Gottfredson and Hirschi’s self-control theory claims that an individual’s lack of self-control is the primary cause of criminal behavior. According to this theory, individuals who lack self-control are more likely to engage in criminal activities due to their inability to resist temptation and their inability to plan ahead. The theory suggests that self-control is a trait that is developed in childhood and can be improved through socialization and parenting practices. Additionally, Gottfredson and Hirschi suggest that individuals with higher levels of self-control are less likely to become involved in criminal activities.

Self-control theory of crime

Criminological theory regarding lack of self-control

The self-control theory of crimeoften referred to as the general crime theoryit is a criminological theory about the lack of people self control as the main factor behind criminal behavior. The self-control theory of crime suggests that individuals who were raised ineffectively before the age of ten develop less self-control than individuals of approximately the same age who were raised with better parents. Research also found that low levels of self-control are correlated with criminal and impulsive behavior.

The theory was originally developed by criminologists Travis Hirsch and Michael Gottfredsonbut since then it has been the subject of a great theoretical debate and a large and growing empirical literature.

Theory and background

Arising out of interest in link theoryHirschi – in cooperation with Gottfredson – developed the “General Theory of Crime” or self control theory from 1990 onwards. Based on empirical observation of the connection between criminal behavior and age, Hirschi and Gottfredson theorized an important factor behind crime it is the individual’s lack of self-control. Individual self-control improves with age as a result of many factors: change biology through the hormonal development, socialization and increasing opportunity costs to lose control. Furthermore, criminal acts are often markedly uncontrolled; they are both opportunistic and myopic. It’s essentially how vulnerable different people are to the temptations of the moment.

self-control in psychology

Freud (1911, 1959) laid a foundation for the concept of self-control with his “pleasure principle” and “reality principle”. Respectively, they refer to the desire for immediate gratification and the delay of gratification. The pleasure principle drives people to seek pleasure and avoid pain. However, in the process of growing up, the individual learns the need to endure pain and delay gratification because of obstacles created by life’s realities. More recent psychological research has maintained a notion of self-control as referring to an individual’s decision or ability to delay immediate gratification of desires in order to achieve higher alternative goals.

Low acute self-control vs. chronic

Unlike the general theory of crime that presents low self-control as a characteristic of the individual that influences his behavior, the theory of criminal spin presents the reduction of self-control as a phenomenological process. This process can be acute, unique and not typical of the individual, or it can evolve into a chronic state, in which participation in criminal activities becomes central to the individual’s life. Furthermore, the criminal spin theory states that such a process leading to a state of reduced self-control can be seen in individuals, groups (e.g. gang rape) of even larger social entities (e.g. local communities).

Criticism and defense

Akers (1991) argued that a major weakness of this new theory was that Gottfredson and Hirschi did not define self-control and the tendency to criminal behavior separately. By deliberately not operationalizing traits of self-control and criminal behavior or individual criminal acts, it suggests that the concepts of low self-control and propensity for criminal behavior are one and the same. Hirschi and Gottfredson (1993) responded to Akers’ argument by suggesting that it was actually an indication of the consistency of the General Theory. That is, the theory is internally consistent in conceptualizing crime and deriving from it a concept of offender characteristics. Another criticism of Gottfredson and Hirshi’s theory of self-control is that it downplays peer influences.

empirical support

The research community remains divided on whether the General Theory of Crime is tenable, but there is emerging confirmation of some of its predictions (eg, LaGrange & Silverman: 1999). A number of empirical studies – including meta-analysis— confirmed that individual self-control is indeed a strong predictor of crime when compared to a range of factors at various levels of analysis.

See too


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