Rational Choice and Social Control Theories Comparison


The understanding of crime and its occurrence is limited without the development of theories, which represent useful tools for explaining the world around us. In criminology, theories help scholars understand the critical processes associated with the workings of the criminal justice system and relevant actors. To be used for maximum effectiveness, criminological theories must be logically consistent and explain as much crime as possible. In addition, they should be concise and understandable in their approach, which will enable their wide implementation. Since the theories explain human behavior, they may have common traits; although, some differences between them exist.

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The current paper will focus on exploring two related criminological theories – rational choice theory and social control theory. Both of them aim to explain why some individuals may choose to engage in criminal behaviors. Despite the general criticism of the approaches for their simplicity and general application, they represent a basic framework that serves as a basis for modern trends and developments in criminology. The discussion of the theories will be divided into the summary of approaches, combined theory enhancement, theoretical limitations, and a conclusion.

Theory Summaries: Classical Criminology Approaches

Rational Choice Theory

Drawing from the works of classical criminology theorists of the 18th century, the rational choice theory assumes that behaviors of individuals and groups reflect their attempts to increase pleasure and decrease pain. The theory implies the application of the rational approach associated with humans being reasonable actors that differentiate between the means and ends as well as benefits and costs for making decisions.

Thus, to some extent, people conduct a cost-benefit analysis to decide whether the potential consequences are worth the effort. Such analysis has widespread use in disciplines other than criminology, which means that rational choice theory has universal application. Designed by Cornish and Clark (1986), the approach was linked to deterrence theory in which people make rational decisions in order to avoid punishment and are deterred by criminal sanctions. Theorists in this tradition hypothesized how different conditions creating the payoff on an endeavor in combination with varying desires and utilities will increase the aggregate levels of crime.

Thus, it can be proposed that desirability and utility of activities are subjective and varying, which means that crime may attract some people but not be as appealing to others. There is also a widespread agreement that the quality and strength of both group and individual preferences can be considered during the study of the occurrence of criminal behaviors (Gül, 2009). Thus, rational choice theory in criminology usually implies a variant of expected utility theories and depicts the process associated with either considering or ignoring criminal opportunities as aspects of rational calculation (Frank & McShane, 2017). Also, it is also implied that subjective assessments play an integral role in weighing the benefits and limitations of actions.

The fundamental assumptions and methods linked to rational choice theory and its classical predecessors undergird a significant part of modern criminology. However, the theoretical defenders of the approach have been in and out of favor throughout the history of the discipline’s development. The perspective was scrutinized as it was seen as an attack on cultural, structural, and sociological explanations. Also, the theory was portrayed as too simplistic and reductionist because of its broad interpretation of choice between the costs and benefits. However, even in contemporary forms, the theory can be used for integrating both structural and perceptual models of criminal behaviors.

The perspective of rational choice has high levels of capacity in terms of combining both knowledge and techniques collected across a range social disciplines because of its simplicity and wide applicability. In its broad form, rational choice theory has great potential for integrating principles from different criminology spheres. Despite its shortcomings that derive predominantly from economic assumptions linked to both human and aggregate decision making, the theory makes sense when it comes to answering complex questions.

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Social Control Theory

The theory of social control gained popularity in the 1960s when sociologists began looking for various conceptions associated with crime. Thus, the approach developed during the period when Travis Hirschi proposed his innovative perspective on control theory that was built upon existing theories of social control. Hirschi’s (2017) approach asserted that social ties of an individual to his or her family, place of work, school, and other parts of society could diminish one’s tendency for deviant behavior. This means that crime can occur when social connections are not stronger enough or are not well-established. Thus, without bonds, crime is an inevitable outcome for individuals who lack the social support.

The first task of theorists who conform with the approach is to identify the essential elements that connect people to society. The second task is the understanding of what is meant by society through locating the persons and institutions that are integral to the control of criminal and delinquent behaviors. Some aspects of social bonds, such as attachment, commitment, belief, and involvement, have all shown to be useful for explaining the logic of social control theory.

The concept of attachment within the theory represents highly close connections between a potentially delinquent person and his or her environment. For instance, attachment to school is a well-established contributor to delinquency among youth. Students who report enjoying their schools and caring considering the views of their teachers have a far lower likelihood of offending. The general principle applied to the theory is associated with the fact that the withdrawal of positive attitudes toward social institutions makes the moral force more neutral.

