The Theory of Rational Choice in Criminology


In the field of criminology, the theory of rational choice has adopted a kind of utilitarian belief. In this belief, a man who is the character that is involved in crime is an actor who before engaging in any crime or any other act, weighs the end results that come by and also the means involved. Also, he considers the costs which will be incurred and also the benefits which will arise and thereby goes ahead to make a rational choice (Reppetto, 1976).

Positivism has it that the criminal behavior is in most cases determined by some external factors which are out of the control of type criminal. The factors include social forces, psychological forces and at times even biological forces.

This paper will critically look into two theories and seek to explain the main causes of crime. The paper will first look at two theories separately such that one can gain an understanding of the theories in order to have a clear outlook on the forces that lead to crime. The paper will then seek to explain the basic causes of the crimes.

The theory of rationality falls in the classical school of thought. This theory was fundamentally put forward in the 18th century by Cesare Becarria during the early days of the industrial revolution. Also a lead actor in the theory was Jeremy Bentham. Positivism came around in the 19th century at the middle of the industrial revolution. The chief perpetrators of the theory were Cesare Lombroso, Enrico Ferri and Garofalo Rafael.

The latter school mainly sought and advocated for the reformation of both the legal system and also the penal system whilst the positivist had a more advanced look in which they advocated for the application of scientific methods to study crime, criminality and criminology (Feeney, 1986).

Human nature plays a vital role in the determination of crime. Man is viewed as a rational person who is hedonistic with a free will to do whatever he feels like. In this way, the rationalist will view the person as one who wants to minimize pain in his activities and have a maximum amount of pressure. This way of thinking is characteristic of the rational person. On the other hand, positivists will view the person as one who behaves according to the social forces and also the psychological forces (Kleck, 1991). These forces have a general result of constraining the free will of the person and also deterring his rationality. In such a case, the person will engage in crime, not because he is willing to do so but because he has no other option owing to some external factors.

Rational criminals do not differ from the rest of the people and should be treated in a very strict manner as they do so after some calculations. The other group of criminals commits crime due to some inferiority. Their crime seems to be inherent and their punishment should in most cases be rehabilitative.

The criminal as a decision-maker

The fact that the behavior involved in the commitment of a certain crime is out rightly a very simple one in most cases. At the same time it happens not to be always the same case when there are other factors that underpin the behavior. Such factors are like the factors in positivism like social or psychological forces. Other times, it can be due to some cognitive factors. As an example, it is evident that a robber must first decide whether or not that he wants to use illegal means to get hold of some goods. In such a kind of consideration, they have to be sure that the crime is achievable (Pease, 1994).

On resolving to go on with the atrocity, the criminals have to make important decisions on what are steps to be followed in order to finally realize the objective. At this moment the criminals must know what weapons to use in carrying out the attack and the choice on whether he will need to do an actual firing of the gun should there arise some problems during the exercise. After outlining the said procedures, the criminal must be aware of how to organize his accomplices and also his past knowledge of crime not forgetting his psychological preparation (Morris and Tonry, 1980).

The mode of operation depends on the criminal and may vary in a manner of ways. Examples of this are a single person doing it or a group armed with guns and getaway vehicles and means to track the police. In criminal decision-making processes, the above matters are considered such that the necessary preventive measures are put in place. If taken on a rational choice basis, it is assumed that the criminals are in most cases rational when making their criminal decisions and the end result is a way in which they can benefit from the crime. It is due to this basis that a strong comprehension of the cognitive processes that underpin their causes of action and also the potency of their premeditated benefits would-have-been-incurred costs that led to a certain crime to take place are good determinants of the potential methods that can be used to avert the crimes.

There is, however, some difficulty in the determination of the driving forces behind a particular crime before actually interviewing the involved criminals. In such a circumstance, the interview would comprise of how they adjust to what they perceive as the best before committing the crime and also how they adjust to the physical environment before they actually take a part in a certain crime. Of other importance is their evaluation of the rewards that they can get and also the punishment which can be accorded to them.

According to some research, most criminals especially robbers are rational people who have calculated their moves. Some interviews have concluded that the criminals make very careful decisions before they actually engage in the crime. Some findings show that most robbers first plan on what to do and also most importantly conduct an investigation of the security detail of the target spot. Some of them actually take into consideration the option of being apprehended and convicted and the likely consequences of such a scenario.

According to an argument by Siegel (1992),

“According to this view, law-violating behavior should be viewed as an event that occurs when an offender decides to risk violating the law after considering his or her own personal situation (need for money, personal values, learning experiences) and situational factors (how well a target is protected, how affluent the neighborhood is, how efficient the local police happen to be). Before choosing to commit a crime, the reasoning criminal evaluates the risk of apprehension, the seriousness of the expected punishment, the value of the criminal enterprise, and his or her immediate need for criminal gain.”

