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Rational Crime

Theoretical concepts influencing public policy are often intertwined among the framework of any given piece of legislation. These theories provide public policy makers with methodical, consistent, and dependable explanations of the associations between policy construction, its application and its consequences. These theories are an essential ingredient in public policy formation as they can provide a sturdy conceptual outline for public policy makers to follow when developing new or enhancing longstanding legislation (Cloete, 2018). Rational choice theory has been a concept applied in the development of public policy relating to preventative crime control for numerous years. However, some criminologists have yet to embrace rational choice theory as a good framework for preventative crime control policy as they believe that rational choice theory only offers a basic explanation of why some individuals commit various crimes. The theory has been accepted by scholars in other fields of study such as economics, psychology, political science and sociology, nevertheless, some criminologists are resistant to apply rational choice theory as a suitable concept to explain an offender’s decision-making process. They believe that rational choice theory is simplistic in its explanation as to why people engage in acts of delinquency. Some policy designs utilizing rational choice theory have been useful in reducing property crimes. However, other policies motivated by rational choice theory, especially ones that involve “expressive crimes” including arson, drug use, and street robberies, have shown offer less protection (Hayward, 2007). It is because of the theory’s faulty explanation of offenders’ choices that rational choice theory should not be considered as a general theory to guide the formation of preventative crime policy.

Rational Choice Theory

Rational choice theory has a foundation in economic principles, it proposes that people are consistently making wise and methodical decisions. Furthermore, rational choice theory suggests that the decisions that each individual makes, seeks results that provide the individual with the greatest benefit or gratification. Additionally, the theory offers that decisions that are being made by the individual are highly selfish. Furthermore, rational choice theory postulates that all members of society try to maximize the benefits when making a decision, such decisions are made utilizing rational calculations that also minimize the cost or losses of any given situation (Herrnstein, 1990). The rational choice theory viewpoint suggests that the offender looks to benefit their selves through their considered criminal behaviour; they weigh the act of delinquency against the potential costs of the penalty of the wrongdoing, the potential offender then calculates a position that has a favourable outcome for them (Cornish, 1987). Some criminologists have utilized rational choice theory to assist in explaining some of the decision-making process of various criminal offenders, however, the theory falls short in fully explaining offender’s choices, as research has indicated that criminals have a lower threshold of self-control than the regular law-abiding citizens, which leads them into making impulsive decisions. Additionally, scholars propose that the threat of discipline does not impact the behaviour of individuals that already adhere to societal norms. People that follow the rules that society has established, and that are of moral conviction aren’t likely to commit acts of delinquency. To the person with high morality, the threat of punishment for a various crime is seen more as an ethical threshold, rather than a threat of discipline.

Attempts to Generalize Rational Choice Theory

A study by Jeff Bouffard, of Washington State University, determined that one-size-fits-all crime control and prevention approaches were not equally effective when considering different categories of individuals. The study compared the decision-making process of university students and young offenders and found that rational choice theory could not be used to generalize both types of groups’ choices when considering the cost and benefits associated to acts of delinquency. The research showed considerable differences in the cost of offending; the university student sample reported that when considering acts of delinquency, students reported a higher emotional cost, feelings of guilt and embarrassment than the offender sample. The study also indicated that the students were far more likely (53%) to report feeling some negative self-appraisal when compared to the offender population of the study (17%) (Bouffard, 2007). The rational choice theory model could be applied to the student population of the study as they were proven to consistently evaluate the cost and benefits of their actions, however, the rational choice theory model could not be applied to the offender group in the same way, as the offenders were proven to have a different value system when deciding costs and benefits of their actions. The student population showed that that the threat of punishment was enough to deter their behaviour, however, the offender population indicated that their behaviour was less likely to be deterred by the threat of punishment. This study would suggest that any preventative crime control policy created with rational choice theory framework would certainly show little deterrent effect on individuals with the proclivity for crime.

