Criminology’s application of the Rational Choice Theory sees crime as the result of individual rational consideration of the expected benefits and costs of criminal activity.
Gary S. Becker, Derek Cornish, Ronald Clarke, u.a.
The thesis of ‘Rational Choice’ is an economic, general theory of action. In general, this economic as well as social science approach states that all action is conditioned by goals, desires and needs as well as by the human attempt to realize these goals to the greatest possible extent. Thus, the greater the personal benefit and the lower the personal cost of an action, the more likely it is to be committed.
Since Rational Choice Theory is a general theory of action, benefits and costs are not limited to financial or other economic factors, but may also imply psychological or social benefits and costs. The pros and cons of an action are calculated and a decision is made for or against the action.
In criminology, this model of ‘rational choice’, which is generally based on action theory but is also implied in the classical school, was used to explain the phenomenon of crime or deviation. Accordingly, the probability of a delinquent act increases if the benefits of such an act outweigh the costs – for example, if the loot is estimated to be greater than the danger of being caught.
According to Cornish and Clarke, a distinction must also be made between general and situational decisions on criminal behaviour. People can thus be prepared in principle to commit crimes due to a high personal benefit expectation, but are still subject to situational factors (police presence, size of the loot, location of the possible crime) prior to the concrete action, among which they must again actively decide for the actual criminal act.
Implications for Criminal Policy
Since the theory of rational choice is based on the assumption of individual benefit maximisation, the task of criminal policy is to reward conformal behaviour in such a way and at the same time punish criminal behaviour in such a way that the former becomes more rational for the individual. Society, the state and its criminal law must therefore be conceived in such a manner that it is more benefit-maximizing, i.e. more rational for the individual, to prefer conformist action to criminal action.
In concrete terms, this means, firstly, that incentives for legal behaviour must be created. Secondly, access to criminal activity must be blocked in order to limit the decision-making situation from the outset to conforming alternatives. Thirdly, the rational choice theory calls for a deterrent criminal law.
It is thus closely linked to deterrence theories and – due to its close relationship to the Routine Activity Approach – to the concept of situational crime prevention.
Critical Appraisal & Relevance
In the case of a theory that deals with the rationality of human beings, the first thing that certainly catches the eye is the lack of explanatory power for emotional, affective and impulsive actions. The classical “manslaughter” can hardly be justified with “rational choice”.
However, the theory of rational choice seems to make sense above all in the field of white-collar crime, since it is able to present the cost-benefit calculations carried out in managerial and executive circles in favour of deviant actions as the origin of criminal machinations.
However, the rational choice theory in its basic conception does not manage to explain crime beyond economic motives, because there is obviously much more than money for which (delinquent) action is worthwhile.
The subsequent attempt to expand the concept of utility to include non-financial, social and psychological aspects seems meaningful at first glance, but ultimately ends in a theoretical conception without any explanatory content. If one assumes that things are useful for one person that may be useless or even costly for the other, the decisive question that arises in the search for causes of action is what costs and benefits are actually for whom. It now suddenly seems much more important to examine the situational, personal and socialisation conditions responsible for these inconsistent definitions of costs and benefits. Furthermore, it seems questionable whether the explanation of social interrelations and dynamics can at all be done justice by complex mathematical formulas. An equation like the one in the adjacent graph may be mathematically correct, but it is questionable whether the diversity of social action can ever be broken down in this way.
A rational cost-benefit calculation remains meaningless as long as it is not clear what is calculated at all or as long as one assumes that each individual calculates completely different benefit and cost factors. It should also be noted that rational choice theory makes no attempt to integrate social norms into its approach. However, these may also be responsible for the far-reaching differences in individual cost and benefit calculations. In short, the extended version of the theory of rational choice does not provide an explanation of crime, but merely describes a mechanism whose elements, however, cannot be firmly determined.
Furthermore, it must be criticized that the ‘rational choice’ approach only considers the presence of a rationally motivated perpetrator. The opportunity to commit a crime, for example the necessary presence of a victim, is not mentioned in this approach. At this point, the Routine Activity Approach can be referred to.
- Derek B. Cornish and Ronald V. Clarke (1985): Crime as rational choice. In: The Reasoning Criminal. New York, 1986.
- Gary S. Becker (1968): Crime and punishment: An economic approach. In: The Journal of Political Economy, 76(2), pp. 169-217.