The cost-benefit analysis of the rational choice theory

Rational Choice Theory in Criminology Fully Explained


Rational choice theory is a new area of criminological research. It studies how individuals form their decisions when committing crimes. When making any choice, people will consider many factors: the probability of being caught, the sentence for committing a particular crime, and any chance to get away with the crime.

The rational choice theory focuses on how people calculate the costs and benefits of committing a crime, weigh the pros and cons, and then chooses the option that yields the highest net benefits. If a criminal chooses an action that is likely to get them caught, their gain from committing a crime will be negative.

Similarly, suppose the likelihood is high that they won’t be able to avoid punishment or arrest. In that case, there will be an even stronger incentive for the criminal to abandon their plan. Rational choice theorists also study how individuals choose who to partner with, how they make a living, and where to invest money. Let us look at more below!

The Cost-Benefit Concept of the Rational Choice Theory

Criminologists have focused on the concept of relative benefits and risks in everyday decision-making, particularly concerning different types of crimes. The cost-benefit analysis is another crucial concept in rational choice theory. It states that the law offenders choose their actions based on the possible benefits and risks of these activities.

The term “cost” means the negative outcomes that can result from committing a crime, and the term “benefit” means the positive outcomes that can result from committing a crime.

Rational choices theory states that people, including criminals, weigh options and make decisions based on what they perceive as the best option. The rational choice theory has been criticized for ignoring other factors influencing individuals’ decisions, such as peer pressure.

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The Two Premises on Which the Rational Choice Theory is Based

The first is that individuals are rational beings who will calculate costs and benefits associated with any form of action, whether choosing employment, investing money in business, choosing where to live, or committing a crime.

The second premise is that individuals will make the decision that yields the maximum benefits. A reasoning criminal will only commit a crime with maximum benefits.

The rational choice theory focuses on the individual’s viewpoint and rational behavior. It does not consider any external factors that may influence their decisions, such as environment, culture, or social background. It also assumes a sort of balance between the individual and their environment.

The assumption that people can make rational decisions may have been true in the past, but not today because of many factors that have been taken into account in criminal justice, such as the media’s influence on people.

The criminal justice system has changed and is still changing. Therefore, criminologists need to consider the role of these changes in punishing offenders.

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The Main Proponents of the Rational Choice Theory

The first rational choice theorist who outlined the principles of this theory was Gary Becker. However, other criminologists differ in their interpretation and application of the theory. The two most famous rational choice theorists who have applied the principles of this theory are James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. We describe the theorists below.

Gary Becker

Becker was born in the U.S.A. He graduated from New York University and Brown University, majoring in economics. In proposing the rational choice theory, Gary Becker believed that an individual would act rationally to minimize the cost and maximize the benefit of committing a crime.

Without this assumption, he would not explain why a criminal would select the option of committing a crime even if it is very likely that they will be caught and punished or receive a very small benefit.

According to Gary Becker, criminals are rational beings who try to maintain a normal life by avoiding situations that lead to jail time. For an individual who wishes to be as successful as possible in the free market, committing a crime is irrational because it will affect their future careers.

However, criminals do not think about the future regarding long-term implications; they focus on immediate gratification instead. Therefore, they are willing to take risks even if they know that what they will do is illegal and will lead to jail time.

James Q. Wilson

James applied the principles of the rational choice theory to his study of the causes of crime. He believed that different people are motivated to commit crimes because they have different perceptions of the costs and benefits associated with criminal activity.

James Q. Wilson was a professor of government at Harvard University. He has studied criminology for more than 40 years and has written several books and articles. He is also known for his collaboration with George Kelling in crime prevention through environmental design.

In his book ( Thinking About Crime ), James Q. Wilson outlined the three stages of rational choice theory:

  1. The information-gathering process
  2. Scanning options
  3. Making a decision.

These processes are influenced by our perception of the costs and benefits associated with criminal activity. Therefore, the main cause of crime is how we perceive and evaluate information.

