In criminology, the self-control theory attempts to explain how the absence of an individual’s self-control is the main cause of criminal behaviour or conformity. The theory developers, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990), placed most of its emphasis on the relationship between self-control and parental upbringing.
The theory views crime as a means of gaining immediate gratification, and the ability to delay short-term desires is known as self-control (Newburn, 2017, p.253). Whereas, low self-control can be defined as the tendency to concede to short-term gratifications without considering the long-term effects (Newburn, 2017). Self-control theorists view self-control as the single factor which is solely accountable in explaining the variation in criminal and deviant behaviour throughout individuals (Newburn, 2017, p.253). Self-control theorists assert that low self-control is a bad reflection of an individual’s upbringing and pre-teen behavioural patterns that will follow throughout life (Buker, 2011).
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The self-control theory asserts that people are born with low self-control. It is claimed by Gottfredson and Hirschi that self-control can be developed during the first 6 to 8 years of life through effective parenting which includes the following method (Buker, 2011). Firstly, parents have to consistently supervise their children. Secondly, parents have to recognise deviant behaviour. Lastly, effective disciplinary action has to be taken upon recognising deviant behaviour. It is important to note that rewarding good behaviour does not mitigate the failure of disciplinary action (Buker, 2011). These conditions would aid the child to recognise the negative consequences of gratifying behaviours, thus strengthening a child’s self-control. Furthermore, if the parents themselves display high self-control, it’s influence might encourage greater self-control (Buker, 2011).
Understanding offences, self-control theory
According to self-control theorists, crime takes place through a five-stage process(Siegel and McCormick, 2006, p.286). Firstly, an individual should possess an impulsive personality (Siegel and McCormick, 2006, p.286). Impulsive individuals tend to engage in greater risk-taking, seek immediate gratification, and not to consider the long-term consequences of their actions. Secondly, the individual’s lack of self-control has a direct correlation to the first stage (Siegel and McCormick, 2006, p.286). Individuals with low self-control would not be able to mediate the effects of strain and refrain from engaging in delinquent activities. Whereas, individuals with high self-control are not equipped with the necessary constraints to abstain from delinquency.
Thirdly, the individual’s social bonds would wither (Siegel and McCormick, 2006, p.286). Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) believed that weak social bonds are partially a result of low self-control. Furthermore, they assert that self-control plays a strong role in the quality of social relationships. The behavioural patterns of low self-control individuals exhibit include narcissism, insensitivity and low tolerance to frustration (Newburn, 2017, p.253-254). These patterns are widely associated with unstable backgrounds, relationships, and careers. As such, low self-control individuals tend to involve themselves in concerning situations and behaviours, such as gambling, dealing drugs, and reckless driving. Furthermore, their narcissistic character allows them to displace themselves away from harm’s way and tend to give justifications behind their criminal acts (Newburn, 2017, p.254).
Fourthly, the individual has to have an opportunity to commit crime and delinquency (Siegel and McCormick, 2006, p.286). Gottfredson and Hirsch explain that some people who lack self-control can escape criminality and, conversely, some people who have self-control do not escape criminality. It is because the element of opportunity has to be present (Newburn, 2017, p.254). The broad concept of ‘opportunity’ includes the facilitation of immediate satisfaction through illegal acts without immediate pains. When an opportunity is provided, an individual’s lack of persistence and motivation would result in the dismissal of commitment to hard work (Newburn, 2017, p.254).
Thus, resulting in the final stage of deviant behaviour (Siegel and McCormick, 2006, p.286). Crime can be thrilling, enjoyable, and easily accomplished. Individuals prone to engaging in criminal behaviours have a high likelihood of participating in deviant or risky behaviours, such as smoking, excessive drinking and dangerous driving (Pratt, 2015). As Hirschi and Gottfredson (1993) argued, such deviant behaviours are “analogous” to crime, as immediate gratification is achieved easily. Criminal and deviant behaviour, therefore, according to Gottfredson and Hirschi is “general” (Pratt, 2015).
The lack of self-control has a direct causal relationship between all of the stages mentioned above. Each of the stages has its part to play in causing an individual to offend. However, the self-control theory has its criticisms and limitations in attempting to successfully understand why individuals commit crimes.
Mature social backgrounds
Following the self-control theory, mature social backgrounds are not contributors to understanding crime. The theory only considers social backgrounds, such as marital status and employment, as a mere consequence of self-control. Consequently, insinuating that individuals with high self-control are likely to find themselves at favourable social statuses, such as healthier relationships. As such, preferred social statuses will, in turn, reduce the tendency of criminal intent. Conversely, research in life course theory shares a different perspective on the topic matter. Sampson and Laub (1993) proposed to consider different levels of self-control while evaluating the correlation between mature social backgrounds and criminal deviance. Their research in men’s criminal behaviour revealed that self-control and social activities, such as marriage and workplace, lowered the chances of offending (Sampson & Laub, 1993). Although Sampson and Laub (1993) agreed that individuals with low self-control have issues with healthy social statuses, the authors found that high self-control individuals are slightly superior in suppressing criminal intent that they could have possibly acted upon. Thus, the findings challenge Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) notion that self-control not being instilled by age 8 would result in criminal behaviour (p.107).