Crime based on other factors

In this discussion, it is worthwhile to note that there are other factors that lead to committing various crimes. Before criminals decide to engage themselves in a certain crime, they are more often than not, not exposed to a social vacuum. Social factors among other forces drive them to crime (Carroll and Weaver, 1986). There are so many factors that influence the decision of the offender like the main factors which motivate them to take part in the crime.

Some criminals have it that the factors that led them to commit a certain crime would have allowed anyone else to do the same. For some of the criminals who are in not no way addicted to crime, they thought that the best alternative to solve their financial problems was engaging themselves in crime. Some of the criminals claimed to have had some financial burdens which they would only have solved through crime. The amount of money which might have been stolen in this case, however small is enough justification for the committed crime. Other criminals engage in some kinds of crime due o the main reason that they desire to be in a certain lifestyle. This is however not the case for some due o a lack of means and the only way that they can acquire symbols of success and high esteem in life is to engage themselves in crime.

In this kind of context, the prejudiced interpretations of these persons may be analyzed as reasonable calculations founded on a past that allows criminal behavior to be contained by the limits of their individual sensibilities; an instant motivation, or necessity, requiring a judicious elucidation; but as well, their understanding might be viewed to be supported on a rationally well founded, reasonable and precise evaluation of the odds that might come by. This arguments tends o refute that the crime was due to some external factors and was at the very end, due to some rational choices.

Based on the above arguments, crime is a behavior that can be aroused by social factors and also other psychological factors as visualized in the positivism theory. It is though worthwhile to note that the end decision to commit the crime happens only after the person has been rational in the decisions made after going through some of the following factors (Sherman, 1993).

In General Deterrence theory, the criminals engage in the crimes and other related activities if they feel that apprehension and punishment is out of their way. According to the structuring of the common laws and social norms, they are in such a way that they perceive negative acts as ones which should have consequential punishments. Before anyone decides that the punishment is ineffective, he must have looked into the consequences.

This viewpoint shifts concentration to the act of committing a criminal or maybe an out of the ordinary activity. The matter becomes, what is capable to be done to formulate the act of offense or other atrocity less good-looking to the person? How possible is it for the crime or even the abnormal actions be barred? “…crime prevention or at least crime reduction may be achieved through policies that convince criminals to desist from criminal activities, delay their actions, or avoid a particular target.” (Siegel, 1992).

Approaches that are pertinent to this kind of perception take account of the following principles: target solidification (self-defense skills, neighborhood-watch-programs, etc.), and other critical legal deterrents (more law enforcement, obligatory sentence, the death sentence, etc.). Research on prevention seems to point toward that for a number of offenses, influential acts intended to generate economic achievements and positive rapacious “street-crimes”, there is a noteworthy association amid these precautionary strategies and the lessening or even deflection of illegal/deviant behavior. However, for some kinds of other criminals and unruly activities, the communicative crimes of aggression and the sub culturally toughened forms of crime; the proof is less irrefutable (Siegel, 1992).


Criminals have been viewed as people who undergo various processes before they actually decide o engage in certain sets of crime. This paper has seen that there are various factors which drive the criminals to engage in the activities. The factors range from addiction, financial problems, psychological factors and social issues.

The social issues can be like wanting to be in a particular spot in the society. After being motivated by the factors to engage in crime, they get involved in a series of decisions on how they are to make their trade worthwhile and successful. This involves a calculation of the related risks and also the costs and benefits. This can then be used to decisively conclude that criminals are rational decision makers who know of all the implications of their actions whether they successful or not.


Carroll, J. and Weaver, F. (1986). “Shoplifters’ Perceptions of Crime Opportunities: A Process-Tracing Study.” In: D. Cornish and R. Clarke (eds.), The Reasoning Criminal Rational Choice Perspectives. New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.

Feeney, F. (1986). “Robbers as Decision Makers.” In: D. Cornish and R. Clarke (eds.), The Reasoning Criminal Rational Choice Perspectives on Offending. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Kleck, G. (1991). Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America. New York, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

Morris, N and Tonry, M. (1980). Crime and Justice: An Annual Review of Research, vol. 2. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Pease, K. (1994). “Crime Prevention.” In: M. Maguire, R. Morgan and R. Reiner (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Criminology. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Reppetto, T.A. (1976). “Crime Prevention and the Displacement Phenomenon.” Crime & Delinquency (22): 166-177.

Sherman, L.W. (1993). “Defiance, Deterrence, and Irrelevance: A Theory of the Criminal Sanction.” Journal of Research on Crime and Delinquency 30(4):445-473.

Siegel, L. (1992). Criminology, 4th ed., NY: West publishing.

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LawBirdie. "The Theory of Rational Choice in Criminology." March 23, 2023.