Commitment, which is another aspect of social control theory implies that confirming behaviors preserve and protect capital whereas delinquency and crime put it at risk. Similar to rational choice theory, social control also supposes that potential criminals calculate the advantages and disadvantages of crime before it is committed. For young people, the negative consequence of crime in society is associated with their academic achievement at school. In regards to school-associated activities, good students are more likely to aspire to pursue further education and stay at school. Also, grade point overage accounts for the relationship between IQ test scores and delinquency (Bruinsma & Weisburd, 2014).

Parental attachment plays an essential part in the social control theory because it implies close connections between young people and their family as related to social control linked to interactions and the exchange of feelings between parents and children. Among the studies that explored the influence of social control on delinquent behaviors, a significant number of researchers found that the greater level of attachment to parents, the lower the likelihood of criminal acts and vice versa. Therefore, it should be mentioned that out of numerous studies, only a limited number identified no connections between the attachment of children to parents and their delinquency.

Male aggression has also been explained with the help of the social control theory when considering the role of parents. For example, Brendhen et al. (2011), studied the role that parents play in juvenile aggression and were specifically interested in exploring how parents’ monitoring of their children can influence aggression and subsequent violent offending. The researchers found proactive aggression and aggression happening in the absence of provocation to be early predictors of later criminal and violent behaviors.

Combined Theory Enhancement

When evaluating the role of rational choice theory when explaining the occurrence of criminal behaviors, it is important to note that the approach has extensively been used as the dominant paradigm in economics and came into use in other disciplines. The central points of the theory are associated with the fact that human beings are rational actors, with their rationality being linked to the calculation of ends and means (McCarthy & Chaudhary, 2014).

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The central element to the calculation implies the cost-benefit analysis on which the choice of criminal behaviors is based. Individuals’ choice of whether or not a crime will be committed is controlled through their perceptions and understanding of the potential pain that will follow an act judged to be in violation of general social good. The value of the theory is also attributed to the proposition that the government should be responsible for order maintenances and the preservation of common good through a lay system that guides social interactions between people. The severity, timeline, and the certainty of punishment are the main elements necessary to promote the law’s ability to control the behavior of humans.

This means that rational choice theory enhances the likelihood of researchers to understand why individuals commit crimes. By portraying people as rational decision-makers that base their acts on the risks of a criminal venture compared with the expected profits, the approach to criminology proposes that a cost-benefit analysis is at the center of any rational choices. Thus, an implication of the theory is that if the costs of crime are high, an offender is more likely to be deterred from committing a crime. At the center of the rational choice approach is the assumption that criminals and delinquents are objective-oriented and seek to show a measure of rationality.

For example, for an individual who is employed and has a stable job, a criminal act can result in the loss of his or her career. However, the potential rewards of crime may appear considerably attractive, such as financial gain, respect from the community of criminals, as well as the general excitement of being able to avoid punishment for the committed act. Therefore, the theory provides a background for the further development of security strategies increasing the likelihood of people resorting to criminal activities.

The potential of rational choice theory is associated with providing a background for the establishment of other approaches for explaining why some people may commit crime. For instance, suppose that a person is unemployed and does not have a stable income, lives in poverty, and is desperate to earn at least some money. He or she is more likely to offend because of the lack of concerns associated with being stigmatized by others or being separated from society. Therefore, the rewards of him or her committing a crime may be rationalized by the idea that the person has nothing to lose in life. In such a scenario, rational choice theory enhanced the development of other approaches and alternatives that explore enhanced security.

In the discussion about the value of rational choice theory, it is essential to mention the study by Matsueda, Kreager, and Huizing (2006) who explored the behaviors of high-risk youth in Denver. Drawing on longitudinal data for evaluating how the perceived arrest certainty is influenced by individual characteristics as well as theoretically supported variables of rational choice. Based on the results of the study, people who have never offended or been arrested usually overestimate the certainty of arrest. However, those who have experienced arrest are also likely to overestimate its likelihood, which reveals that offenders learn the desired lesson from being arrested for their crimes.

Those who offend but do not get punished for their actions perceive that the certainty of them being arrested is low. Delinquent peers lead to decreased estimations of arrest certainty. Overall, the findings show that the assessment of the rewards of crime are associated with Bayesian learning. This means that people tend to start with a prior subjective probability estimates of events on the basis of accumulated information (Matsueda et al., 2006). Thus, perceptions of whether a crime should be committed are developed on the basis of prior experiences as well as approximate rational outcomes of such decisions.