Individual Variation on Benefits

Policies using rational choice theory assume that everyone shares the same perception of costs and benefits. Habitual criminals have a variation of perceived benefit that can be attributed to their lifestyle and peer influence. As social learning theory suggests, criminals take on the values, ethics, and model the behaviour of the people in their social circles. Criminals that associate with felonious individuals, tend to develop similar beliefs of their social group and as a result start to see various aspects of crime to be beneficial. When looking at rational choice theory through the eyes of a potential offender, it is understood that the potential offender may still weigh costs and benefits when considering an act of delinquency, however, the offender’s costs and benefits differ from the average individual. An individual that has been negatively influenced by a criminally tainted social group would perceive the monetary gains of the potential crime, the value of the goods taken in a theft, the profits gained from illegal drug sales, thrills from committing the crime or an elevated status for committing a crime as extremely gratifying (Bouffard J. A., 2007). Those benefits would be weighed against the perceived costs of the criminal action, which could include, jail time, cost of legal proceedings, and the likelihood of being caught. In the process of calculating the perceived benefits and costs, the offender would base his decision on what is the highest benefit to their selves, using the tainted perception of the criminal social network. When the average everyday citizen contemplates committing a crime, they have the tendency to contemplate the cost and benefits of their potential actions, and how those factors might impact their lifestyle. The average everyday citizen might not want to buy or sell illegal narcotics because they don’t want the stigma associated with it, however, a criminal prone individual may view drug dealing as a position of elevated status in their social circles. Committing a murderous act, selling crack cocaine, or executing a robbery may be wrong in the rational world, but in the social circles of a criminal, these acts may be understood by their peers as act of status. Policies employing rational choice theory framework don’t apply to both of these types of individuals in the same way because they have different perceptions of the cost and the benefits of being associated criminal activities. In this case, imposing a policy aimed at deterring drug dealing would have more effect on our example of the average everyday citizen, and not so much of an effect the individual that seeks the status of being a drug dealer.

Criminal Impulsion and Low Self-Control

Rational choice theory suggests that severe punishment will inspire potential offenders to carefully evaluate the cost and benefits of each of their criminal transgressions. This line of thinking is problematic when used to create repressive criminal control public policies, as scholars have determined that tougher laws on crime, such as zero-tolerance laws, have a minimal effect on crime deterrence (Grant, 2009). Crime controlled policies that have been constructed with a rational choice theory framework, utilize the belief that all criminals make choices exclusively linked to a cost and benefit evaluation, however, in impulsive crimes and crimes of passion, offenders don’t typically calculate the costs and benefits of their actions prior to committing their wrongdoings. Studies have found that criminals with low self-control commit crimes without consideration of their actions; through their research, Sociologists Michael R. Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi of the University of Arizona, determined that criminals have a much lower level of self-control than the average person, suggesting that a criminal behavior is influenced by a high degree of impulsion (Sampson, 1992). Criminal actions committed without forethought indicate that offenders are not weighing the costs and benefits of their behaviour, therefore a rational decision-making process is absent. A criminal’s impulsive desire negates rational choice theory’s notion that offenders are able to calculate the cost and benefit of their misconducts. Additionally, criminal propensity theory suggests that the threat of a punishment does not discourage anyone that is already susceptible to criminal activity. Due to the impulsive, reckless, and present-oriented nature of the offenders, criminal propensity theorists believe that sanctioned punishments are ineffective in deterring criminals from committing various acts of delinquency. The criminal’s impulsivity causes them to disregard the long-term penalties associated with any act of delinquency and instead causes the offender to concentrate on the direct benefits of their transgressions (Wright, 2004). Offenders with high levels of criminality tend to strive for instant gratification for their unlawful behaviour, this desire causes the offender to become indifferent toward the potential long-term punishment that the future may hold. Since the threat of punishment is seen by the offender as a distance away, the offender’s risk-taking and impulsive nature drives their behaviour to commit crime in the “moment”. The present-oriented offender discounts the future punishment and pursues immediate satisfaction. Furthermore, these impulsive offenders usually have little risk (cost) when considering acts of delinquency, they are frequently not invested in society, have a hard time fitting in, have little education training, and fail to assimilate with society’s goals. As a result of their limitations, these offenders’ calculated benefits and costs of any given criminal transgression varies from the norm (Higgins, 2010). Policies that are constructed with a rational choice theory framework, aren’t effective in these cases as offenders operating “in the moment” fail to evaluate the costs and benefits or their conduct.

