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Self-Control and Crime: A Sociological Perspective

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Self-Control and Crime: A Sociological Perspective

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SELF-CONTROL AND CRIME: A SOCIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE
CALLIE H. BURT
Arizona State University
Uncorrected, accepted version: 01/31/2013.
Citation: Burt, Callie H. 2014. Self-Control and Crime: A Sociological Perspective. In K. Beaver, J.C
Barnes, & B. Boutwell, The Nurture Versus Biosocial Debate in Criminology. (Pp. 143-171).
Sage Publishers.
*Direct all correspondence to Callie Burt, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Arizona State
University, 411 N. Central Ave, Ste. 600, Phoenix, AZ 85004.
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SELF-CONTROL AND CRIME: A SOCIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE
Self-control has attracted an incredible amount of attention across scientific disciplines. Exercising self-
control (not eating that second piece of chocolate cake) and failing to exercise self-control (eating that
first piece of cake when on a diet) are part of being human. In this chapter, I focus on the link between
self-control and crime from a sociological perspective. At present, the governing sociological view of
self-control is contained in Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) self-control theory, which I will refer to as
SCT. This theory also goes by the name “the general theory of crime,” but since other theories of crime
claim to be general ones as well, I will stick to SCT.
In the following pages, I discuss self-control and crime from the perspective of SCT. First, I discuss
the development of the theory, highlighting its sociological basis and elements. Then I discuss research on
the theory, noting what studies suggest about its accuracy. I conclude by describing a modified version of
the theory (modified in light of research). Before moving on, I want to issue a disclaimer. In this chapter,
I write from the position of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s theory. This is neither a personal endorsement of
the theory or its ideas nor the superiority of sociological perspectives on self-control. Instead, this chapter
is a description of SCTthe foremost social theory of self-control and crime, including its assumptions,
arguments, implications, and research.
SELF-CONTROL THEORY (SCT)
Theoretical Background
Boldly proclaiming an explanation of all crime at all times, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990, hereafter
G&H for short), presented their self-control theory. The first thing the theorists did was to define what
they are trying to explain: crime. Rejecting a strictly legal definition of crime that can vary across time
and place (for example, the different legal status of smoking marijuana in Colorado versus Alabama in
2013), G&H defined crime as “acts of force or fraud undertaken in the pursuit of self-interest.” G&H
argued that the vast majority of crimes are trivial and involve little or no planning, little loss, and even
less gain. Certainly, most of us appreciate the fact that most acts of force and fraud are not the elaborate
bank heists engaged in by (quite good looking) males as depicted in popular films (e.g., Oceans 11, 12,
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13thankfully they stopped at 13). Instead, G&H stress that most crimes are petty and unplanned, but
and this is keyhave benefits that are immediate and costs are that largely delayed. I will return to this
vital point shortly.
All theories rest on a number of assumptions that form the foundation for their ideas and
propositions. For example, some theories assume that people are naturally prosocial and cooperative, even
altruistic, and only behave badly when pushed to by abnormal conditions. Self-control theory does not
adopt this benevolent view of human naturequite the opposite. As a control theory, SCT is based in a
set of assumptions known as the classical view, which assumes that humans are naturally selfish and
pleasure seeking (or hedonistic). G&H explain: “In this view, all human conduct can be understood as the
self-interested pursuit of pleasure or the avoidance of pain” (p.5). Thus, SCT assumes that we all want to
please ourselves, regardless of consequences to others, in the most gratifying way (which happens to be
the quickest, easiest way possible). To use one of G&H’s examples, we all want “money without work,
sex without courtship, revenge without court delays.
The theory also assumes we are rational pleasure-maximizers. In other words, we weigh costs and
benefits and choose the action that our calculations reveal will bring us the most pleasure (called
hedonistic calculus). We eat one piece of chocolate cake, for example, after thinking about the
consequences and determining that the pleasure from the one piece outweighs the costs (e.g., will not
violate our diet), but stop after one piece realizing that the fullness would be uncomfortable and two
pieces would violate our diet. The opposite of the rational actor would be the non-rational actor who does
not follow his or her hedonistic calculations; he or she would thus weigh the costs and benefits, realize
that an act risks more pain than pleasure, and still choose that act. If we were not rational, then we would
not be bound by our hedonistic calculation. According to SCT, we are rational, so we choose the act that
our calculations suggest will bring us the most pleasure and the least pain.
Notably, different preferences, tastes, or the like have no role in SCT. Instead, the theory assumes
that we are all (highly) motivated to the immediate benefits of crime. According to SCT, we all want to
take a television without paying; we all want to shoot the dog that constantly barks his head off; and we
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all want to ease our mental anguish by getting high rather than by going to therapy, meditating, or
exercising. We are all motivated to the short-term benefits of crimes because they provide immediate
pleasure or gratification of desires with little effort (pain). If behavior had no long-term consequences,
presumably we would all commit crimes. So, why don’t we? Why do most of us most of the time pay for
our televisions, ignore or talk to the neighbors about their barking dog, and use other forms of coping
rather than getting high? The answer is found in the realityunfortunate for the caught offenderthat
criminal behaviors do have long-term negative consequences.
G&H highlight four categories of pains or punishments that follow from crimes, drawing on the
classical scholar Jeremy Bentham (2007/1823). The most obvious is legal or political penalties. Legally
specified penalties attached to most acts of crimes are much greater than the rewards to be gained by
them. That is, of course, the whole idea of deterrence and a basis for modern day criminal justice systems.
If the penalty for stealing a $1000 television was a $20 fine, the threat of this legal punishment would not
sway us against offending. Even so, most of us would still not steal a television even if the fine was this
paltry, because of penalties or potential long-term negative consequences from other sanctioning systems.
Perhaps the most influential is social penalties. Potential social consequences for getting caught offending
are important influences on behavior. Getting caught offending disappoints others; it threatens
relationships; and it damages reputations for most people. Most of us would not steal a television even if
the penalty were only $20 if there was a chance of being caught (which there always is) in part because
we would recognize how others would view us or change their relationships with us if found out. Thus,
offending carries with it the risk of painful delayed social consequences.
The two other sanctioning systems G&H recognize are religious and physical. Many individuals are
kept in line, so to speak, because they believe in a higher power(s) who sees their force or fraud, and they
believe they will be punished by this higher power(s) for such behavior (especially in an afterlife, a
punishment that is particularly delayed). A final category of potential negative consequences of crime is
physical punishment or pains. Drawing on Bentham, G&H describe physical sanctions as those
“consequences of behavior that follow naturally from it and require no active intervention by others” (p.6)
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“It turns out,” G&H state, “that many criminal or deviant acts are sufficiently risky or inherently difficult
that they are, at least to some extent, naturally limited(p.6). The theorists use the example of intravenous
drug use that “apparently produces great pleasure, but also carries with it a large increase in the risk of
accident, infection, permanent physiological damage, and death(p.6). Victims may also be a source of
physical pain, as people can react violently to threats or attacks to life and limb or even property.
Moreover, physical pain has also been associated with imprisonment, for example by attacks from other
inmates. One study of prisons across four Midwestern states found that about 20% of male inmates
reported a pressured or forced sex incident while incarcerated. Roughly nine percent reported that they
had been raped (Struckman-Johnson & Struckman-Johnson 2000). Many crimes risk delayed physical
pains or punishments.
To summarize the discussion thus far, SCT assumes that the motivation to the immediate gains of
crime are universal. We are all motivated to the ends of crime, but are restrained by potential
consequences, the most important ones being social. Crimes risk long-term consequences that for most
crimes far exceed any benefits to be gained from the pleasurable act. Therefore, as rational, hedonistic
beings, we should all forgo crime because crime objectively risks more pain than gain. G&H (1990)
argue: “the balance of the total control structure favors conformity, even among offenders…” (p.86).
How, then, do we explain individuals’ commission of crime given that we are rational and pleasure
maximizing? Hirschi and Gottfredson (1994:4) raise this question explicitly: “The mystery is, rather,
how some people can ignore or misapprehend the automatic consequences of their behavior, both positive
and negative, and thus continue to act as though these consequences did not exist.”
The Concept of Self-Control
To rephrase the above question somewhat awkwardly (you’re welcome): How can we explain this
objectively non-pleasure maximizing choice (crime) given a model that assumes we are both rational and
pleasure-maximizing when making choices? The answer, according to SCT, lies in individuals’ time
horizons at the point of decision-making. According to G&H, although we all see the immediate
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consequences of behavior (how good that cake will taste), how far into the future we extend our
consequence considerations varies across individuals. This size of the window of time we consider affects
the factors we consider when making our cost-benefit calculations, as many behavioral consequences are
quite delayed. G&H (1990) summarize their position thusly:
“The object of the offense is clearly pleasurable and universally so. Engaging in the act, however,
entails some risk of social, legal, and/or natural sanctions. Whereas the pleasure attained by the
act is direct, obvious and immediate, the pains risked by it are not obvious, or direct, and are at
any event at greater remove from it. It follows that, though there will be little variability among
people in their ability to see the pleasures of crime, there will be considerable variability in their
ability to calculate potential pains…So, the dimensions of self-control are, in our view, factors
affecting the calculation of the consequences of one’s acts.” (p.95).