The research conducted by Matsueda et al. (2006) also showed the influence of certainty estimations on offending. It could be predicted that violence and theft commission are associated with the previous experiences and the reporting of rational choice or perceptual values including positive aspects of committing a crime, such as excitement, avoiding punishment, and seeing crime as cool. The downside of such a calculation is associated with the perceived risk of arrest and the lost opportunities for employment of education. Such measures as neighborhood disadvantage, police contact, impulsivity, risk preference, and basic individual control have all shown to contribute to the increased likelihood of offending.

The value of the social control theory is also reflected in the nature versus nurture principle that has been widely applied in the study of criminology. The nature versus nurture debate has been ongoing for decades not only within the discipline of crime study but also in other areas such as biology. However, with the development of sociology, scholars began locating the causes of crime as not individual pathologies but rather aspects of social life within which subjects live.

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On the one hand, there was the view that crime was the result of people’s differential socialization that was not related to any individual or heritable factors (Coyne & Wright, 2014). On the other hand, scholars argued that the causes of crime were multidimensional and could be linked to a wide variety of factors, including both nature and nurture. Therefore, social control theory can enhance the understanding of nature versus nurture, especially in the context of juvenile offending.

Interventions targeted at preventing juveniles from offending have predominantly focused on strengthening family connections and social bonds. According to the study conducted by de Vries, Hoeve, Asscher, and Stams (2018), “the effects of family-based and behavioral-oriented prevention programs can have long-term effects on shielding antisocial and delinquent youth from committing a crime” (p. 3639).

Also, the research by Schwalbe, Gearing, MacKenzie, Brewer, and Ibrahim (2012) concluded that family-based diversion programs resulted in the reduction of criminal activity. Family participation played an essential part in the study conducted by de Vries, Hoeve, Assink, Stams, and Asscher (2015) who studied the influence of family-based programs on preventing criminal behaviors. Social control theory is applied to the discussion of family interventions for improving young people’s behaviors because of the assumption that close social connections prevent people from offending.

Therefore, the findings of studies exploring family-based prevention programs have all suggested that the lack of social skills among people increase the chances of offending. Social control theory can serve as a theoretical foundation for the further exploration of the topic. Such interventions as family counseling, individual coaching, individual counseling, and academic service coaching can all apply social control principles because of the need to develop effective social skills among people (de Vries et al., 2018). Unfortunate family circumstances as well as antisocial peer affiliations represent the predictors of criminal behaviors, which is why it is necessary to ensure that the social environments in which the youth lives are beneficial for their emotional and behavioral well-being.

Theoretical Limitations

Rational Choice Theory

Regardless of the fact that rational choice theory provides a reasonable explanation of why some individuals resort to crime, it is still one of the most widely critiqued criminological theories. As the strength of the theory lies in its simplicity, the main issue associated with the theory is that life is rarely clear, simple, and straightforward. Thus, those who oppose rational choice theory suggest that human beings rarely weight in the costs and benefits of their actions when evaluating potential consequences. There were multiple instances when a crime was committed unintentionally without things being carefully thought through.

Some people can be better in weighing in on the pros and cons of their actions; however, the general trend is that individuals make spur of the moment decisions. Another important point of criticism lies in the suggestion that rational choice theory applies to only a small percentage of individuals who are criminals for their career. Such people conduct cost-benefit analyses associated with crime because they need to ensure that their livelihood would improve.

Common misunderstandings linked to rational choice theory are associated with assumptions that people as rational agents have selfish motivations that impact their decision-making. Also, the theory has often been confused about the principle of methodological individualism. While there is a presupposition of individualism within rational choice, it is imperative to understand that it does not ignore social interactions as contributors to making a decision regarding committing crime.

Social Control Theory

Similar to rational choice theory, social control theory also has several points of criticism. Surprisingly, however, the critique came from Hirschi (2017) himself when he teamed up with Michael Gottfredson and came up with self-control theory. Instead of explaining the concept of deviance through the nature of connections between individuals and society, the new theory characterizes criminal behavior by exploring the notion of self-control.

The key idea behind the method is that people with high levels of self-control will not engage in criminal behaviors without prior considerations. Conversely, those with low levels of self-control are more likely to become criminals. Also, some have argued that attachment to social groups “is more likely to lead to crime and generally deviant behavior rather than preventing people from becoming criminals” (Esiri, 2016, p. 8).