Alcohol, Anger, and Rational Choice

Using the rational choice framework, Dr. Lyn Exum, of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, studied the effects of alcohol and anger on violent decision-making utilizing. Using violent infused scenarios in the study, the research determined that alcohol and anger increased the participant’s level of aggression. The study found that individuals influenced by alcohol did not possess the cognitive ability to deal with the distal consequence of their actions. Furthermore, it was determined that the alcohol, also impaired the individual’s ability to comprehend the penalties for their acts of aggression. The study also indicated that the individual’s perceived costs and benefits were ineffective in deterring aggression. The result of the study led Dr. Lyn Exum to criticize the application of rational choice theory in policy formation, stating that “the perspective may not be the general explanation for crime it is proclaimed to be” (Exum, 2002)

Rational Choice Theory Policies

Using the rational choice theory, policy makers utilize crime control legislation to make delinquency riskier to participate in. Assuming that rational thinking individuals make prudent decisions, then to even potential offenders (assumed to be less rational), increasing the punishment (cost) of participating in an act of delinquency (through crime control legislation) should be enough of a deterrent to influence individuals from committing various property crimes and crimes associated with violence. By intensifying punishment to likely criminals and making it harder for potential lawbreakers to commit crimes through crime control legislation, the levels of offenses should in theory decline (Cheng, 2002). Stiffer penalties like the United States’ Three Strikes Law, Capital Punishment, and Canada’s proposed mandatory minimum sentencing are good illustrations of legislation that were designed to maximize the cost of conducting an act of delinquency. These types of policies apply rational choice theory to set the cost of committing a criminal act, the policy makers, in these cases, hope that the applied cost will outweigh the potential offender’s perceived benefits of committing criminal transgression. By setting a high cost for committing an act of delinquency, policy makers anticipate that a potential offender will evaluate the costs and benefits of their actions to calculate a prudent and lawful outcome.

Policies like the state of California’s “Three Strikes” law, and legislation dealing with capital punishment in the United States were constructed with the framework of rational choice theory in mind. Both types of legislation target criminals in the hopes that the offender will use rational thinking to prevent themselves from breaking the law. However, the crimes that these policies encompass are regularly impulsive in nature which reduces the criminal’s tendency to calculate the costs and benefits of their actions that are a staple of the rational choice theory.

California’s “Three Strike” Legislation

The “Three Strikes” legislation was a proposed crime policy aimed at the reduction of violent and heinous acts occurring in the state of California. The “Three Strikes” legislation is another example of a dysfunctional policy entangled in rational choice theory. California’s “Three Strikes" legislation, a progressive sentencing policy that imposes a mandatory minimum sentence of twenty-five years, for offenders with violent or serious criminal convictions that continue to perpetrate crimes, was designed to discourage criminals from reoffending. The state’s habitual offender law was passed 1993 when their voters approved Proposition 184, by an majority, with 72% for and 28% opposing (Chen, 2008). The legislation was intended to deter criminals from future wrongdoings, by making them think about the cost of the crimes they committed, however, the “Three Strikes” policy failed miserably. A ten-year study on the deterrence effect of the policy, revealed that legislation reduced the felony rate in California by a meagre 2 per cent (Franklin E. Zimring, 2002). Additionally, Daniel Nagin, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University, found in his research that lengthy prison sentences, like the ones offered by California’s “Three Strikes” legislation, seldom result a deterrence effect (Nagin, 2013). Furthermore, in their research on California’s “Three Strike” legislation, criminologists Thomas B. Marvell and Carlisle E. Moody found instead of deterring violence crimes, the “Three Strikes” policy actually caused violence crimes to increase (Marvell, 2001). This policy influenced by rational choice theory, which assumes that the threat of punishment, to the potential offender, is a higher cost than the benefit of the criminal action, has proven to be less effective in deterring delinquency, and instead it has continued to bloat numerous correctional institutions across the state (Pratt, 2008). However, this form of extended sentencing remains popular with the public as prolonged sentences remove the criminal from society for long periods of time, which inhibits the criminal’s capability to commit further criminal transgressions.