According to SCT, this variabletime perspective at the point of decision-makingis a
continuum. At the one end are individuals who consider potential consequences over a long time range.
To use the cake example (which you are probably tired of now), these individuals would consider how
they will feel after eating the cake, the next hour, for the rest of the day, how it will influence their diet
across the week, and so on. At the other end of the spectrum, are individuals who are myopic, or have
short time horizons. These individuals consider only the immediate consequences of their behavior. Thus,
they would choose to eat cake when the immediate benefits outweigh the immediate costs, because they
do not even consider the delayed benefits or costs in their calculations. According to SCT, this variable
time perspective in cost benefit calculationsaccounts for between individual variation in perceptions of
pleasures and pains, and thus the choice of crime or non-crime.
People who lack self-control are not constrained from crime by the potential long-term
consequences of crime because they do not consider these consequences when making decisions.
Individuals with high self-control are able to forgo the immediate benefits that crimes offer because they
extend their considerations into the future and recognize that such benefits risk much more painful
delayed consequences.
Time perspectives at the point of decision making is the key individual variable accounting for
individual differences in the propensity to commit crime, and is called self-control. Low self-control is
defined as “the tendency of individuals to pursue short-term gratification without consideration of the
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long-term consequences of their acts” (p. 177) or “the tendency to ignore the long-term consequences
of one’s acts (Hirschi & Gottfredson 1993a:49). To answer the question raised earlier by G&H, the
mystery of how some people can continue to act as though delayed consequences do not exist is because
they do not see these consequences when making decisions. These long-term consequences actually do
not exist in the mind’s eye for individuals with low self-control. To reiterate, having low self-control is
equivalent to having a short time perspective, such that cost-benefit calculations and decisions are based
only on immediate consequences, whereas individuals with high self-control consider a range of
consequences that extend out past immediate pains and pleasures.
According to G&H, self-control is the sole variable responsible for individual differences in the
propensity to offend. Self-control is “the individual characteristic relevant to the commission of criminal
acts” (G&H: 1990, p.88). As, such low self-control is equivalent to criminality, which is a term referring
to individuals’ propensities to offend. Since self-control is the primary variable accounting for differential
propensities to crimes, what is not relevant to individual’s criminality is, ta-da: everything else. This
includes differential motivations, which we have already discussed, and beliefs about the legitimacy of
rules or norms. According to SCT, offenders believe just as strongly in the value or moral sway of rules
as non-offenders. It also excludes variation in the tendency to feel moral emotions (such as shame, guilt,
sympathy, empathy, love); therefore, offenders should feel just as guilty as anyone else after committing
their offenses. Ability to satisfy wants or needs legitimately is also unrelated to individual offending
according to the theory. In other words, whether you can buy the television or not has no effect on your
likelihood of stealing the television. Since self-control is the only significant individual factor that
distinguishes criminals from law-abiders, the offender is “just as forgiving, as unarmed, as lacking in
nefarious plans, or as remorseful and self-critical as non-offenders” (Felson and Osgood 2008: 163).
Development of self-control
What is the source of criminality, a.k.a. low self-control? Consistent with the theory’s assumptions about
our naturally selfish, pleasure-maximizing nature, SCT asserts that we are born with low self-control.
Spend time with an infant, and you will probably wholeheartedly agree with this idea. Short-term
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rationality is humans’ natural disposition. The lack of self-control, or criminality, requires no special
learning, pressures, or painsits causes are “negative rather than positive” (p.95). Instead, (high) self-
control is learned, and this is a key sociological component of the theory.
According to SCT, effective parenting during the first 6 to 8 years of life inculcates (high) self-
control. Fortunately, given the importance of self-control according to the theory, effective parenting is
not rocket science (duh, it’s parenting). Driven largely by affection for the child, effective parenting
includes three minimum conditions: monitoring, recognition of deviance, and punishment of deviance.
Regarding parental monitoring, G&H note, “such supervision presumably prevents criminal or analogous
acts and at the same time trains the child to avoid them on his own” (p.99, emphasis added). “In order for
supervision to have an impact on self-control, the supervisor must perceive deviant behavior when it
occurs….Some parents allow the child to do pretty much as he pleases without interference. Extensive
television watching is one modern example, as is the failure to require completion of homework….”
(p.99).
Noting that “disapproval by people one cares about is one of the most powerful of sanctions,” G&H
suggest that effective punishment “usually entails nothing more than explicit disapproval of unwanted
behavior” (p.99-100). They do remark, however, that not all parents punish effectively, with some being
too harsh and others being too lenient. Moreover, consistent with their model, they note, “rewarding good
behavior cannot compensate for failure to correct deviant behavior” (p.100).
The idea is that parents who supervise their children, recognize inappropriate behavior, and punish
the child for bad behavior instill in children the ability to recognize that many pleasurable behaviors
(especially deviant ones) have negative consequences that are neither immediate nor directly tied to the
qualities inherent in the acts themselves (including punishment and parental anger, disappointment, and
frustration). G&H also describe the situation where self-control is not developed.
“When we seek the causes of low self-control, we ask where this system can go wrong. Obviously
parents do not prefer their children to be unsocialized in the terms described. We can therefore rule
out in advance the possibility of positive socialization to unsocialized behavior…the system can go
wrong at any one of four places. First, the parents may not care for the child (in which case none of
the other conditions would be met); second, the parents, even if they care, may not have the time or
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energy to monitor the child’s behavior; third the parents, even if they care and monitor, may not see
anything wrong with the child’s behavior; finally, even if everything else is in place, the parents
may not have the inclination or the means to punish the child. So, what may appear at first glance
to be nonproblematic turns out to be problematic indeed. Many things can go wrong.” (p. 98).
As a sociological theory, the theorists do not get into the underlying processes of how effective
parenting shapes time perspective. The important thing is that these parenting practices teach children to
consider the more distant consequences of behavior and ingrain the ability to appreciate that the
immediate pleasures from many behaviors (crimes and analogous behaviors) are outweighed by painful
consequences that are delayed. As the theorists note: “Socialization, in this sense, may be seen as a
process of educating individuals about the consequences of their behavior” (1994), and “[t]rouble is likely
unless something is done to train the child to forego immediate gratification in the interests of long-term
benefits” (1990: 269).
Stability of Self-Control
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of SCT is the stability proposition. The theory postulates that after
childhood (around ages 8-10), between-individual levels of self-control are fixed. Either individuals
develop self-control largely as a result of effective parenting during these formative years, or they do not,
in which case they will suffer from low self-control and its many negative manifestations across the life
course. In the words of Hirschi and Gottfredson (2001:90): “The differences observed at ages 8 to 10 tend
to persist...Good children remain good. Not so good children remain a source of concern to their parents,
teachers, and eventually to the criminal justice system. These facts lead to the conclusion that low self-
control is natural and that self-control is acquired in the early years of life.”
According to SCT, then, the first decade of life is a crucial window of opportunity for the
development of self-control. The social influence on self-control is limited to the formative years. After
this time, while a cohort’s overall level of self-control likely increases as socialization continues
throughout life, between-individual levels of self-control are crystallized and impervious to change. “Our
theory asserts that following childhood the population can be meaningfully ranked in terms of self-
control, the tendency to consider or ignore the long-term consequences of one’s acts” (Hirschi and
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Gottfredson 1995:137). Notably, this is a distinction between absolute and relative stability. While self-
control levels will likely increase slowly for all individuals in a particular age group (cohort) over time as
socialization continues through the life course (absolute increases in self-control), relative levels of self-
control should remain fixed. Thus, if Bob has more self-control than Billy at age 10, then Bob should be
less likely to commit crimes given greater time perspective than Bob throughout the life course, even
though both Bob’s and Billy’s self-control likely increases in absolute terms over time (and regardless of
what happens in their lives).
Presumably, SCT implies that decision-making habits, neural pathways, or other unspecified
cognitive mechanisms responsible for the degree to which individuals consider long-term consequences
of actions when calculating pleasures and pains are cemented in late childhood. (Such neuropsychological
processes are outside of the concern of this social theory.) SCT proposes that those individuals, who were
not fortunate enough to be effectively parented and, therefore, failed to develop self-control, will make
myopic decisionsthose promising immediate gratification with delayed costly outcomesacross the
life course. The first decade of life is the window of opportunity to develop self-control (or not).
Alternative (Non) Sources or Influences on Self-Control
There are, of course, a multitude of other possible sources of self-control. G&H address, and largely
dismiss, several of these in their theoretical monograph. The first of these they focus upon is the school.
