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Deterrence & Rational Choice

Published onJan 04, 2023
Deterrence & Rational Choice

Lesson Objectives

Learning Activities

Learning Assessment

  1. Know the tenets of Deterrence / Rational Choice theories

  2. Identify the development of Deterrence / Rational Choice theories

  3. Distinguish between Deterrence / Rational Choice theories and theorists

  4. Apply Deterrence / Rational Choice theories to real-world criminal cases

  5. Discuss Deterrence / Rational Choice theories’ ability to explain crime

  6. Evaluate Deterrence / Rational Choice theories’ ability to explain crime

Read Deterrence / Rational Choice Overview

Read Bentham; Gibbs; Clarke & Cornish

Complete Study Guide for Deterrence / Rational Choice

Watch Theorist Video-Nagin

Annotate Theorist Video-Nagin

Answer Theorist Video-Nagin quiz questions

Watch “Psychic Sets Trap to Con Oregon Timber Millionaire” and “Timber Heir Fooled Into Thinking He Had Wife, Son”

Annotate “Psychic Sets Trap to Con Oregon Timber Millionaire” and “Timber Heir Fooled Into Thinking He Had Wife, Son”

Explain how Rational Choice applies to the crime in the video

Come up with your own example of Rational Choice operating in another case, such as a recent news event or your own life

Overview and Reading Quiz. Deterrence / Rational Choice

Theorist Video Annotation-Nagin

Video Discussion-Rational Choice


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.

Section: Deterrence & Rational Choice

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 economic theories of crime.

As with “theory,” “criminology,” and many other words, “economic” has different meanings. In this class, simply think of it as a focus on benefits and costs.

For this section, you will read three works that are examples of that disciplinary approach to theorizing crime.

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 do a Wikipedia search or browse the Oxford Bibliography entries on Criminology.

Readings and Theories Therein

First, you should read an excerpt of Bentham’s An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. This work is the premier example of classic philosophy that, with time, developed into scientific criminology. You may recall that the introductory period included information about him and the ideas in this work.

The vast majority of criminology students, or even professors, will never read Bentham’s own words. Rather, they read summaries written by others, such as those found in textbooks. Those summaries are useful, but it is important to read the actual works. By doing so, you will gain a better understanding of the ideas therein.

However, some of the early works, like Bentham’s, are difficult to comprehend. You can comprehend them, but it takes a lot of time and thinking. You’re in college, so you should do that. With that said, I want to ensure you comprehend the works. Therefore, you’ll see in the Bentham excerpt that I’ve written short summaries of each section.

So, what should you take away from Bentham? Before answering that, I want to press upon you that “what to take away from” any given work is subjective. It is perfectly ok for you to think something is important that I don’t find that important, and vice versa. Those sorts of disagreements are what make academia interesting. You do you; I’ll do me.

For me, some of the key takeaway points are the following:

(1) According to Bentham, people do things to gain pleasure and avoid pain; and that is the moral thing to do. Basically, “pleasure” and “pain” are synonymous with many words, like “benefit” and “cost” or, as I refer to them in the aforementioned summaries, “good stuff” and “bad stuff.”

(2) The government is only one potential source of good and bad stuff that people experience; others are nature, the community, and supernatural beings.

(3) There are many ways to think of the value of good and bad stuff, such as intensity, duration, likelihood, swiftness, extent of people affected, and others.

(4) The government’s job is to prevent bad stuff by punishing it. However, preventing bad stuff is somewhat complicated because the government should worry more about worse stuff and accomplish prevention in the cheapest way possible.

Second, you should read an excerpt of Gibbs’ Crime, Punishment, and Deterrence. This book proved to be a very important piece in the reemergence of deterrence research in criminology.

Basically, deterrence is scaring people out of doing bad stuff. The government tries to use punishment to deter people (i.e., scare them) out of committing crime.

That may seem like a simple idea, but studying it scientifically is difficult. Gibbs goes over the reasons why. He also provides a short history, overview, and other critiques of deterrence theory.

Third, you should read Clarke and Cornish’s “Modeling Offenders’ Decisions.” This work is considered by many criminologists as the foremost contemporary example of “rational choice theory” as used in criminology.

Stated simply, rational choice is the following: If people have two or more options, they do whichever one is perceived to have the greatest benefit (i.e., pleasure or good stuff) relative to the cost (i.e., pain or bad stuff). Thus, rational choice theory asserts that people commit crime if they think it is a better option than not committing crime.

Again, that may seem like a simple idea, but it is rather complicated. As you’ll see in the Clarke and Cornish article, there are a lot of influences on whether people see something as rational.

Also, there’s another important point in this reading: You shouldn’t ask whether a theory or crime control method is “perfect.” They probably never will be. Rather, you should ask whether they are “good enough” to achieve some objective, such as better understanding crime or reducing it.

When reading the above, I want you to consider the following: Bentham and Gibbs talk about deterrence in big ways, whereas you’ll see that Clarke and Cornish focus on deterrence in a very specific way. Both are useful and important for controlling crime. If you’re a legislator, you’ll probably think more about deterrence as do Bentham and Gibbs. They have more of a community-level focus. But if you’re a police officer or correctional officer, for instance, you’ll probably think more about deterrence as do Clarke and Cornish. They have more of an individual- and, especially, situational-focus.

Bentham, Jeremy. 1789. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. London: W. Pickering.

Gibbs, Jack. P. 1975. Crime, Punishment, and Deterrence. New York: Elsevier. (Fair use of pp. 1-28.)

Clarke, Ronald V., and Derek B. Cornish. 1985. Modeling Offenders’ Decisions: A Framework for Research and Policy. Crime & Justice 6:147-185. (Paywalled here.)

Theorist Video Annotation

For this section, you’ll watch an interview with Daniel Nagin. He is one of the world’s top deterrence researchers. Among other topics, he discusses what sparked his interest in criminology and deterrence; why he thinks people continue to commit crime despite being punished; and, whether he thinks deterrence is effective at reducing crime. If you’re interested in reading some of his work, you can find it by clicking on this link: Daniel Nagin - Google Scholar.

Daniel Nagin

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 its perceived benefits and costs.

  • Benefits refer to good stuff, or what Bentham calls pleasure.

  • Costs refer to bad stuff, or what Bentham calls pain.

In theory, people commit more crime if doing so has greater benefit or smaller cost. That theory operates at the community-, individual-, and situational-level of analysis. In other words …

  • A community is more likely to have crime therein if doing so has greater benefit or smaller cost.

  • An individual is more likely to commit crime if they think doing so has greater benefit or smaller cost.

  • An interaction is more likely to result in crime if doing so has greater benefit or smaller cost.

  • A small place, like a bar, has more crime therein if doing so has greater benefit or smaller cost.

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 your knowledge where it needs to be – if you truly do your best on them.

Psychic Sets Trap to Con Oregon Timber Millionaire
Timber Heir Fooled Into Thinking He Had Wife, Son in Psychic Con

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