The rational choice theory is one of the theories of criminology, which seeks to explain the causes and motivation that lead to criminal behavior. The theory is premised on the assumption that a criminal is a rational individual, who will make choices that are beneficial to him under the circumstances. It argues that a criminal will make a cost-benefit analysis before engaging in criminal behavior. If the benefits outweigh the cost, then he will engage in them, and vice versa. This brief report will canvas some of the features that are critical in the theory.
Choices have consequences. When a person chooses to engage in a particular act or make a certain decision, he or she must take into account the resulting effects of his or her actions. Therefore, a criminal, according to the theory, also takes account of the effects of his actions. He does this by carrying out a cost-benefit analysis. He will make his decision depending on which side the scale is tilting. For example, if a thief wants to steal a car, he will not only have to take into account the benefits that come with having a stolen car, but also take into account the cost and implications. If the benefits are more than costs, criminals will often engage in criminal behavior.
The degree or extent of the payoff after a crime is also a significant factor before one engages in such activities. For example, bank robbers wearing masks are unlikely to kill anyone cooperating with them. This is because it will only serve to increase the cost without any tangible benefits. However, if one of the suspects is recognized by a victim, the robber may find it more beneficial to eliminate the victim rather than leave him to help in the investigation that will identify him. Moreover, criminals will also seek to commit crimes with the highest payoff and maximum risks.
According to this theory, people make rational choices based on their calculations. However, it is extremely vital to recognize the significant part played by peer pressure during decision making. Most people make decision that will make them ‘fit in’ within their peers. Criminals are not an exception. They also need a sense of belonging. It is critical to recognize that most criminal activities involve conspiracies and group work. Therefore, peer support in a decision may fundamentally challenge a person’s rational decision. The risk or threat of losing peer support may also lead one to hold a different view than that made by a person without similar support. On the other hand, if a criminal has peer support with regard to the commission of a crime, he or she may totally disregard the cost-benefit analysis.
The certainty, severity and swiftness of punishment are significant considerations for a criminal before he engages in deviant behavior. Sutherland argues that this is a significant consideration because despite the possibility of numerous benefits, a criminal will only engage in criminal behavior if there is a possibility of escaping liability. This line of argument was advanced by Cesare Beccario. He argued that it is only by making punishment certain will the government deter deviant behavior. According to him, therefore, severity does not matter if the criminal thinks he has a chance of escaping liability. This means that definite punishment is a cardinal consideration that will either give the criminal a positive or negative answer as to whether to proceed with a crime or not.
Risk of Apprehension
This is similar to the threat of punishment. The risk of being apprehended can be influential in decision making. When the stakes are high such consideration is critical. For example, if a person has to make a decision of whether to commit murder or not, then the risk of apprehension must be keenly considered. This is because apprehension will lead to harsh punishment. On the other hand, if the penalties are not harsh for the crime committed, then the risk of apprehension may be an irrelevant consideration. A person will consider it prudent to engage in criminal acts with extremely low apprehensions risks. This is because criminals are also rational individuals. They are aware of the role of government in maintaining order and punishing offenders.
Needs of the Offender
Lastly, the needs of offenders are perhaps the most crucial consideration that influences decision making than any other. This is because criminal behavior is primarily caused by a person’s needs. These needs might be personal, social, political and/or economical. The theory of rational choice is heavily influenced by the theory of utilitarianism. A person will always seek the greatest happiness for oneself despite any consequences. When the consideration narrows down to the needs of the offender, it will be a matter of pain versus pleasure. A starving person will have no time to consider the effects or punishment for his or her actions. The primal consideration will be where and how to get food.
Vito, G., & Maahs, J. (2011). Criminology: Theory, Research, and Policy. New York: Jones & Bartlett Publishers.