G&H remark: “Those not socialized sufficiently by the family may eventually learn self-control through
the operation of other social institutions. The institution given principle responsibility for this task in
modern society is the school.” (p.105). They argue, however, that despite its potential for inculcating self-
control among children who were not effectively parented, the school is largely unable to compensate for
lack of training in the home. The primary reason for this lack of success of the school in teaching self-
control is that the school relies upon parents’ cooperation and support. Making sure that the child does
his or her homework, is well fed and rested, arrives at school on time (or at all) are all essential for the
school to be an effective socializing institution (acts, that require monitoring, recognition of deviance, and
punishment). Unfortunately, those ineffective parents are not likely to be cooperating with and supportive
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of the schools mission. Thus, noting that the “net effect of the school must be positive,” G&H reiterate
that self-control differences are primarily attributable to parenting practices (p.106).
G&H also address the potential role of biology in criminality. Indeed, they devote an entire chapter
to “biological positivism.” Here they attack both the approach and its assumptions, but for our purposes,
the important idea is found in their interpretation of the findings from existing research (recall that this
book was published in 1990). They concluded, based on their reading of the results, that the magnitude of
“the true genetic effect on the likelihood of criminal behavior…is minimal” (p58) and “near zero” (p.60).
They note, however, that this “should not be interpreted as showing that biology has nothing to do with
crime,” but that its effect is “substantively trivial” (60-61).
In other words, G&H grant the possibility that biology plays some role in human propensities and
behaviors, such as self-control and crime. However, its role is minimal; regardless of inborn
temperaments, effective parenting is needed to instill self-control. Although some children may be easier
to socialize than others based on these small, in-born differences, G&H assert that effective parenting is
still the major source of individual differences. Thus, SCT is a theory of intergenerational transmission of
criminality through effective parenting rather than genes.
Obviously, since self-control is fixed by age 10 according to SCT, experiences that occur after this
time should have no effect on self-control. What the stability proposition implies is that many factors that
have been identified as influencing the change in criminal propensity across the life course, such as
employment, marriage, having children, incarceration, and deviant peers do not influence individuals’
levels of self-control. Instead, G&H argue these are social consequences of self-control. Individuals select
themselves into these experiences based on their levels of self-control, thus making it appear that there is
a causal relationship between these factors. In other words, the link between employment, marriage, and
peers with crime is spurious. Levels of self-control cause both crime and negative social consequences.
Take the example of deviant peers, which has been identified as the strongest correlate of
individual offending. While other theories (e.g., Sutherland’s (1947) differential association and Akers’
(1973) social learning) propose that delinquent peers have a causal influence on individual offending
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through definitions conducive to crime, G&H argue not so. Instead, they use the old adage, “birds of a
feather flock together.” They maintain that individuals with low self-control select themselves into peer
groups that have low self-control as well. This is due to several factors, including the fact that their
common myopia will lead to a shared interest in immediate gratification. On the other hand, individuals
with higher self-control select themselves into groups that have shared interests based in part on their
longer time perspective, such as persisting at school work for a shared college goal, involvement in
athletic training that reaps athletic rewards in the future, or a disinclination to (illegal) behaviors, such as
drinking and substance use, which threaten long-term goals.
This same explanation applies to other social factors. Individuals with low self-control select
themselves out of well-paying, meaningful jobs; it is not the absence of the job that leads to their
continuing crime, but their levels of self-control that created both their joblessness and their offending.
Likewise for marriage. Stable, satisfying relationships, which sometimes end in marriage, require
individuals to delay gratification and foresee potential consequences of various actions (cheating, working
towards mutual goals, etc.) for the sake of their partner and relationship. Individuals with low self-control
are thus unlikely to end up in such stable relationships, which have been linked to reduced offending.
According to G&H, then, it is not marriage or a steady relationship that is responsible for less offending,
but rather the underlying levels of self-control influences both. As such, SCT is a social theory, but the
influence of society on individual differences in offending is limited to the first decade of life. After this
time, because self-control is already set in stone, positive interventions, life events, or the like will have
no influence on criminality. Instead, these later social factors are social consequences of self-control.
Self-Control and “Analogous” Behaviors
“Crimes result from the pursuit of immediate, certain, easy benefits. Some noncriminal events appear to
result from pursuit of the same kinds of benefits. As a result, these noncriminal events are correlated with
crime…” (G&H p.42). These acts similar to crimes that are also manifestations of low self-control,
according to SCT, are known as “noncriminal acts analogous to crime” (p.91).
G&H identify a number of analogous acts that stem from low self-control. In fact, they note that
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low self-control has many manifestations, crime being only one of them. The first class of acts that they
identify are accidents. While at first blush, accidents may not seem to result from pursuit of immediate
gratification, G&H point out that accidents often are the result of myopia. “For example, motor vehicle
accidents tend to be associated with speed, drinking, tail-gating, inattention, risk-taking, defective
equipment, and young males. House fires tend to be associated with smoking, drinking, number of
children, and defective equipment” (p.42). Certainly regularly checking equipment, such as fire alarms
and preparing the house appropriately with fire extinguishers does not provide immediate gratification but
the failure to do so could have really severe consequences. (I may or may not have just checked my
smoke detectors after writing this.)
Other noncriminal acts analogous to crime that G&H identify are smoking, drinking, and other drug
use. Each of these acts (ostensibly) provides immediate pleasure and/or the attenuating of current pains
(esp. for those addicted to such substances), but threatens severe delayed punishments/pains. Smoking is
an excellent example. While providing immediate benefits (nicotine fix, looking “cool” or “adultlike”,
etc.), we are all well aware of the long-term consequences of smoking. For those with low self-control,
these delayed consequences never enter their cost-benefit calculations, and thus they may choose to
smoke. Binge drinking is another example, while many people enjoy the immediate consequences of
being quite intoxicated, the delayed consequences can be severe, including terrible hangovers, missed or
impaired school/work, involvement in behaviors that may threaten relationships due to intoxication, and
even more long-term, irreversible damage to the liver or other internal organs (brain). Drinking
responsibly, rather than getting wasted, is generally due in large part to the recognition of the delayed
costs of getting really drunk. Thus, SCT predicts that those with low self-control are more likely to
smoke, drink, use drugs, get in accidents, and further down the line suffer from diseases. In that sense,
G&H note, “[t]he ‘costs’ of low self-control for the individual may far exceed the costs of his criminal
acts” (p.94).
Criminality (Self-control) and Crime
Essential to SCT is the distinction between crime and criminality. Crimes are acts, or “short-term
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circumscribed events that presuppose a peculiar set of necessary conditions (e.g., activity, opportunity,
adversaries, victims, goods)” (p.137). Criminality, which as you recall is tantamount to low self-control
in SCT, refers to individual propensities to commit criminal acts. The idea inherent in the concept of
criminality is that, all else equal, individuals with higher levels of criminality should be more likely to
engage in acts of crime. However, G&H (1990) note on several occasions, low self-control does not
require crime due to the variable effect of opportunity (another social influence).
According to SCT, criminal events occur when individuals with low self-control encounter
opportunities for offending. Inherent in the notion of opportunities is not only the availability of goods,
victims, etc., but also conditions facilitating immediate gratification through illegal acts without
immediate pains. Thus, if an underage individual has surreptitious possession of alcohol but is under the
supervision of her or his parents or other authorities, we would not consider that an opportunity. The
opportunity for theft is present when goods are available to be stolen without monitoring (electronic
devices, salespersons). Similarly, the opportunity for rape would be present when individuals are in
situations where the potential victim is weakened and/or isolated from monitoring from individuals who
would intervene or alert the authorities is absent.
To repeat, then, crime results when individuals with low self-control encounter opportunities for
offending. G&H note, “self-control is only one element in the causal configuration leading to a criminal
act, and criminal acts are, at best, imperfect measures of self-control” (p.137). SCT proposes that crime is
not an automatic consequence of self-control, as it is dependent upon opportunities, and that many acts
analogous to crimes, such as smoking, drinking, and accidents, are also manifestations of low self-control.
At this point the social emphasis of the theory should be quite apparent. Individuals are born with
low self-control and it is the role of society, specifically caregivers, to socialize individuals to be
functioning members of the social body. Socialization enables individuals to foresee the long-term
consequences of their acts for themselves and others thereby allowing cooperation, pursuit of goals, and
overall the continuance of the orderly(ish) society that we live. When things go wrongwhen parents do
not adequately socialize their childrenbehavior is still shaped by social factors: opportunities. There is
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place or need to recognize biological or psychological factors in this theory. Make no mistake, G&H do
not argue that biological differences do not exist or psychological processes are not at play. Instead, they
contend that such differences are unnecessary for the theory. If parenting and opportunities determine
differences in individuals’ crime and criminality, then delving into these other factors is superfluous at
best and misguided at worst.
