Rational Choice Theory

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Rational Choice Theory (Criminology)

Rational Choice Theory (Criminology)


Rational Choice theory portrays the globe as being made up of instrumentally rational persons. The “pump and dump” stock market scheme orchestrated by Michael Pickens involved knowledge, planning, and ingenuity. Some law violators carefully plan their activities, buy the proper equipment, try to avoid detection, and then attempt to squirrel away their criminal profits in some hidden bank account. Their calculated actions suggest that the decision to commit crime can involve rational and detailed planning and decision making, designed to maximize personal gain and avoid capture and punishment. This paper discusses to what extent rational choice theory provides a satisfactory explanation of crime.


Some criminologists go as far as suggesting that the source of all criminal violations—committing a robbery, selling drugs, attacking a rival, or filing a false tax return—rests upon rational decision making. Such a decision may be based on a variety of personal reasons, including need, thrill-seeking, revenge, anger, greed, jealousy, lust, or vanity. But the final decision to commit a crime is only made after the potential offender carefully weighs the possible consequences and benefits of their planned action and decides that the benefits of crime are greater than its consequences:

The jealous suitor concludes that the risk of punishment is worth the satisfaction of punching a rival in the nose.

The greedy shopper considers the chance of apprehension by store detectives so small that she takes a “five-finger discount” on a new sweater.

The drug dealer concludes that the huge profit from a single shipment of cocaine far outweighs the possible costs of apprehension.

The school yard bully carefully selects his next victim—someone who is weak, unpopular, and probably won't fight back.

The college student downloads a program that allows her to illegally copy music onto her iPod.

But can all crimes be a function of planning and calculation? While we can easily assume that international drug dealers, white-collar criminals such as Michael Pickens, and organized crime figures use planning, organization, and rational decision making to commit their crimes, can we also assume that such common crimes as theft, fraud, and even murder are a function of detailed planning and decision making? Before the college students take music off the Web, they must first not only acquire expertise and skill, but also decide that the money they save is worth the risk of detection. But what about the college student who gets into a bar fight or decides to have sex with an unconscious girl at a frat party? Are these crimes calculated and shrewd or random and senseless? Some criminologists would answer that they believe all criminal behavior, no matter how destructive or seemingly irresponsible, is actually a matter of thought and decision making. As a group, they are referred to as rational choice theorists. (Becker 2008, 12-15)

The Development of Rational Choice

During the early Middle Ages (1200-1400), superstition and fear of satanic possession dominated thinking. Persons who defied religious practices or social norms were supposed to be witches or possessed by ...
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