily by rational choice theory. Bennett (1986), Bennett
and Wright (1984), and Repetto (1974) found that adjudicated
burglars made clear choices in considering when and where to
commit their offenses. Their findings were supported by
various experimental investigations of burglars choices of
targets. However, it is important for modern political
policy to note that they found that various inhibiting
factors did not impede all of the crime.
Wright and Decker (1994) in a study of a large number
of burglars in St. Louis, report that many burglars consider
a potential target before committing the offense. Many of
these targets are known to the offender through personal
interaction with the victims or information ascertained
through second parties. The offenders reported being aware
always of potential targets and constantly scanning in
search of new opportunities. Wright and Decker (1995),
however, do not believe these burglars acted rationally.
In a study of burglar alarms in suburban areas, Buck et
al. (1993) found that burglars are likely to choose a home
within three blocks of a major thoroughfare, a home located
on a relatively secluded cul de sac, one more expensive than
its neighbors, a home that had been purchased or rented
recently, and one that did not have an alarm system
installed. They further found that some precautions based
on folk wisdom were ineffective, such as barking dogs,
while others were effective, such as having good lighting
and a security system sign displayed in the yard as well as
a car in the driveway.
Although burglary is well explained by rational choice
theory, many other crimes are also explained well by the
theory, such as black widow crimes, drug use (as was
entailed earlier,) and even streetcrimes such as theft,
larceny and most crimes for profit. The only crimes that
cannot be described using this theory are crimes committed
by an irrational individual. That is why our legal system
is set up so that an insane person will be treated rather
than convicted, because it is based on this Rational Choice
Rational Choice Theory is a basis for a law in
conjunction with social contract theory. The basic
utilitarian concepts underlying law are combined with the
idea that people are essentially selfish, and thus the laws
must be created and enforced to maintain a utilitarian
Politically, this theory is of utmost importance. The
current consensus of the American public is for harsher
punishment for crimes. The policies being implemented today
are based on the theory that these people can be deterred if
the situational consequences, i.e. the punishment, outweigh
their personal gains. The laws of our society are based
still on the lex talionis view of a punishment for every
crime. Of all theories of criminality, only this theory and
its counterparts lend the responsibility for criminal
activity to the criminal alone and refuse the notion that
other factors are the causes. The other factors are merely
considerations of the main causal factor the criminal.
APPLICATION OF THEORY TO A CONTEMPORARY ISSUE
As a contemporary issue to be analyzed using Rational
Choice theory, any burglary would be a good choice, but the
armed robbery of a Nationsbank in Virginia Beach, VA was
chosen. (Information received through a personal interview
with Officer Kenneth Barlow of the Virginia Beach Police
Department.) Bank robbers are generally very involved in a
rational planning process that usually involves a great deal
of choices. The offender will stake-out potential targets
and choose the one with the least lighting, least number of
tellers, that is a furthest distance from the police
stations. He will consider what time is the busiest, and
when bank vault deposits are made. He will come up with a
disguise of some sort to hide his appearance, generally
covering not only the face, but preferably altering the body
shape. He will then analyze his method of exit. Will he
use a getaway car or will he use a motorcycle or a boat. He
will usually plan a way of using the money without being
hindered by any dye or other money destroying products used
by banks. Then he will commit the crime, just as he had
planned it. The only part of rational choice that would be
in dispute would be an analysis of consequences. The
majority of criminals do not expect to get caught, although
some may consider the amount of time served as a trade-off
for what they received.
In this particular crime, the robbers disguised
themselves by using face molding. Although not very
apparent to passers-by, they were theatrically made up to
look like old men while they were really younger men. The
two perpetrators held up the bank at gunpoint and escaped
with the money. They were tracked via helicopters and
captured within 24 hours. These criminals explained their
plan with police to blend into the crowd after washing off
the molding and to use the money to buy extravagant things
for themselves. They weighed these personal benefits with
the possibility of getting caught (which they of course did
not expect) and chose to rob the bank at 10:00 am because
most people would be at work and to retrieve the money
themselves to avoid money destroying substances. This was
obviously a planned, decision-making process.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
This theory will always maintain popularity among the
people because law-abiding citizens maintain order through
the power of will, and prefer to think of criminals in this
indeterministic manner as well. Future laws will most
likely, therefore, be even harsher on crime, as the public
no longer wants to blame themselves. We will build more,
even bigger prisons, and produce more, and harsher sentences
for criminals, while still not addressing the problem of
recidivism and where deterrence does not function
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Offender s Perspective. In Heal, K. and G. Laylock (eds.),
Situational Crime Prevention: From Theory into Practice.
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Bennett, T. & Wright, R. (1984). Burglars on Burglary.
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Buck, A.J., Hakim, S., and Rengert, G.F. (1993). Burglar
Alarms and The Choice Behavior of Burglars: A Suburban
Phenomenon. Journal of Criminal Justice, 21, 497 507.
Cornish, D. & Clarke, R. (1986a). The Reasoning Criminal:
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Kaplan, H.M., K.C. O Kane, P.J. Lavrakas, and E.J. Pesce
(1978). Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design: Final
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Newman, O. (1972). Defensible Space. New York: Macmillan.
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Personal Interview: Kenneth Barlow, Virginia Beach Police
Department, October 1, 1998. 2:00 4:00 P.M.
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