Why Do People Commit Crimes? Understanding the Rational Choice Theory

As criminal studies have evolved and our observation of human behavior has expanded, so has our knowledge of what motivates certain criminal behaviors.

If you want to further your career in criminology, a Master of Science in Criminology from Regis University will equip you with the latest information to better understand criminal behavior and the factors that contribute to it.

Back to Basics

Even though theories about criminal behavior have evolved with the study of crime, they remain rooted in some of the core beliefs and philosophies that have long been the foundation of criminology.

One of the main fundamental philosophies is Classical Theory, which has been around since the early 18th century1. It is rooted in the belief that human beings have free will and that they are motivated by the fear of pain. From this thought came the idea that fear of punishment could serve as a deterrent to criminal behavior and that a potential criminal would decide against committing a crime simply because of the pain of the punishment that would be inflicted if caught.

Classical Theory became the springboard out of which other theories of criminal behavior have evolved. Among the most dominant theories modern criminology is the Rational Choice Theory. Deeply rooted in the beliefs of Classical Theory, the Rational Choice Theory asserts that all action is fundamentally rational in character. Because of that, people will calculate the costs and benefits of their actions before they decide what to do2.

In his chapter on the Rational Choice Theory in the book Understanding Contemporary Society: Theories of the Present, U.K. researcher and sociology professor John Scott explains that, according to the Rational Choice Theory, the mere threat of punishment—or promise of reward—is enough to influence the behavior of an individual. If the punishment is severe enough, or the reward is great enough, the person’s rational brain will make his or her choices accordingly.

Elements of Rational Choice

Understanding criminal behavior according to the theory of Rational Choice means learning about the three types of individuals, or “actors,” that modern criminologists identify: rational, predestined, and victimized3.

The rational actor is one who chooses to commit crimes, but strict punishments serve as a deterrent and may keep him or her from committing them. This theory asserts that each individual begins life with a clean slate and makes his or her own choices as to how to behave.

The predestined actor is an individual who is unable to control his or her urges and may actually be encouraged by his or her environment to commit crimes. These people may be driven by internal or external influences (or both) to react in ways that are difficult for those in a non-criminal environment to understand.

Finally, the victimized actor model is based on the idea that criminal behavior evolves from abusive experiences or unfair treatment. These individuals may have been treated badly by either people or institutions and will develop criminal behavior based on those experiences4.

The world of criminology is complex and fascinating. There are many aspects to the criminal mind, and a Master of Science in Criminology from Regis University will give you the insight you need to excel in this ever-evolving field.