SCT and Prominent Correlates of Offending
The distinction between crime and criminality is key to understanding other facets of the theory, such as
the theory’s position on offender specialization versus versatility. By versatility, G&H mean that
“offenders commit a wide variety of criminal acts, with no strong inclination to pursue a specific criminal
act or a pattern of criminal acts to the exclusion of others” (p.91). G&H’s “image therefore implies that no
specific act, type of crime, or form of deviance is uniquely required by the absence of self-control.”
(p.91). SCT does propose that the class of crime and analogous acts will be engaged in at a relatively high
rate by people with low self-control. Within the domain of crime, however, “there will be much versatility
in the criminals acts in which individuals engage.” In short, SCT proposes that individuals with low self-
control will be likely to engage in the opportunity for crime, regardless of type, because crimes provide
immediate gratification. Therefore, SCT predicts that offenders will be versatile and will not specialize in
particular offenses.
The crimecriminality distinction is also essential for understanding the theory’s position on age
and crime. Several years prior to the publication of their book, Hirschi and Gottfredson (1983) published
a rather famous and controversial piece in the American Journal of Sociology where they begin
explicating their view on the connection between age and crime. In their theoretical monograph, they
further develop their view of the relationship between age and crime, which they call “age theory.”
The age theory rests on a number of theoretical assertions and empirical interpretations. First,
drawing on evidence at different times and places, G&H concluded that the age crime curve is invariant
across cultural and social conditions (i.e., found everywhere) (Note: The “age crime curve” refers to the
inverted J pattern of offending that rises after late childhood, reaching a peak around age 16 years, and
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then steadily declines thereafter.) Going through existing social scientific explanations of the age-crime
curve, the authors found them lacking and inconsistent with available evidence. For example,
Sutherland’s differential association theory would argue that the decline in crime with age is due to the
decreased affiliation with criminal individuals and, therefore, a change in individuals’ definitions towards
crime. However, they noted that research shows that “even with equal exposure to criminal influences,
propensity toward crime diminishes as one grows older” (Rowe and Tittle 1977:229).
In contrast to the prevailing view that adequate theories must be able to explain the age-crime
connection, G&H argued that this inability to explain the age effect does not invalidate a theory. Instead,
they took the unusual position of saying that the age-crime curve is inexplicable with social scientific
explanations. G&H conclude, in a rather interesting bit of reasoning, that crime declines with age
independent of criminality “due to the inexorable aging of the organism” (p.141). In other words,
although self-control remains stable, individuals’ involvement in criminal events declines for reasons out
of the concern of social theories. “The distinction between crime and self-control thus provides a device
for solving one of the major empirical dilemmas of criminology: the fact that crime everywhere declines
with age while differences in ‘crime’ tendency across individuals remain relatively stable over the life
course” (G&H, p.145). To be clear, because the age effect is invariant, both high and low rate offenders
will decrease their offending with age, even though their levels of self-control remain fairly stable across
the life course.
Like age, sex differences in offending appear to be ubiquitous. “Men are always and everywhere
more likely than women to commit criminal acts” (p.145). Moreover, G&H note, sex differences in
behaviors analogous to crimes are similar to those for criminal acts. For example, G&H point to evidence
that shows that males are more likely to get in accidents (traffic accidents and otherwise) as well as abuse
alcohol and drugs. The theorists also note that sex differences in crime and analogous acts are established
early in life and persist throughout life, a fact that implies differences in the stable trait of self-control.
As a social theory, G&H do not theorize about possible biological differences between the sexes
that could influence their offending patterns. Instead, they look to social factors. After reviewing research
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showing gender differences in patterns of child rearing, the theorists conclude, consistent with SCT, that
sex differences in offending are largely due to sex differences in parenting. G&H argue that females are
often subject to higher levels of monitoring, recognition of deviance, and punishment, which translates
into higher levels of stable self-control across the life course. We are all aware of the phrase “boys will be
boys,” which can be applied to young boys’ fighting, risk-taking, and the like. There is no adage “girls
will be girls” that fits risk-taking or physically aggressive behavior. Indeed, G&H point to research
suggesting not only that females are monitored more closely, but their deviant behavior is more likely to
be recognized as such and punished than that of males.
In addition to differences in self-control, G&H also argue that differences in opportunities (those
“peculiar set of necessary conditions for crime”) should also play a role in the higher rates of male
offending. The role of direct supervision by parents and other social institutions plays a large role in
shaping opportunities. They note that historically girls have been supervised more closely than boys, a
situation that continues to the present day, albeit at diminished levels. This greater supervision of females
was not due, as G&H point out, to the presumed higher levels on criminality among females, but rather to
“the fact that most forms of delinquency are more costly to females than to males…[for example] sexual
misbehavior could result in pregnancy and reduced opportunities for a successful marriage. In general, the
connection between good behavior and life chances was so much stronger for females than for males that
their life chances could be damaged by all sorts of misbehavior that would have little impact on the life
chances of males” (p.148).
G&H thus conclude that differences in both criminality and opportunity play a role in the gender
gap, with opportunity being less important. The theorists, however, leave the door open for other factors,
stating: “It is beyond the scope of this work (and beyond the reach of any available set of empirical data)
to attempt to identify all of the elements responsible for gender differences in crime” (p.149). Thus, while
levels of self-control should play a major role in explicating gender differences, other factors are at play
and more research is needed.
Theories of crime should also be able to explain or shed light on racial-ethnic disparities in
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offending. Although official statistics are biased to some (unknown) degree by racial discrimination in the
criminal justice system, self-report and victimization studies provide further evidence that rates of
offending vary across racial and ethnic groups. G&H note that these differences are large and fairly stable
over time. As with gender, the theorists remark that differences in crime rates across racial-ethnic groups
are likely due to differences in both self-control and opportunity, with self-control having a stronger
influence. G&H state that “there are differences among racial ethnic groups (as there are between the
sexes) in levels of direct supervision by the family,” and that “research on racial differences should focus
on differential child-rearing practices…” (p.153).
Notably, this does not imply that factors such as economic or family stress do not play a role in
explaining racial-ethnic differences in crime rates. To the contrary, these factors almost certainly do play
a role but through their effects on parenting. The economically stressed parent, on average according to
G&H, is less able to effectively parent than the economically secure parent, as is the single parent, the
working parent, and the parent of many children. This explanation does, however, discard cultural
explanations for racial-ethnic differences. “Unfortunately for the cultural view of criminality,” G&H
remark, “the empirical evidence supports virtually none of its assumptions” (p.151).
G&H also address cross-cultural differences in crime and explanations for these differences. Not
surprisingly, they take a different tact than most others: “Our approach therefore rejects the conventional
wisdom of comparative criminology. It assumes instead that cultural variability is not important in the
causation of crime, that we should look for constancy rather than variability in the definition and causes
of crime, and that a single theory of crime can encompass the reality of cross cultural differences in crime
rates” (p.174-5; emphasis in original). That constancy that they identify is, of course, consistent with their
theory and suggests to them that self-control is the primary cause of crime regardless of the cultural
context. As with other correlates, they ascribe a smaller role to opportunities as “crimes have minimal
element over and above their benefits to the individual...that do vary from time to time and place to
place…” (p.177).
In sum, G&H argue that differences in crime rates across the sexes, racial-ethnic groups, and
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cultures are due in large part to differences in self-control. These self-control differences, in turn, are due
to differences in effective parenting across groups. Differences in opportunities play a less important role,
and the theorists open the door to other influences citing the need for more research. Nonetheless, the key
to understanding these differences, according to SCT, is found in differential child rearing practices that
produce different levels of criminality. Gibbs and Giever (1995) articulately describe the portrait of the
offender according to SCT:
“The picture of the personality with low self-control that emerges from Gottfredson and Hirschi’s
theory is not flattering. The owner of such a personality is the product of parental disinterest, who
has developed into a rather dull and inept creature unfettered by conventional concerns but
tethered to the pursuit of momentary pleasure. Throughout life, this person engages in a variety of
criminal and analogous acts when the opportunity for pleasure arises. His or her chances for
success in conventional terms (e.g., employment, education, relationships), or in unconventional
terms, for that matter (e.g., a successful criminal career), are circumscribed by a lack of self-
control. This person has not acquired the persistence and the time perspective required to succeed
in just about any long-term endeavor” (pp. 233-234).
POLICY IMPLICATIONS OF SCT
A theory’s public policy recommendations can basically be understood as the procedures that should be
instituted to reduce or control crime assuming that the theory is true. Theories are useful both for
evaluating existing criminal justice policies as well as suggesting changes. In terms of the adequacy of
existing policies, G&H are quite frank: “Clearly, the general thrust of the public policy implications of
our theory is counter to the prevailing view that modifications of the criminal justice system hold promise
for major reductions in criminal activity” (p.255).
