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Published onJan 04, 2023

Lesson Objectives

Learning Activities

Learning Assessment

  1. Know the tenets of Self-Control theories

  2. Identify the development of Self-Control theories

  3. Distinguish between Self-Control theories and theorists

  4. Apply Self-Control theories to real-world criminal cases

  5. Discuss Self-Control theories’ ability to explain crime

  6. Evaluate Self-Control theories’ ability to explain crime

Read Elias; Gottfredson & Hirschi; Pinker

Complete Study Guide Self-Control

Read Review Self-Control

Watch Theorist Video Gottfredson

Watch “Drunk Driving Teen Causes Accident Involving Over 14 People” and “Friends Say Teen Drove Into Oncoming Traffic Before Fatal Crash”

Annotate “Drunk Driving Teen Causes Accident Involving Over 14 People” and “Friends Say Teen Drove Into Oncoming Traffic Before Fatal Crash”

Explain how Self-control theory applies to the crime in the video

Come up with your own example of Self-control theory operating in another case, such as a recent news event or your own life

Overview and Reading Quiz. Self-Control

Theorist Video Quiz. Gottfredson

Video Discussion. Self-Control


Given that this is a criminological theory class, I can’t reiterate the following enough. So, you’ll keep seeing the following:

Theory is a statement about how something affects something else.

Scientific theory states how something empirical (an independent variable) affects something else empirical (the dependent variable).

Something is empirical if you can hear, see, touch, smell, or taste it.

The reason it is good for theories to be empirical is they can be tested and falsified.

Indeed, whether a theory is good isn’t only about being valid. Also, a theory is better if it is simpler, more general, more original, and more useful.

Criminological theory states how something (an independent variable) affects crime (the dependent variable).

The vast majority of criminological theories make statements about why communities, individuals, and situations are more likely to have or commit crime.

Note that criminological theories rarely, if ever, only focus on empirical somethings, but let’s ignore that.

There are a lot of criminological theories that differ in a lot of ways. Mostly though, you should think of criminological theories as being based in one or more disciplines, such as economics, biology, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and so on.

Criminology, to be clear, is not a discipline. It’s a field of study; that is, the study of crime.

Current Course Section

After the introductory material, this course has seven sections reflecting major disciplinary approaches to the study of crime. However, because criminology is interdisciplinary, sometimes the lines between disciplines have become murky, so some of the sections have elements of multiple disciplines.

The current section focuses on psychological theories of crime.

As with “theory,” “criminology,” and many other words, “sociology” and “psychology” have different meanings. In this class, simply think of them as the study of society and the human mind, respectively.

For this section, you will read three works relating to a particular strand of such theories, namely that on "self-control."

Before briefly going over those works, I’m obliged to remind you that we won’t examine every criminological theory of this sort. But if you want to see further examples, you should either do a Wikipedia search or, maybe better yet, browse the Oxford Bibliography entries on Criminology.

Readings and Theories Therein

First, you should read an excerpt from Elias’ The Civilizing Process. Early on in the excerpt, Elias refers to the “civilizing process” as a change in human conduct and sentiment. A paragraph later, he specifies how that conduct and sentiment have changed.

Simplified, he argues the following: External controls, such as things that go on in communities, led to more self-control in individuals (i.e., internal control). Self-control is a restraint on impulsive and emotional behavior. As people gained self-control, things we think of as bad – such as being impolite or violent – became less common in public and more shameful.

In short, Elias is arguing that over time, society became more “civilized.” The civilizing process involves, in part, people gaining self-control.

In the excerpt, you will read about Elias theory of the community-level factors that led to increased amounts of self-control and, in turn, have reduced crime in society.

Second, you should read an excerpt from Gottfredson and Hirschi’s A General Theory of Crime. When most criminologists refer to “self-control,” they have this book in mind (not Elias).

For them, someone has low self-control if they are impulsive, insensitive, physical, risk-taking, shortsighted, nonverbal.

They theorize that people with low self-control commit more crime and “analogous acts,” meaning harmful behaviors that aren’t criminal (e.g., smoking cigarettes).

The authors also spend some page space theorizing why some people have less control than others. They imply that part of the reason is biological, which you’ll learn more about in the Pinker excerpt (discussed below). They also think it has a lot to do with how parents raise their children.

Third, you should read an excerpt from Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. I assigned this excerpt for a couple reasons.

Most importantly, Pinker does a nice job of explaining the biological basis behind self-control, which connects this section to the prior one on biology and crime.

Also, this excerpt reviews a lot of interesting research on whether self-control actually affects crime, violence, and other behaviors.

This book, by the way, is really interesting and, for better or worse, really long. If you would like to know more about it, I recommend watching the TED Talk on it here.

Elias, Norbert. 1994. The Civilizing Process, revised edition. Blackwell Publishing. (Fair use of pp. 365-382.)

Gottfredson, Hirschi, and Travis Hirschi. 1990. A General Theory of Crime. Stanford University Press. (Fair use of pp. 85-120.)

Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. New York: Penguin. (Fair use of pp. 592-610.)

Theorist Video Annotation

For this section, you’ll watch an interview with Michael Gottfredson. He’s the author of the second reading, which makes him pretty famous among criminologists because that work has had a huge, huge impact on the field. The interview is super exciting, so I won’t spoil it for you by describing any of its details. But make sure you buckle-up because it’s gonna be a wild ride, buckaroo. If you’re interested in reading some of his work, you can find it by clicking on this link:

Michael Gottfredson

Crime Video Discussion & Gist of This Section

Recall that you’re doing video discussions to see whether you can apply the theories to the real world. Some theories can be complicated, but their fundamental points don’t need to be. People, including you, may disagree with me (this is what makes academia fun), but I think the gist – or essence – of the theories examined in this section is as follows:

  • The dependent variable is crime, meaning acts prohibited by law.

  • Crime is theorized to be affected by individuals’ self-control.

  • Simply defined, self-control is not acting badly based on impulse or emotion.

In theory, individuals commit more crime if they have less self-control. Also, that theory could be thought of as operating at the community- and situational-level of analysis.

  • A community is more likely to have crime if the individuals therein have less self-control.

  • An interaction is more likely to result in crime if the involved-individuals have less self-control.

  • A small place, like a bar, has more crime therein if the individuals therein have less self-control.

If you truly understand the above, you’ll be able to do very well on the discussion post. If you don’t get it right now, don’t worry about it. The readings, video, study guide, and quizzes will get you where your knowledge where it needs to be – if you truly do your best on them.

Drunk Driving Teen Causes Accident Involving Over 14 People
Friends Say Teen Drove Into Oncoming Traffic Before Fatal Crash

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