Psychological theories of criminal behavior focus on the individual, rather than on contextual factors (as sociological theories of crime do) or on biological factors (such as genetics). Personality, traits, and cognitions are all covered under the rubric of psychological theories of crime. One of the prevailing and most widely accepted psychological theory of crime is rational choice theory. Rational choice theory " is perhaps the most common reason why criminals do the things they do," accounting for a wide variety of criminal behaviors (Dechant, 2009). The theory was first suggested and developed by William Glasser, and has since become a default theory of explaining everything from petty theft to white-collar crime.
Rational choice theory is relatively straightforward. The individual is believed to be acting rationally, making decisions based on personal need, convenience, and expediency. The theory permits for individual differences, as each person may be motivated by different needs and goals. "The variety of reasons in which one offends can be based on a variety of personal needs, including: greed, revenge, need, anger, lust, jealousy, thrills, and vanity," (Dechant, 2009).
According to Turner (1991), rational choice theory is based on the assumption that human beings are "purposive and goal oriented." The theory is utilitarian, rooted in utilitarian philosophy. Utilitarian philosophy offers an ethically relativistic perspective on crime; if committing crime has utility for the actor, then crime is an appropriate act. The individual makes a rational, conscious choice to commit a crime when the criminal act maximizes utility and minimizes harm to the actor. Another way of presenting rational choice theory is in terms of cost-benefit analysis. The individual is making a conscious, rational decision to commit a crime based on the relative benefits vs. relative costs. The benefits may be framed in terms of financial benefit vs. loss; or benefits could be related to social status vs. reputation loss. The use of a cost-benefits analysis in rational decision-making has been proven in empirical research on deviant behavior. For example, Li, Zhang & Sarathy (2010) found that employees' compliance with Internet use policies in their workplaces was directly linked to perceived benefits of following the policy vs. perceived risks of disobeying the policy. Rational choice theory also implies that the actor believes the ends justify the means (Gul, 2009).
The rational choice theory is a significant one for criminal justice, as it suggests "crime can be controlled only by the fear of criminal sanctions," (Dechant, 2009). However, there are differentiations of rational choice theory. These differentiations inform criminal justice responses to crime differently. A pure rational choice point-of-view implies that the likelihood of being caught, plus the severity of the punishment, would influence the rational actor's decision to commit a crime. Some sub-theories of rational choice complicate the theory by introducing a complexity of variables, which still ascribing to the underlying perspective of rational choice. In addition to purely rational behaviors, for instance, "predestined" behaviors and "victimized" behaviors can fall within the rational choice framework (Dechant, 2009). Whereas a rational actor avoids criminal behavior when the chances of being caught are disproportionately high, the predestined actor avoids criminal behavior when motivated by positive social forces or rewards that substitute for or preclude the criminal act. This would suggest to the policy maker that placing at-risk youth in a healthy environment would reduce the likelihood of their making a rational choice to commit crime.
A "victimized actor" perspective on rational choice theory builds upon sociological theories of crime such as conflict theory. According to the victimization standpoint, the individual acts rationally in response to structural inequities (Dechant, 2009). Using another example, the predestined view of rational choice would suggest that minimizing income disparity in a community would offer fewer reasons for someone to make the rational choice of committing a crime. Rational choice theory suggests that public policy should be built on a social contract model. Gul (2009) also points out, "the swiftness, severity, and certainty of punishment are the key elements in understanding a law's ability to control human behavior" from a rational choice perspective.
Although rational choice theory makes sense for many criminal behaviors, it cannot possibly account for all instances of crime. There are many cases in which a criminal behavior clearly had no rational choice behind it in terms of maximizing utility to the actor. Take, for instance, mass shootings in which the gunman was certain to be caught. Can these situations be analyzed or explained by rational choice theory? Stretching rational choice theory might allow for a calculated response to senseless acts of terrorism. For instance, it could be argued that the gunmen or terrorist acts to maximize utility in the form of attention. The terrorist commits a crime not for maximizing personal utility but for maximizing perceived benefit to the promotion of the underlying ideology. A rational choice is being made, just not one that results in specific quantifiable benefits. It is relatively simple to explain instances of embezzlement, in which case the benefit to the individual is clear.
There are other limitations to rational choice theory. The most obvious is that human beings do not always act rationally. Rational choice theory certainly does not account for committing crimes of passion, for example. And yet, it could still be argued that even when a person acts temporarily irrationally, ultimately the choice to commit a crime was rooted in a psychological thought process that is utilitarian at heart. Habitual behavior is another reason why persons might not act rationally when choosing to commit a crime. It is difficult to assume that human beings are robotic enough to ignore intuition, emotion, and ingrained habit.
"Critics of rational choice have noted that individual decisions are often made without relevant information, absent careful consideration of evidence, out of habit, or under pressure from others," (Gul, 2009, p. 40). This is often the case, but a rational individual might not have known all the relevant facts before making a decision. For example, a bank robber might believe that the staff opens the safe at 3PM, when in fact they recently changed the time of opening the safe to 4:40PM. As Gul (2009) puts it, "offenders generally do their best within the limits of time, resources, and information available to them. This is why their decision making characterized as rational, although in a limited way," (p. 42).
The phenomenon of social pressure offers a reasonable challenge to rational choice theory. Social pressure and social norms can weigh heavily on an individual. They can impede rational choice, or alternatively, provide another set of rational arguments for or against the committing of a crime. Rational choice theory presumes that individuals make moral decisions based only on their self-interest. However, there are situations in which an individual makes a decision to commit a crime that is perceived as being victim-less, and therefore no moral component is included. Persons who use illegal drugs, for instance, make a rational choice based on their subculture's norms that condone the use of mind-altering substances.
Norming can influence a person as much as reason, which is why rational choice theory cannot account for all criminal behavior. Scott (2000) also states that rational choice theory "cannot explain the origins of social norms, especially those of altruism, reciprocity, and trust." If norming can be incorporated into a more robust version of rational choice theory, then rational choice theory might be applied to a broader set of crimes.
Regardless of its limitations, rational choice theory does offer criminologists a clear and quantifiable method of predicting criminal behavior and informing public policy. The economic motivations of many crimes, especially white-collar crimes, fall well within the umbrella of rational choice. Petty theft and larceny can be similarly classified. Violent crimes are less amendable to rational choice theory, as there is often no…