G&H highlight four facets of their theory that undergird their claim of a weak effect of the criminal
justice system. First, SCT emphasizes the stability of individual differences in criminality (low self-
control), differences that are established in the crucial first decade of life. These fixed levels of self-
control are “highly resistant to the less powerful inhibiting forces of later life, especially the relatively
weak forces of the criminal justice system” (p.255). Second, SCT emphasizes the diversity among crime
and analogous acts, sharing a common etiology (low self-control + opportunity). Since the causes of
truancy are the same as those for drug use and violence, they argue: “It follows that the criminal justice
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system is at best a weak cause of any of them” (p.256). Furthermore, they argue to target any one of the
acts as a cause of another (e.g., drug use as a cause for theft) is unlikely to be successful, because self-
control is the primary cause of both. Third, because they assume that the motive to crime is high for all,
G&H criticize those policies that seek to curb crime by the “satisfaction of theoretically derived wants
(e.g., equality, adequate housing, good jobs, self-esteem)” (p.256). Finally, the theory recognizes the
inexplicable age effect, whereby crime declines with age for all persons. Thus, the natural crime decline
with age may be wrongly interpreted as support for programs that follow individuals across this natural
crime decline.
Because they occur after the crucial time period of the first decade of life, criminal justice
interventions are unlikely to be effective. Therefore, prison rehabilitation programs, drug treatment
programs, and the like are a waste of money as they have insignificant influence on individuals’
criminality. The current dominant policy in our system at presentincapacitationis ineffective for
several reasons. First, it is a response after crime has occurred, because we have no means for identifying
chronic offenders with high degrees of accuracy prior to the commission of their crimes, according to
G&H. While incapacitation does prevent individuals behind bars from victimizing others outside prison
walls, it is incredibly costly (cost-ineffective) to reduce crime by warehousing. Finally, given the age
effect, for incapacitation to be maximally effective, it should be focused on the age period prior to the
peak years of crime, which would be around 13 or 14 years of age. As G&H note, the ethical issues
around such a policy precludes further discussion or investigation of its potential effects.
Attempting to reduce crime by modifying policing is also unlikely to be successful according to
G&H. The notion of specialized police divisions to deal with specialized offender is contrary to their view
of the versatile offender. Similarly, increasing the number of police is unlikely to have much of an effect
because “[i]n the bulk of these offenses, the offender does not know or does not care about the probability
of being observed by the police” (G&H, p.270). There view of “sting” operations is similarly unfavorable:
“The common result of such expensive and time-consuming operations is the capture of a number of
ordinary “losers,” many of whom may have very low self-control but few of whom, if accurately
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described by the police in media representations, would engender public support for such programs”
(p.270).
In sum, G&H state: “Contemporary crime policies, from criminal-career programs to modifications
in policing, from selective incapacitation to the drug-crime connection, all have their roots in positivistic
conceptions of the offender. According to the theory of self-control, none of these programs is likely to
have much of an impact on the crime problem” (p.274).
Although not as lengthy as their criticisms of current policies, G&H do offer suggestions for
interventions to reduce and prevent crime. In particular, SCT implies that “[e]ffective and efficient crime
prevention that produces enduring consequences would thus focus on parents or adults with
responsibilities for child-rearing” (p.269). According to SCT “all that is required to reduce the crime
problem to manageable proportions is to teach people early in life that they will be better off in the long
run if they pay attention to the eventual consequences of their current behavior” (Hirschi & Gottfredson
1993b:271). Thus, SCT proposes parenting interventions to teach caregivers how to effectively parent
(monitor, recognize deviance, and punish deviance) so that they will instill in their children high self-
control that will last throughout the life course. Unlike most criminal justice interventions, an effective
parenting intervention would occur before crime is committed and before the age at which levels of self-
control are fixed. Such a program would be cost-effective, according to G&H, and “few serious
objections can be raised to it on justice grounds” (p.269).
In other words, since parenting is the major cause of self-control, which is the source of individual
differences in criminality, to prevent and thereby reduce crime, a society should focus on teaching
caregivers how to effective parent their children. Of course, there is the nagging issue raised earlier by
G&H that parents who have low self-control themselves are unlikely to have the patience and persistence
to engage in effective parenting given its delayed benefits. Thus, taking this into consideration, its seems
as though the positive effect of parenting interventions will be greater among parents with intermediate
levels of self-control and less effective among those most at riskkids whose parents have really low
self-control. Even so, parenting is an extraordinarily complex undertaking without an instruction manual,
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thus teaching parents how to engage in better parenting should be useful even if not always applied
evenly or consistently. Apart from the limited benefits that can be achieved by making specific criminal
acts more difficult, policies directed towards enhancement of the ability of familial institutions to
socialize children are the only realistic long-term state policies with potential for substantial reduction”
(G&H, p.272-3).
SCT is a social theory of crime. Although self-control is an internal characteristic, it is produced by a
social factoreffective parenting, and relatively stable after the formative years. According to the theory,
criminal events result when individuals with low self-control encounter the opportunity for crime, which
is a function of the social circumstances encountered by the person. SCT posits social conditioning, social
effects, and social consequences. The propositions are clear. What does research say about their
accuracy?
TESTING SCT
The central thesis of SCT is that low self-control is the major source of individual differences in
offending; low self-control is “for all intents and purposes, the individual level cause of crime” (G&H
1990:232, emphasis in original). This can be tested by examining whether levels of self-control are
inversely related to offending; do individuals who offend have lower self-control, on average, and those
who do not have higher self-control? In order to test this proposition, researchers will need a measure of
self-control. Unfortunately for scholars endeavoring to test SCT (and maybe fortunately for the rest of
us), we have not yet advanced to a level where we can actually observe the window of time individuals
consider when calculating the consequences of their actions. This is an unobservable cognitive aspect of
decision-making. This is not unusual, as a number of social science theories of crime rely upon indirect
measures of their central construct. In contrast to other theories, however, G&H did not provide general
guidance for how to measure self-control (e.g., Barlow 1991; Marcus 2004). Scholars have dealt with this
issue by developing indirect measures of self-control. These can broadly be classified into attitudinal/
personality measures and behavioral measures. Each has limitations and is discussed in turn.
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Attitudinal or personality measures of self-control are based largely on a section entitled “Elements
of Self-Control” in G&H’s monograph. In this section, G&H describe observable characteristics of
persons with low self-control, or, in other words, characteristics that people with low self-control are
more likely to have or display. G&H identify six elements, including: (1) a ‘here and now orientation’ or
an inability to delay gratification, (2) preference for easy or simple pleasures as well as a lack of
“diligence, tenacity, or persistence in a course of action,” (3) preference for adventure versus caution
(risk-taking), (4) preference for physical activity over mental or cognitive activity, (5) self-centeredness
and indifference or insensitivity to the needs and suffering of others, and (6) “minimal tolerance for
frustration and little ability to respond to conflict through verbal rather than physical means” (89-90). “In
sum,” G&H (p.90) argue, “people who lack self-control will tend to be impulsive, insensitive, physical
(as opposed to mental), risk-taking, short-sighted, and nonverbal, and they will tend therefore to engage in
criminal and analogous acts.”
The idea is, then, that because these characteristics are manifestations of an underlying myopia,
they tend to cluster in individuals with low self-control and therefore can be used to measure an
individuals underlying level of self-control. Scholars have taken this list of personality characteristics of
individuals will low self-control and created survey questions that tap into each of these elements. The
most well-known is the Grasmick et al. (1993) scale, which consists of 24 questionnaire items, four for
each of the identified elements, such as “I often act on the spur of the moment without stopping to think”
(impulsivity), “I frequently try to avoid projects that I know will be difficult” (simple tasks), and
“Sometimes I will take a risk just for the fun of it.” Although the Grasmick scale is the most widely used,
other scholars have developed similar ones based on this list of characteristics of persons with low self-
control (e.g., Burton et al. 1998; Gibbs & Giever 1995).
A second, and less common, approach to measuring self-control is through an assessment of
behaviors. Perhaps surprising given the cognitive nature of their construct, G&H advocate for behavioral
measures. Behavioral measures rest on the link between self-control and the behaviors being measured, as
scholars are assuming that self-control differences between individuals produces the between-individual
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differences in the behavioral measures. This assumption has led some scholars to argue that behavioral
measures are ultimately a tautology, which means that they rest of circular reasoning or are true by
definition. Behavioral measures assume that self-control is the cause of some behaviors that are then used
to test whether self-control is related to another behavior (crime; e.g., Akers 1991). Some find this
measurement strategy particularly unsatisfying because it assumes the very thing it is trying to
demonstrate (that low self-control increases ‘bad’ behavior; Akers 1991; Geis 2000; Meier 1995). Other
scholars argue that behavioral measures of self-control are superior (e.g., Hirschi & Gottfredson 1993;
Marcus 2004). This tautology debate continues to the present, with some scholars seeing this as a critical
issue and others not so much (see Piquero 2008).
Hirschi & Gottfredson (1993) argue that the best measures of self-control are the acts the theory is
intended to explain, and they proposed several behaviors that could be used as indicators of self-control.