For instance, people who have close connections with peers who engage in delinquent behaviors tend to copy such behaviors to fit in the social circle (Esiri, 2016). Thus, there are conflicting views of the scholars who developed social control theory as to how connections between people influence the likelihood of offending. While social control theory argues that the attachment to social circles prevents individuals from offending, other sociologists have stated that high levels of delinquency are rather associated with connections to deviant environments.

If to combine criticism on both approaches explaining criminal and delinquent behaviors among people, it should be mentioned that the theories are rather general and simplistic in their explanations. While it is beneficial to apply easy-to-understand concepts to life and the understanding of criminality, there are life situations that may not be explained as easily as the theories proposed. This means that the theories can rather be applied to provide context and develop further insights into the criminal behavior of individuals. For example, if a criminal’s social circle was very loving and supportive, but he or she still committed a crime, it may be sufficient to explore the history or relationships and whether the social connections have indeed had an influence on the shaping of behaviors or not.


In the wide variety of current theories of criminology, rational choice theory, and social control theory represent cohesive frameworks for explaining why some people engage in criminal and delinquent behaviors. Rational choice theory refers to the set of ideas and assumptions associated with the connection between people’s preferences and the decisions they make. Within the theory, it is suggested that the expected benefits of an outcome influence people’s choices as related to its costs.

For instance, people can resort to criminal activity when they expect to receive monetary gain, emotional gratification, or social respect. Individuals avoid committing criminal acts due to the high costs that may come as a result of the act, which also includes social, monetary, emotional, and opportunity circumstances. Thus, the relationship between the costs and benefits of action represents the central focus of the theory, which means that it can be applied to a broad variety of contexts.

Social control theory can interact with the principles outlined in rational choice theory. It implies that individuals’ social bonds can prevent them from committing a crime (Costello, 2016). This means that the attachment to parents, friends, or partners is a positive predictor of people resorting from offending. Therefore, many crime prevention programs, especially youth-related, focused on increasing people’s conformity through the perspective of social control.

Adequate socialization is necessary for making sure that young adults develop strong social bonds that would prevent them from offending. Despite the fact that the theory was opposed by the assumption that strong social relationships can encourage criminal behaviors in given environments, it still applies to a wide range of contexts. For instance, young people who have been neglected by their relatives have a greater likelihood of committing crime compared to those who have been nurtured and raised in supportive environments.

The use of rational choice and social control theories in criminology has widespread application. While their simplicity has been significantly criticized, it is essential to note that the approaches can be combined to create a framework explaining why some people choose to engage in criminal behavior. Both theories assume that people can see the advantages and disadvantages of crime without prior training or particular motivation.

In the rational choice approach, individuals choose to offend through weighting the advantages and disadvantages of a decision as related to overall outcomes. In the social control theory, people resort to criminal behaviors because of the absence of potential disapproval of the people in their social circles. Thus, social control theory can be a part of rational choice theory since the latter considers not only the relationship aspect of crime’s consequences but also financial, emotional, and environmental implications.

Future research focusing on rational choice and social control theories can imply the evaluation of interventions that can be used for preventing individuals from offending. Due to the theories’ broad applicability to a large variety of contexts, the discussion regarding nature versus nurture in criminology can be continued through considering the assumptions within the two approaches. However, it is vital to account for the limitations of the theoretical methods explaining criminal behaviors and propose ways in which the researchers can apply the theories while also enhancing their validity.

Thus, any criticism associated with the use of rational choice and social control theories can be limited through combining new perspectives and trends in criminology with the theories that have gained the reputation of classical approaches to exploring criminal behaviors among people.


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Coyne, M., & Wright, J. (2014). Nature versus nurture. Web.

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deVries, S., Hoeve, M., Assink, M., Stams, G., & Asscher, J. (2015). Practitioner review: Effective ingredients of prevention programs for youth at risk of persistent juvenile delinquency–recommendations for clinical practice. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 56(2), 108-121.

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Matsueda, R., Kreager, D., & Huizinga. (2006). Deterring Delinquents: A rational choice model of theft and violence. American Sociological Review, 71(1), 95-122.

McCarthy, B., & Chaudhary, A. (2014). Rational choice theory and crime. In G. Bruinsma & D. Weisburd (Eds.) Encyclopedia of criminology and criminal justice (pp. 1-21). New York, NY: Springer.

Schwalbe, C., Gearing, R., MacKenzie, M., Brewer, K., & Ibrahim, R. (2012). A meta-analysis of experimental studies of diversion programs for juvenile offenders. Clinical Psychology Review, 32(1), 26-33.

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