Deviant group behaviour
Hirschi and Gottfredson (1993) explained that low self-control individuals influence one another due to the similar acts that they engage in, which encourages immediate gratification. Intrinsically, the self-control theory defined deviant group behaviour only as a product of low self-control and not a contributor to criminal intent (Newburn, 2017, p.256). However, Pratt and Cullen (2000) disagreed as their meta-analysis research found a strong correlation between deviant group behaviour and criminal intent. Further investigation revealed that group behavioural effects were displayed in their study that included quantifiable controls for self-control (Pratt & Cullen, 2000). Conclusively, the theory was proved to be limited as deviant group behaviour was disregarded as a factor of criminal intent, proving to be inconsistent with social scientific evidence. Thus, considerable efforts should be placed on both self-control and deviant peer influences when examining its association with criminal intent.
Role of biology and genetics
Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) understated the probability that biology or genetics played a role in low self-control is close to zero (p.60). However, research examining alternative sources of low self-control concluded with two conclusions contrary to Gottfredson and Hirschi. Firstly, indicators of biological predisposition are related to levels of self-control, excluding effective parenting (Buker, 2011). Secondly, the effect of parenting in cultivating self-control could either be partially or fully mediated by biological and neuropsychological factors (Buker, 2011). Thus, to fully understand the formation of self-control, other factors have to be considered too.
Due to the tautological nature of the self-control theory, it has faced multiple criticisms.The theory postulates that criminal behaviour solely results from low self-control. However, self-control theorists failed to define self-control individually. Instead, terms such as “high self-control” and “low self-control” are used for this differential propensity to commit crimes (Unnever, Cullen & Agnew, 2006). Low self-control’s operational measures are failed to be distinguished from the tendency of committing an offence. Therefore, the propensity toward crime and low self-control seem to be indistinguishable.
Self-control theory is limited as it does not explain white-collar crime. In a study conducted by Benson and Moore (1992), white-collar offenders were compared to common offenders. Despite some similarities between white-collar offenders and common offenders, it was evident that white-collar offenders did not involve in deviant behaviour as often (Benson & Moore, 1992). Furthermore, white-collar offenders differed from common crime offenders in versatility and inclination to deviance (Benson & Moore, 1992). Thus, the notion that criminal offenders have low self-control and share the same propensity to participate in deviant behaviour is dismissed.
According to Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) theory, crime control or deterrence measures are taken by officials are ineffective (p.269). Only preventive policies taken during the early stage of life would have an opportunity to reduce crime and delinquency (Unnever, Cullen & Agnew, 2006). Therefore, implying that when an individual engages in deviant behaviour, that individual cannot be deterred from crime anymore. The notion makes an irrational assumption that an offender will always be destined to commit crime. Thus, contradicting with the rehabilitation factor of correctional psychology and claiming that offenders have no hope in reforming (Unnever, Cullen & Agnew, 2006).
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Conclusively, the theory of self-control has its limitations in encapsulating the concept of self-control and its relationship to crime. Although the theory establishes its grounded discoveries, it has failed to consider several factors into its study. With relevance to modern criminology, the theory of self-control does not hold much weight. Nonetheless, it did provide a strong foundation for preceding criminological theories.
- Benson, M., & Moore, E. (1992). Are White-Collar and Common Offenders the Same? An Empirical and Theoretical Critique of a Recently Proposed General Theory of Crime. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 29(3), 251–272. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/61326023/
- Buker, H. (2011). Formation of self-control: Gottfredson and Hirschi’s general theory of crime and beyond. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 16(3), 265–276. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.avb.2011.03.005
- Gottfredson, M. R., & Hirschi T. (1990). A general theory of crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Hirschi, T., & Gottfredson, M. (1993). Commentary: Testing the General Theory of Crime. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 30(1), 47–54. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022427893030001004
- Newburn, T. (2017). Criminology (3rd ed.). Routledge.
- Pratt, T. (2015). A Reconceptualized Model of Self-Control and Crime: Specifying the Role of Self-Control Variability. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 42(6), 662–679. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1177/0093854814557888
- Sampson, R., & Laub, J. (1993). Crime in the Making: Pathways and Turning Points Through Life. Crime & Delinquency, 39(3), 396–396. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1177/0011128793039003010
- Siegel, L.J., & McCormick, C.R. (2006). Criminology in Canada: Theories, Patterns, and Typologies (3rd ed.). Nelson Education Limited.
- Turner, M., Piquero, A., & Pratt, T. (2005). The school context as a source of self-control. Journal of Criminal Justice, 33(4), 327–339. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2005.04.003
- Unnever, J., Cullen, F., & Agnew, R. (2006). Why is “Bad” Parenting Criminogenic? Implications From Rival Theories. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 4(1), 3–33. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1177/1541204005282310
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