“With respect to crime, we have proposed such items as whining, pushing, and shoving (as a child);
smoking and drinking and excessive television watching and accident frequency (as a teenager);
difficulties in interpersonal relations, employment instability, automobile accidents, drinking, and
smoking (as an adult)” (Hirschi & Gottfredson 1993: 53). Scholars have used these and similar items to
develop measures of self-control based on behaviors that the individual admits to engaging in (Marcus
2003; Tittle et al. 2003) or others (teachers, parents) report that the individual has engaged (Chapple
2005; Gibson et al. 2010; Hay & Forrest 2006). Notably, research comparing the predictive ability of
behavioral and attitudinal measures did not find that they were significantly different in magnitude in
predicting crime and delinquency (e.g., Pratt & Cullen 2000; but see Benda 2005), but the trend is
towards behavioral measures having a stronger relationship to offending than cognitive/attitudinal ones
(e.g, Tittle et al. 2003b). The indirect nature of these two measures has led scholars in recent years to
focus more directly on decision making and individuals’ thinking (or lack thereof) at the point of decision
making.
This third, and more recent, way of measuring individuals’ self-control seeks to tap more directly
into individual time perspective at the point of decision making. For example, Burt and Simons (n.d.)
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assess the extent to which individuals consider (or would consider) the possible negative consequences
the first time they considered drinking alcohol, using drugs like crack or cocaine, or driving after
drinking. These items were combined with three additional ones that tap into the individuals’ deliberation
at the point of decision making; respondents were asked to indicate on one end that they carefully
weighed the pros and cons of an act before deciding what to do and on the other hand whether they just
did what feels right. A different approach, but one also focusing on decision-making considerations, was
taken by Piquero and Bouffard (2007) and Higgins et al. (2008). In these studies, they asked respondents
to indicate the perceived costs and benefits of crime as well as the importance of these costs and benefits
in vignette scenarios (hypothetical situations where respondents would indicate their likelihood of
offending in such situations). Interestingly, all three of these studies find that the self-control measure
focused on decision-making reduces offending (or the hypothetical intention), but the personality scales
(e.g., Grasmick scale) remain significant predictors.
The clearest conclusion that can be drawn from work on self-control measures is unsatisfying but
true: more research is needed to assess the relationship among the different measures and refinements on
what these measures are capturing (if not solely self-control). It remains the case that until we can actually
observe by some fancy technology individuals’ actual cognitive decision making, we will have to make
do with these indirect measures, all imperfect in their own way.
RESEARCH (IS SCT TRUE?)
Not surprisingly, given the bold presentation of SCT as well as its grand and controversial claims (e.g., to
explain all crime at all times), empirical assessments of the theory are plentiful. Hundreds of studies have
tested SCT since its arrival on the criminological scene in 1990, making it the most frequently tested
theory of crime at present. Most aspects of the theory have now received enough research attention that
they can be assessed with a body of evidence. G&H’s (1990) book has been cited more than 5300 times at
the time of this writing (Google Scholar, 01/2013). Below, I sample some of the research findings; this
review is necessarily limited, as covering all of the research on SCT would take a tome. I limit my
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discussion to research explicitly testing SCT (and even within this restricted scope, this is only a sample
of this large body of work).
Support for the central premise of the theory, that low self-control is strongly related to increased
offending, is consistent (e.g., Pratt & Cullen 2000). Many studies have found that low self-control is
linked to increased general crime and deviance, measured cross-sectionally and longitudinally, using both
self-reports and official criminal records (see Pratt & Cullen 2000 for a review). Low self-control has
also been linked to “analogous behaviors,” including binge drinking (Gibson et al. 2004), cutting classes
(Gibbs & Giever 1995), risky driving (Jones & Quisenberry 2004), counterproductive work behavior
(Marcus & Schuler 2004), risky sex (Jones & Quisenberry 2004), smoking (Arneklev et al. 1993), and
even eating disorder symptoms (Harrison et al. 2007). In their meta-analysis, which is a statistical
summary of studies, Pratt and Cullen (2000) noted that the effect size of self-control qualifies it as “one of
the strongest known correlates of crime” and the consistently strong support among studies of youth has
led scholars to conclude that “[self-control’s] relationship to delinquent involvement is a fact …”
(Unnever, Pratt, & Cullen 2003: 483).
Research has also tested the generality of self-control by examining its ability to explain offending
across different groups and cultures. Evidence suggests that low self-control predicts crime and deviance
across different age groups (Burton et al. 1999), and ethnicities (Miller et al. 2009; Shekarkhar & Gibson
2011; Vazsonyi & Crosswhite 2004), and for both males and females (e.g., LaGrange & Silverman 1995;
Tittle et al. 2003a). Furthermore, SCT appears to shed light on offending in different cultural contexts, as
research shows that low self-control is associated with increased deviance in non-U.S. contexts, such as
Canada (Forde & Kennedy 1997), Japan (Vazsonyi et al. 2004), and Russia (Tittle & Botchovar 2005). In
their comparison across several nations, Vazsonyi and colleagues (2001) concluded that “different aspects
of self-control operate in a similar fashion in all national contexts; there do not appear to be unique or
culture-specific relationships and patterns of association” (p.120).
Research is not, however, uniformly supportive of the central proposition of SCT. First, research
clearly shows that self-control is not the sole individual difference factor responsible for crime. Studies
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show that factors identified by rival theories (e.g., delinquent peers (social learning theory, Akers 1973),
strain (general strain theory; Agnew 1992) continue to influence the likelihood of offending after
accounting for levels of self-control (e.g., Pratt & Cullen 2000). In addition, studies indicate that self-
control does not explain differences in offending among different groups. Given that low self-control is
the main cause of crime according to SCT, statistically controlling for self-control should largely explain
the link between group membership and crime. Research does not support this strong claim. Although
self-control does explain some of the differences in offending between groups and across cultures, it does
not fully explain sex differences (e.g., Blackwell & Piquero 2005; Chapple 2010; LaGrange & Silverman
1999) or racial ethnic ones (e.g., Pratt et al. 2004). Indeed, Pratt and colleagues (2004) found that while
there were racial differences in levels of monitoring and supervision, with non-Whites having lower
levels than Whites, there were no significant differences in levels of self-control. Furthermore, while
research has indicated that self-control does influence crime in different cultural and national contexts, at
least one study focusing on crime in Nigeria noted that self-control did not fare well in that context, in
part, because it contains “unacknowledged value assumptions” that “undermine its claim to universality”
(Marenin & Reisig 1995:501).
Such findings are not completely at odds with the theory, as G&H do not argue that the link
between social factors such as race and crime are fully explained by self-control, as opportunity factors do
play a role in the genesis of criminal events. Yet, such findings do undermine the theory’s claim to be the
major source of individual differences in offending.
In addition, some research questions the generality of self-control, or its claim to explain “all
crimes, at all timeswithout a complex of factors. In particular, scholars have questioned the ability of
SCT to explain white-collar crimes, especially those committed by individuals in high ranks within a
corporation or occupation, in part because rising to such a position requires a fair bit of self-control (e.g.,
Benson & Moore 1992; Reed & Yeager 1996; Steffensmeier 1989). After reviewing evidence on white
collar crime from the perspective of SCT, Freidrichs and Schwartz (2008) concluded: “Rather than
accepting Gottfredson and Hirschi’s argument that we can explain criminality by means of a single factor,
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we should recognize that accounting for crime entails a multitude of factors, that we are highly unlikely to
realize a comprehensive explanation of crime, and that the complex of factors explaining different forms
of white collar crime is not the same complex of factors that can be invoked to explain the different forms
of conventional crime” (p.158). Similar critiques have been leveled at SCT’s explanation of violence
(Felson & Osgood 2008), sexual assaults and violence against women (Iovanni & Miller 2008; Miller &
Burack 1993), property crime (Swatt & Meier 2008), and substance use (Goode 2008). In sum, this work
suggests that while levels of self-control may contribute to these different types of behaviors, again they
are not the only individual level factor that contributes, and its influence may depend on the type of crime
in question.
Is self-control the major source of individual differences in crime? The answer to this point is no.
The evidence does suggest that low self-control is a major cause of individual differences in the
likelihood of offending. Being a major cause of crime is no small feat, yet, as I have noted, G&H set their
aims quite high, and, it appears, too high.
A second line of research has examined the influence of parenting on self-control. Recall, G&H
(1990) maintain that effective parenting during the first six to eight years of life is needed to produce self-
control in children. Is effective parenting the main cause of individual differences in self-control? Again,
the answer appears to be not exactly. Research does suggest that effective parenting (monitoring,
recognition of deviance, and punishment of deviance) is associated with higher levels of self-control (e.g.,
Feldman & Weinberger 1994; Hay 2001; Polakowski 1994). Studies also suggest, however, that a broader
conceptualization of parenting, which includes both the monitoring and punishment aspects identified by
G&H (demandingness) as well as the context of this parentingsuch as warmth, support, and positive
reinforcement (responsiveness)does a better job at explaining levels of self-control (e.g., Burt et al.
