Rational Choice Theory Crime Essay

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

political policy.


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

al., 1978).

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).


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.


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.


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



Bennett, T. (1986). Situational Crime Prevention from the

Offender s Perspective. In Heal, K. and G. Laylock (eds.),

Situational Crime Prevention: From Theory into Practice.

London, England: Her Majesty s Stationary Office.

Bennett, T. & Wright, R. (1984). Burglars on Burglary.

Brookfield, VT: Gower.

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:

Rational Choice Perspectives on Offending. New York:

Springer-Verlag, 7-41.

Cornish, D. & Clarke, R. (1986b). Situational Crime

Prevention, Crime Displacement and Rational Choice Theory.

In Heal, K. and G. Laylock (eds.), Situational Crime

Prevention: From Theory into Practice. London, England: Her

Majesty s Stationary Office.

Cornish, D. & Clarke, R. (1987). Understanding Crime

Displacement: An Application of Rational Choice Theory,

Criminology, 25, 933 947.

Kaplan, H.M., K.C. O Kane, P.J. Lavrakas, and E.J. Pesce

(1978). Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design: Final

Report on Commercial Demonstration; Portland, Oregon.

Arlington, VA: Westinghouse Electric Corp.

Liska, A. & Bellair, P. (1995). Violent Crime-Rates and

Racial Composition: Convergence over Time. American Journal

of Sociology, 101, 578 610.

Newman, O. (1972). Defensible Space. New York: Macmillan.

Petraitis, J., B. Flay, & T. Miller (1995). Reviewing

Theories of Adolescent Substance Use: Organizing Pieces of

the Puzzle. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 67-86.

Repetto, T.A. (1974). Residential Crime. Cambridge, MA:


Smart, J.C.C. (1956). Extreme and Restricted

Utilitarianism. Philosophical Quarterly, 211, 86 104.

Wilson, J.Q. (1983). Thinking About Crime, rev. ed. New

York: Vintage Books.

Wright, R.T. & Decker, S.H. (1994). Burglars on the Job:

Streetlife and Residential Break-ins. Boston: Northeastern

University Press.

Wright, R.T. & Decker, S.H. (1995). Criminal Expertise and

Offender Decision-Making: An experimental Study of the

Target Selection Process in Residential Burglary. Journal

of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 32, 39 53.

Personal Interview: Kenneth Barlow, Virginia Beach Police

Department, October 1, 1998. 2:00 4:00 P.M.

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Choice theory was born out of the perspective of crime causation which states that criminality is the result of conscious choice. This theory is also known as the rational choice theory. According to this theory, the choice whether or not to commit a criminal act is the result of a rational thought process that weighs the risks of paying the costs of committing a crime, against the benefits obtained. In other words, if the benefits--monetary or otherwise--outweigh the risks of sustaining the costs, such as fines, imprisonment or execution, then according to this theory the individual would be inclined to commit the crime, all other things being equal. In this calculus, the benefits are known. For example, “this diamond that I want to…show more content…

In contrast to the theory in the Classical and Neoclassical schools that decision making drove criminal behavior, the Biological theory of criminology emphasized the individual’s genetic makeup as the prime factor contributing to socially deviant and criminal behavior. Thus, this school of thought was based entirely on a physiological perspective, and took the Classical theory of rational choice totally out of the equation. Biological theory was not traditionally based on sound science, however. For example, one of the school’s earliest proponents, Franz Joseph Gall, to a large degree followed conventional thought of the time that the shape of one’s face, the placement or condition of one’s internal organs, determined personality, and from personality, the propensity towards criminal behavior. Working in the late 18th-early 19th centuries, Gall espoused that the brain contained the individual’s personality makeup, and that the outward shape of the skull evidenced the development or underdevelopment of the brain. In this way, Gall sought to interpret a person’s behavioral tendencies based on the shape of the person’s skull. This science, called “phrenology”, continued to enjoy some recognition in American science into the twentieth century, was continued by Italian psychologist Cesare Lombroso into the early


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