Theories of Crime: Rational Choice Theory

Over time, a wide variety of theories have been developed to help understand, explain, or change criminal activity. One of the key reasons to understand what leads to criminal behavior is that it allows professionals to make informed decisions on treatment and recommend policy changes.

People commit crimes for a number of different reasons. With a Master of Science in Criminology degree from Regis University, you will study what leads to criminal behavior. One important component you’ll learn are the different theories about crime, including the Rational Choice Theory.

Understanding Rational Choice

One of the oldest theories of criminal behavior is the rational choice theory, which was first developed in the late 18th century and, since then, has been expanded on in many different ways.1 As other theories about criminal behavior have developed, they have been linked to the idea of rational choice and have created a broader interpretation of what rational choice means.

According to Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker’s landmark 1968 paper, rational choice theory is used in both criminal and non-criminal behavior. It involves intentionally committing some act because the reward gained from that act will be greater than the risk associated with it.2

This theory rules out such factors as biological, psychological or environmental factors that might compel someone to commit a crime. Instead, it asserts that criminals make a choice to commit a crime after weighing the costs. They also will consider the benefit of not committing the crime, but ultimately determine that the rewards of the crime are greater than the benefit of not committing the crime.

Individual Gain

Key to this theory is the belief that the offender sees himself as an individual rather than as part of something larger.3 Therefore, he or she is thinking about themselves and their personal gain rather than considering what it might possibly mean to others. Instead, they will only think about the positive and negative effects their actions might have on their own personal freedoms and desires.

However, while this theory acknowledges that people will weigh the risks and benefits of committing a crime, it does not assume that their evaluation of the risks are entirely rational. Based on their personal history, they may have a distorted view of the consequences and benefits compared to an individual who does not have a criminal past.4

The reasons people commit crimes are varied and complex. With an online Master of Science in Criminology degree from Regis University, you will learn more about what leads to criminal behavior and will study the various theories supporting these different types of behaviors. Through the understanding of such theories, including the rational choice theory, it is easier to develop a more effective way to treat criminal behavior, both at the policy level and as individuals.

Read More on Theories of Crime:

Why Do People Commit Crimes? Understanding Rational Choice Theory
Varying Theories of Crime