Capital Punishment Legislation

Capital punishment is another illustration of failed public policy being influenced by rational choice theory. Using rational choice theory, the potential offender is supposed to weigh the benefits of the crime, against the cost of the criminal wrongdoing. The policy uses the ultimate cost, the offender’s life, to dissuade the offender’s potential nefarious actions. Policy makers utilize the value of life to deter the rational individual from engaging in prohibited activity. The capital punishment legislation proposes that offenders will calculate their actions before committing to an act of delinquency, however, this deterrence effect has also proven to be limited. In the United States, a nation that still executes its criminals in various jurisdictions, there is still insufficient data supporting the deterrence effect of capital punishment. Research in the United States found that states without death penalty laws have low homicide rates and states with capital punishment laws have homicide rates that are higher that the country’s nationasl average (Goertzel, 2002). Furthermore, research on capital punishment has indicated that the state’s act of killing an individual may trigger a brutalization effect. Highly publicized executions have been found to produce an atmosphere of brutality, which inspires the notion that violence is an appropriate retort to various stressors, which has led to the inadvertent upsurge of homicide rates (Cochran, 1994).

The failed deterrent examples of California’s “Three Strikes” law and capital punishment indicate that offenders are not considering the costs and benefits of their actions before they engage in criminal activity. Long prison sentences and the threat of death imposed by these policies, are seen by rational individuals to be a likely deterrent from committing crime, however, policies such as capital punishment and California’s “Three Strikes” law are not attaining the result that the policy makers were hoping to achieve when they were forming the legislation. The failure of these policies shows that rational choices aren’t being made and the offenders involved are not weighing the cost and benefits of their actions. These types of policies that threaten punishment are not being found to be effective preventive crime measures, but still this type of remedy is high relied upon by policy makers. Crime repression policies applying rational choice theory are popular today and are still being implemented, despite the research indicating that tougher laws do not deter crime. This trend is still occurring because political powers have learned that being tough on crime has political influence, which impacts voter’s decision making during election periods (Pratt, 2008).


The use of rational choice theory as a framework in policy design is flawed, its premise is that everyone makes rational decisions, when in fact not everyone does. Individuals with low self-control that are affected by impulsion don’t apply the cost and benefit calculation required by rational choice theory, they act in the “moment” without the presence of rational decision-making strategy. Additionally, criminals that engage in the cost and benefit calculation of rational choice theory also may be making decisions with a skewed perception of the benefits involved in the act of delinquency. As a result of their criminal associations, these individuals have the tendency to perceive acts of crime as favorable, and as a consequence, their threshold for committing an act of crime is lowered. Their decision-making is done without rational calculation because they view various acts of crime as favorable. To further the reasoning that rational choice theory should not be used as a general theory of crime, researchers have also indicated that rational choice theory cannot be generalized across various groups, because of the contrasting value-system that the offenders possess.

Policies like capital punishment and California’s “Three Strike” legislation failed because these policies only consider the costs and benefits of non-offender groups. Scholars have shown that policies that utilize threats of punishment do not affect individuals that already follow societal norms. People that follow the rules of society aren’t likely to engage in criminal activity. These same policies have also had little effect on the offender population, as research has shown that tough crime laws don’t deter criminal behavior. Given the failed legislation, the impulsiveness of various offenders, alcohol influenced behavior, the inability to generalize rational choice theory across various populations, and the criminal’s and the non-offender’s different perception of benefits use to calculate decisions it is clear that rational choice theory should not be used as a general theory to guide the formation of preventative crime policy.


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