An example raised by Wilson to explain his theory

If your electric bill is $100, you will probably think that alternative-energy programs are not worth the cost. However, if your bill is $3,000, you will see alternative energy as a more attractive option. The cost of an energy program is not the money we spend on the program but our time-share in terms of the cost involved.

If we see a person with a very long criminal record, we will find them less attractive in the job market even if they have a Ph.D. It is cost as perceived by our mind as opposed to the cost associated with the dollar amount.

For the rational choice theory, if a person finds that committing a crime will lead to a lower cost than other lawful options, that person will be more likely to commit a crime.

Kelling was also convinced that our perception of cost and benefit is the major cause of crime. However, Kelling focused his studies on preventing crime through environmental design rather than applying this theory to his research in criminology.

Friedrich von Hayek

Hayek, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, believed that law-abiding behavior depends on the way rules are defined. According to Hayek, rules should be unambiguous so that people can act accordingly.

When rules are clear, people will not need to waste time and money finding loopholes for committing a crime without getting caught. Therefore, they will choose to follow the rules, and there will be less criminal activity.

Hayek was also concerned about the consequences of failure in defining a law with precise rules. If the consequences of breaking the law are not clearly defined, people will do whatever it takes to fulfill their needs without getting caught by the police.

Some people may prefer to get away with a crime rather than face prosecution. If rules are not clearly defined, then the law will not be able to function effectively.

In his book ( Law, Legislation, and Liberty ), Hayek illustrated his argument by giving an example of the definition of “intoxication” by law. He argued that we should tell whether a person is intoxicated enough to drive a car.

A very drunk person should not be allowed to drive, while a person who drinks only one glass of wine at dinner can drive a car. However, if we cannot define whether someone is intoxicated enough to drive a vehicle, then we will be unable to tell whether they are guilty of breaking the law or not.

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Critics of the Rational Choice Theory

  • The major criticism of the rational choice theory is that it ignores the individual’s ability to control actions, which many people believe is impossible.
  • Another criticism of the rational choice theory is that it does not fully explain why some prisoners commit crimes without being pressured by others. It is also criticized for failing to explain why the same people who follow rational choice can later change their minds and become involved in irrational and disorganized crimes.
  • Criminologists who support the rational choice theory also assume that people always act in their own best interest, which is not absolutely true.

For example, the criminal behavior of most violent offenders can be attributed to psychopathy. Psychopaths are people who do not feel empathy for others and cannot understand the psychological and emotional impact of their crimes on victims.

  • Labeling theory: labeled as criminals and deviants, people may identify themselves with that identity. This theory argues that when criminal behavior becomes an established norm in a particular culture, people learn from their surroundings and identify with the label.

People labeled as criminals or deviants may be discriminated against by others, creating an environment that encourages deviant behavior and leads to a cycle of crime.

Labeling theory is based on the assumption that everyone conforms to social norms without external influence. People are born as blank slates without any criminal tendencies and will become criminals only if they are labeled.

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The Roles of Emotions in the Rational Choice Theory

Human beings have emotions that influence their behavior in many situations. Emotions can help people make fast decisions without doing too much thinking, but they are also believed to be irrational. So how do emotions fit in the rational choice theory?

Self-interest and emotion can coexist in criminal decisions

Scholars have attempted to distinguish between rational and irrational crimes. Rational criminals make decisions that yield the maximum benefits. Irrational criminals are motivated by their emotions, such as anger, fear, and hatred.

Most crimes are a combination of emotional and rational factors, making it difficult to classify them as purely rational or irrational. According to the traditional theory, decisions result from rational calculations, and emotions should not be considered in decision-making processes.

But recent studies have shown that emotions serve as an important aspect of the decision-making process and rational decisions are not always devoid of emotion.

An example is a theory of “hot cognition.” In hot cognition, emotions can influence the cognitive process. For example, fear and anger may cause a person to make biased judgments in favor of their interest.