2006; Hay 2001).
More damaging for SCT’s parenting thesis are findings that other factors shape individuals’ levels
of self-control. These include both social factors, such as community (Pratt et al. 2004; Simons & Burt
2011), school (Beaver et al. 2008; Meldrum 2008; Turner et al. 2005), and peer (Burt et al. 2006;
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Meldrum 2008; Meldrum & Hay 2011) influences as well as genetic and/or biological factors (Wright &
Beaver 2005; Wright, Beaver, DeLisi, & Vaughn 2008), including maternal smoking during pregnancy
(Turner et al. 2011). In short, this research suggests that while effective parenting is related to individual
levels of self-control, it is not the only source of self-control.
One of the most contentious aspects of SCT, and one that distinguishes it most sharply from other
social theories of crime, is the stability proposition. Recall, this postulate asserts that self-control rankings
between individuals remain stable after early childhood (after ages 8-10). After this time, while a cohort’s
overall level of self-control likely increases as socialization continues throughout life, between individual
levels of self-control are crystallized and impervious to change. “Our theory asserts that following
childhood the population can be meaningfully ranked in terms of self-control, the tendency to consider or
ignore the long-term consequences of one’s acts” (Hirschi and Gottfredson 1995:263).
Although research on the stability of self-control was slower to emerge, in recent years a number of
studies have put SCT’s stability proposition to test. This research has tested the stability of self-control
rankings between individuals in samples of undergraduates across a few months (Arneklev et al. 1993),
between offenders and non-offenders across a few years (Turner & Piquero 2002), and in community
(Burt et al. 2006) and nationally representative samples of youth (Hay & Forrest 2006) that span several
years and waves of data (see also Winfree et al. 2006; Higgins et al. 2009). In general, these studies find
that self-control is only moderately stable, with correlations ranging usually from about .4 to .6 (whereas
SCT would predict that the correlations would be near 1). Notably, stability estimates are higher when the
follow-up times are shorter, which is not surprising, and are higher when other-reporters (e.g., teacher or
mother) are used instead of self-reports.
Although research points to moderate stability, studies have not found just slight reshuffling among
individuals. Although most individuals are roughly stable in their self-control rankings after late
childhood (moderate reshuffling), there is also evidence of drastic changes in self-control, with
individuals moving from among the lowest to highest levels and vice versa (Burt et al. 2006; Hay &
Forrest 2006). Hay and Forrest (2006) for example found that more than 10% of their sample fit into a
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trajectory of declining self-control across adolescence. This latter finding, of drastic decreases in self-
control, is particularly inconsistent with SCT, as self-control has been thought of as a skill that once
gained is never lost (Hay & Forrest 2006). In sum, research evidence to date is inconsistent with the strict
stability proposition of SCT, suggesting instead that between-individual levels of self-control are
moderately stable for most, and really unstable for a notable minority.
Some scholars, including G&H, would argue that these findings of instability are really errors in
measurement. In other words, rather than being real or meaningful changes, different moods,
recollections, mistakes in responding to surveys and the like are responsible for the changes observed. A
recent study, however, suggested that this is not the case. Using a large sample of youth from Baltimore,
Na and Paternoster (2012) estimated fancy statistical models that account for measurement error and
demonstrated that these changes are not merely attributable to errors in measurement or particular
statistical model. Furthermore, two studies have demonstrated that changes in self-control are related as
expected to changes in offending, a pattern that would not be observed if the changes were meaningless
error (Burt et al. 2006; Hay et al. 2010).
Given this evidence of instability, researchers have begun examining factors that may contribute to
self-control changes after the first decade of life. Thus, far research has identified several factors that are
linked to increases and decreases in self-control. Factors associated with deteriorations in self-control
include associating with deviant peers (Burt et al. 2006) and victimization (Agnew et al. 2011), while
improvements in parenting, increased association with pro-social peers, and increased attachment to
teachers/school have been linked to improvements in self-control over time (Burt et al. 2006; Hay &
Forrest 2006). Criminal justice and/or therapeutic interventions also deserve a second look in this
modified version. As Greenberg (2008:42) notes, “The proposition that rehabilitation programs do
nothing to prevent further crimes is out of date. Evaluations show that some programs do reduce return to
crime for some juvenile and adult law violators” (citations omitted). Furthermore, Hay and colleagues
(2010) found that a parenting intervention designed to improve parenting practices (after the first decade
of life) was associated with increased self-control among youth.
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Evidence is mixed regarding the theory’s versatility proposition. Although, much research indicates
that some offenders are highly versatile (e.g., Brame et al. 2004; DeLisi 2003; Piquero 2000), research
also indicates that some offenders specialize and/or limit their offending to certain groups of offenses
(e.g., Farrington 1988; Lussier, LeBlanc, & Proulx 2005; Osgood and Schreck 2007; Shover 1996). Other
studies suggest that the versatility-stability issue is more complex than previously thought, with offenders
displaying stability over shorter time period and versatility over the long-term (e.g., Deane et al. 2005;
Sullivan et al. 2006). Consistent with SCT arguments about the role of opportunities in the genesis of
criminal events, research suggests that the short-term specialization in individual offending is due to
“local life circumstances,” which shape opportunities towards specific acts (e.g., McGloin et al. 2007).
Articulately summarizing the body of research on SCT, Matsueda (2008) stated:
“Perhaps a judicious evaluation of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) theory of self-control would
state that it has effectively challenged the criminological community, contains important insights,
arguments, and findings but also makes strong assumptions that are questionable in light of
research results, and derives equally strong implications that are questionable given faulty
assumptions. The assumptions are that there is constant motivation to deviate, that self-control is a
stable trait and explains crime, and that the age-crime curve is invariant. Implications are that life
course events have no effect, delinquent peer effects are an artifact, crime is never learned, and
crime is not organized” (p.123).
Given the sweeping claims of the theoryto explain individual differences in the propensity to
force and fraud with a single variableit is not surprising that research has failed to support the grand
claims of SCT. It does seem to be clear that self-control is a major cause of individual differences in
crime, parenting does shape individual levels of self-control, and levels remain relatively stable after
childhood for a substantial majority. Nonetheless, the contrary evidence for the general theory suggests
that it needs to be modified in light of the evidence. What would the theory look like if we left the major
assumptions intact but provided a better fit with empirical reality, and therefore a better explanation of
offending?
MODIFYING THE THEORY IN TO FIT THE FACTS
Social scientific theories are works in progress, which can (and should) be modified in response to
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new facts and evidence. Clearly, a considerable amount of research has tested SCT, and while much of
this work is consistent with the general thrust of the theory, this work also suggests various ways the
theory can be modified to better fit with reality. Modifications can (and should) be made while retaining
core assumptions of the theory and its social emphasis. In the following paragraphs, I describe this
modified version of SCT.
This modified version of the theory has to start somewhere so I will start at the same place G&H
did: with what the theory is trying to explain. Although self-control is likely related in some degree to
most crimes, there are certain offense categories that do not fit into SCT’s formula. As G&H admit, their
theory was designed to explain the typical acts of crime. Indeed, the theorists note that those crimes that
are “rare,” “complex,” and “difficult” are “an inadequate basis for theory and policy” (p.119). As Geis
(2008) states, however: “There obviously are numerous criminal activities, such as antitrust conspiracies,
that are long-term and quite complex” (p.207), such as Enron and Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.
Political crimes and organized crimes are also largely inexplicable with the theory as they are both
complex and/or require long-term planning. The theory cannot claim to be general (explaining all crimes)
while also dismissing crimes that it cannot explain as being too rare to be worthy of explanation,
particularly given evidence that these types of crimes are not particularly rare at all. A theory does a
greater service to science by accurately simplifying a smaller portion of reality than it does by
inaccurately oversimplifying a larger portion. As such, SCT should restrict its scope to be an explanation
of street crimes, which include most acts of force and many acts of fraud committed by individuals, as
well as analogous acts like substance use.
Evidence also suggests that the theory’s equal motivation assumption is an oversimplification of a
more complex reality. Individuals do differ in their tastes, preferences, and aversions, and these
differences do influence motivation to various behaviors such as crime (e.g., Tittle et al. 2004; Tittle &
Botchovar 2005). Take the example of illicit drugs. Some people enjoy using illicit drugs and some do
not, and within those who do, some enjoy certain drugs but not others. Two individuals with equivalent
time perspectives (levels of self-control) may be differentially attracted to LSD, marijuana, shrooms, or
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cocaine given the opportunity, and, thus, partake in those substances at different levels for reasons other
than their self-control. Moreover, crimes are inherently risky, and individuals differ in the extent to which
they are attracted to (enjoy) risk taking (e.g., Felson & Osgood 2008).