Rational criminals and rational choice theory

According to the rational choice theory, offenders are goal-oriented individuals who constantly weigh the costs and benefits of their actions. Individuals choose actions that maximize their rewards while minimizing their risks.

Some criminals are rational individuals who compare the costs and benefits of their actions. For example, a rational offender will decide to steal an object if its value is higher than the probability of getting caught. In doing so, criminal offenders can justify their actions by minimizing the risks and maximizing the benefits.

In most cases, it is difficult to classify crimes as purely rational or irrational. Most crimes are a mix of the two, making it impossible to determine whether offenders are rational or irrational.

Some crimes are calculated decisions, while others constitute impulsive reactions to certain situations, and emotions may play a role in these crimes.

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Rational Choice Theory and Immigration

Many people believe that immigrants are criminals because the former have different cultural beliefs and lower education levels. However, rational choice theory suggests that immigrants are more likely to obey the law than native-born citizens.

Immigrants are more likely to obey the law because they have fewer opportunities than native-born citizens. If an immigrant wants to live in a foreign country, they must follow the laws of that country.

For example, immigrants may not be able to continue working without an appropriate working visa. Therefore, they have no choice but to follow the laws of that country as they are required to earn their living.

On the other hand, a native-born citizen is more likely to break the law feeling that they don’t have to follow the law because there are enough opportunities in their country.

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Situational Crime Prevention and the Rational Choice Theory

Situational crime prevention is a strategy that focuses on the context of criminal activities. This type of prevention does not rely on the characteristics of criminals or types of crimes. It focuses on the characteristics of places where criminal activities occur.

The situational crime prevention strategy focuses more on preventing repeat crimes through modifying situations than preventing crimes from happening in the first place.

For example, crime prevention activities may include installing security devices such as door locks or security cameras. These devices will make it difficult for criminals to repeat their crimes.

Situational crime prevention strategies rely on the rational choice theory. The purpose of this strategy is to reduce the risk of criminal activities. The theory suggests that if criminals believe their actions will be risky, they will not commit the crime in the first place.

The rational choice theory explains why situational crime prevention strategies are effective. Examples of situational crime prevention activities include installing security devices such as door locks to prevent repeat crimes.

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Routine Activity Theory


The routine activity theory is another theory that the rational choice theorists have to consider. This theory states that offenders who commit crimes in their usual routine are less likely to be punished than those who tend to deviate from their usual routine. If the criminal is caught, it will be in an environment they are familiar with, and the level of security will be lower.

Routine activity theory also states that offenders are more likely to fall into traps set by law enforcement officials who wait for them to commit crimes in areas where the police will have the upper hand; these are referred to as hot spots.

Risk and rationality are also inseparable in routine activity theory. It is impossible to calculate all the risks of committing a crime, but they are more likely to happen when the criminal deviates from a routine.

Implementing this theory will require the police to monitor the movements of known offenders through hot spots for more than a month. The theory is not very popular because it assumes that law enforcement officials can accurately identify hot spots, which some criminologists think is impractical.

Another critique of the routine activity theory is that it focuses on locations and not the crimes committed there.

The Deterrence Theory

The deterrence theory addresses the question of how to reduce crime. It deals with different ways that can be used to prevent criminal activities from happening again.

This theory considers the rational choice theory to gauge how offenders should be punished. It consists of four main components: punishment, certainty, swiftness, and severity.

The punishment component suggests that criminals are more likely to refrain from committing crimes if they are punished for their actions.

Crime prevention measures that can be used to achieve this component of the deterrence theory include using security devices such as building high walls to prevent repeat crimes.

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Bottom Line

The rational choice theory explains a lot about the actions of criminals. It suggests that criminal acts are calculated, and risk minimization strategies will be implemented to avoid getting caught. The main problem with this theory is that it does not consider reducing the number of criminals.

Rational choice theorists have a good point in their theory that criminals are rational and weigh the costs of their actions. Increasing the cost of committing a crime will deter offenders from repeating the crime.

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