The extent to which individuals can achieve immediate gratification without resorting to illegal
behavior is also likely a motivating factor to crime. For someone with a full bank account, the ability to
satisfy the desire for a new flat screen television is as easy as swiping a credit card, whereas for those
with an empty bank account and weak credit must steal such a television if they want to own it
immediately. As Geis (2008) notes: “It is likely a great deal easier to be self-controlled if you have what
you desire.” Although recognizing that motivation varies across individuals both in general and toward
specific crimes will make the theory less parsimonious, such a change is necessary for the theory to fit
with the facts. Theories founded on erroneous assumptions will eventually collapse.
Changes to the propositions are also necessary. Effective parenting as defined by SCT is not the
only source of self-control. As I noted above, levels of self-control are influenced by both parental
demandingness (monitoring, punishment) and responsiveness (warmth, support). Moreover, school,
community, and peer factors also influence individuals’ levels of self-control. Regarding the stability of
self-control, while self-control is roughly stable for a majority of the sample, it continues to develop into
early adulthood, remaining responsive to changes in social factors. Current research suggests that while
individuals may be more responsive to changes in the formative years, there is no “window of
opportunity” after which interventions play no role. Thus, SCT should be modified to take account of
other social factors in individuals’ levels of self-control and the instability of self-control and
responsiveness to social changes after the formative years.
In part as a consequence of self-control’s malleability past the first decade of life, social factors are
not merely “social consequences of self-control.” While birds of a feather (birds with low self-control)
may flock together, they also influence one another (Akers 1991). As Aker (2008) notes, citing Benjamin
Franklin: “If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas” (p.85). The influence of many (or most)
social factors is reciprocalit goes both ways. Levels of self-control likely influence whether individuals
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get good jobs, find stable partners, and the like, but it is also the case that these social relationships and
transitions influence behavior and perhaps self-control as well (Wright et al. 1999). It is not necessary for
self-control to fully account for all other social variables, which is fortunate because it does not do so.
Thus, the theory should be modified to take account of both selection and socialization across the life
course.
Since the genesis of SCT, scholars have noted its potential to shed light on ageoffending
patterns, and commented that the “age theory” is unnecessary for the theory (e.g., Greenberg 2008). This
modified version of SCT should not throw in the towel at trying to explain the age-crime curve. Instead,
the theory should attempt to explain the association between age and crime the same way it explains the
link between other ubiquitous social fact (e.g., the link between sex/gender and crime) by drawing on the
link between age, levels of self-control, and opportunity. The rise in crime during adolescence could be
partially explained by combination of a still developing level of self-control with a sudden increase in
opportunities brought about by decreased supervision and the like. Moreover, many of the same acts that
are immediately gratifying and legal for adults are illegal for youth (drinking, driving, smoking, etc).
Thus, there is a perfect storm of still relatively low levels of self-control for a large portion of adolescents,
combined with an increase in opportunities for behaviors, many of which are criminalized. To be sure,
this is just a potential explanation; the important point is that SCT should try to explain the age-crime
curve rather than deem it inexplicable.
Additionally, while levels of self-control do appear to explain some of the differences between
groups, such as racial/ethnic, sex/gender, and socio-economic classes, self-control is not the only factor
that contributes to the different rates of offending across groups. Self-control provides a partial
explanation, but not a complete one. While research is ongoing as to what other factors contribute to
offending in concert with levels of self-control, some possible answers have already been suggested by
research, some I have mentioned, such as attitudes towards risk, violence (harming others), and the like. It
is not the purpose of this modification to add numerous factors or contingencies to the theory, however,
but rather to correct the oversimplifications of the current version. It should be noted that several
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scholarly efforts to combine self-control with other concepts as part of a broader (and more complex)
explanation of crime have been proposed (see, e.g., Agnew 2005; Simons & Burt 2011; Wickström &
Trieber 2007; Wright et al. 2008). SCT, however, can better contribute to the knowledge of crime and its
explanation as an independent theory if modifications are made. One is acknowledging that self-control is
only one individual-level factor responsible for offending.
CONCLUSION
“As the limits of the general theory are revealedas occurs with all prominent theoriesa rigid fidelity
to the original statement of the general theory is likely to ensure its staleness if not decline…it appears
that the time has come for the general theory to broaden its horizons so as to confront criminological
realities that now rest beyond its boundaries” (Cullen et al. 2008: 74).
SCT is a grand theory of crime. Grand in the sense that it has pushed the field forward in a
significant way, is striking in size and what it claims to encompass, and is definitely intended to impress.
In the more than 20 years since its inception, it has come to occupy a major place in criminological
thought, challenging many beliefs, inspiring an incredible amount of research, and providing further spark
to debates on stability, versatility, public policy, and the causes of crime. For these reasons alone, the
theory always hold a key position in criminological textbooks and thought with new generations of
criminology students being familiar with its ideas and implications.
Yet, for a theory to remain at the forefront of criminological thought, it has to remain consistent
with facts, especially those that directly speak to its propositions. Some of the stances the theory takes are
clearly misguided. Thus, for SCT to remain a dominant theory as we move further into the 21st century, it
will need to undergo some changes. Some sociological ones have been described, further interdisciplinary
acknowledgements or restrictions in scope will need to be addressed. Denying biological and genetic
influences on human behavior is no longer a defensible position. Even so, the influence of social factors,
such as parenting, should not be downplayed. Here too the evidence is overwhelming.
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... strongly related to offending (for reviews, see Burt, 2014;Goode, 2008;Schulz, 2006). Indeed, the size of the self-control-crime link renders it "one of the strongest known correlates of crime" (Pratt and Cullen, 2000: 952). ...
... The basic thrust of the theory, then, is that the absence of self-control leads to crime. Empirical assessments of this central proposition are plentiful, and research has consistently shown an inverse relationship between measures of self-control and criminal/deviant behavior (e.g., Burt, 2014;Pratt and Cullen, 2000;Schulz, 2006). Consistent evidence of a robust relationship between self-control and offending has stimulated research into other facets of the theory, including the theory's strict stability proposition. ...
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This study assesses self-control theory’s (Gottfredson & Hirschi 1990) stability postulate. We advance research on self-control stability in three ways. First, we extend the study of stability beyond high school, estimating group-based trajectory models (GBTM) of self-reports of self-control from age 10 to 25. Second, drawing in part on advances in developmental psychology and social neuroscience, especially the dual systems model of risk taking (e.g., Steinberg 2008), we investigate whether two distinct personality traits—impulsivity and sensation seeking—often conflated in measures of self-control, exhibit divergent developmental patterns. Finding that they do, we also estimate multitrajectory models to identify latent classes of co-occurring developmental patterns for these two traits. We supplement GBTM stability analyses with hierarchical linear models and reliable variance estimates. Lastly, using fixed effects models, we explore whether the observed within-individual changes in the global self-control measure as well as impulsivity and sensation seeking are associated with within-individual changes in crime net of overall age trends. We examine these ideas using five waves of data from a sample of several hundred African American adolescents from the Family and Community Health Study (FACHS). Results suggest that self-control is unstable, that distinct patterns of development exist for impulsivity and sensation seeking, and that these changes are uniquely consequential for crime. We conclude by comparing our findings to extant research and discussing the implications for self-control theory.
... There are numerous expositions and discussions of the theory in the literature (for a recent review and discussion see Burt 2020). We would recommend two relatively recent articles that are particularly original and informative: Burt (2015) and Milyavskaya et al. (2019). The relationship between SCT and rational choice theory (RCT) is not addressed. ...
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Over the past several decades, Gottfredson & Hirschi's (1990) SCT has dominated research on self-control and crime. In this review, I assess the current state of self-control knowledge and encourage the field to move beyond SCT, as its peculiar conceptualization of self-control and causal model presents challenges for integrative scholarship. Drawing heavily on scholarship outside criminology, I clarify the definition of self-control; describe the malleable nature of trait self-control; highlight its situational variability as state self-control; and consider the multiplicity of contextual, situational, and individual factors that affect its operation in relation to crime. This specification of contingencies and the interplay between impulse strength and control efforts in the process of self-control is intended as a springboard for research moving beyond SCT and its key premise that self-control ability is sufficient for explanation. Finally, I address what I see as important areas for further study in light of current knowledge. Shortened Title: Self-Control and Crime
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Gottfredson and Hirschi claimed, as part of their general theory of crime, that a child’s criminal propensity, what they called level of self-control, is fairly fixed by age 10. Low self-control children, they further claimed, exhibit greater proclivities for delinquency and analogous behaviors than children with high levels of self-control. They see self-control levels for children at both ends of the spectrum—and their propensities for crime and analogous behaviors—as immutable over the life course. The authors explore the self-control levels, self-reported illegal behavior, and supporting attitudes exhibited by a panel of youths from in six cities at five points in time. Some of our findings substantiated Gottfredson and Hirschi’s claims (e.g., claims linking self-control, sex, and race or ethnicity); however, other findings are at odds with their theory (e.g., the unchanging nature of self-control). The authors review the implications of these findings for self-control theory.