To act rationally is argued to act in ones own best interest (IEP, 2010). The thinking that results in a rational choice includes intent. This suggests that the individual have to be conscious of the situation and intend to make the best choice (Elster, 1990).
It seems that economics is the most prosperous of all the social sciences. It has anticipated that we are driven by money and by the opportunity of making profit. Within economics it is constructed a formal, and often prognostic model of our behaviour. This seeming success has led other social scientists to look jealously on the economic approach. They have argued that if they follow the same methods of economics, they would be able to accomplish parallel successes in their own arias (Scott, 2000). Sociologists and political scientists have tried to create theories about action being essentially 'rational' and that individuals determine the likely costs and benefits of any action before they choose their action. This methodology of thinking is known as rational choice theory. The theory's application to social interaction is known as exchange theory (Elster, 2000).
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Rational choice is instrumental (Scott, 2000). It is directed by the result of the action. The actions are valued and chosen because it increases the likelihood of reaching a further goal. Behaviour guided by social norms is, by contrast, not concerned with results of the action (Elster, 1989).
In criminology, rational choice theory looks at the lawbreaker's decision in choosing a target. The choice is argued to be based on the individual's perceptions of the costs and benefits of committing the crime. The lawbreaker also compares the chances of understanding the costs related to the crime and what the probable reward from the crime might be. The theory assumes that the target with the highest benefit will be chosen (Cornish and Clarke, 1986). This may again be used to understand patterns of criminal action, especially how the modus operandi, how the crime is committed, can differ with motivations and offence category (Felson and Clarke, 1998).
To be rational, an action has to be the result of three optimal decisions.
It must be the best way of achieving an individual's desire, given the persons values and beliefs. These beliefs must be optimal, considering the evidence available. And at last, the individual have to gather enough evidence, it should be not too much or too little. The amount of evidence depends both on the individuals desires and on his beliefs about the cost and benefits of collecting more material (Elster, 1989).
What differentiates the rational choice theory from these other forms of theory is that it do not aim to describe any kinds of action other than the rational and calculative. All social action is argued to be rationally motivated, as instrumental action. But a lot of such action seems to be irrational or at least non-rational (Elster, 1989).
Rational choice theory is based on the hypothesis that complicated social scenarios can be understood in terms of the individual's actions. This point of view is called methodological individualism (Elster, 1989).
Economic theories have been concerned with production, distribution and consumption of goods and services. The systems are led by money and market mechanisms. Rational choice theorists have argued that the same basic ideas can be used to understand relations where assets as information, time, prestige, and approval are valued.
The individuals are by rational choice theorists expected to be motivated by their wants or goals. Their actions are limited by the information that they have. Simplified the relationship between what they want and their restrictions can be looked upon as means to an end. Because it is not thinkable for anyone to achieve everything that we want, we have to make choices in relation to both our goals and the means for achieving these goals. Rational choice theories state that individuals must anticipate the results of the alternative ways of action and calculate which will be the best choice. Rational persons will choose the alternative that is most likely to provide them the highest gratification (Heath, 1976).
By using the economic model, rational choice theorists look upon social relations as a way of social exchange. The economic action includes the exchange of services and material goods. The social interaction consist of the exchange of valued behaviours, like approval (Scott, 2000).
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A person's opportunities differ in costs and also in their rewards. The received rewards from a product bought from a shop, might for example involve a deep gratification that can be achieved from their consumption. A different example is when someone is stealing a car; it might be satisfying because of the pleasures gained from joy riding and also because of the credit given by associated car thieves. However, these same actions also consist of a possible cost. Items can be bought from a shop only by paying for them. Car theft implicates punishment, like imprisonment or social condemnation that will be incurred if the thief is caught and sentenced (Scott, 2000).
Rational choice theorists identify that the threat of being caught or the promise of a positive incentive may stimulate individuals just as much as the achieved benefit or the penalty itself. The threat of punishment may influence to proper actions from those who wish to elude being reprimanded (Cornish and Clarke, 1986, Scott, 2000).
There are three problems that are linked together that have confused the attempts of defining rational action within the theories of social action. These are the problems of social norms, of social structure, and of collective action. Opponents have claimed that a appropriate solution to these complications shows the need to develop the theory further , or even to abandon the theory (Scott, 2000).
The problem of social norms is related to why people seem to agree on and follow norms of behaviour that make them to act unselfish or to feel a sense of duty to prevail their self-interest. The problem of social structure is of how it is likely for an individualistic theory to describe the presence of larger structures. Especially, it is the question of whether there are social structures that cannot be reduced to the actions of specific persons and that have to be described in other terms. This problem is common for all individualistic theories, but it very clear in the context of rational choice theories (Hechter and Kanazawa, 1997, Scott, 2000).
The challenge with collective action is how it is probable to describe the co-operation of individuals in groups and other forms of shared action. If individuals measures the personal benefits to be made from each action, why would they ever choose to do something that will others profit more than themselves?
Rational choice theorists have merged collective action into their theories by including that action of organisations and groups are viewed upon as actions of individuals. Political parties, trade unions, and other organisations may all be actors within the rational choice theories. Whenever it is possible to show the presence of a decision-making apparatus through which the individuals intentions are accumulated and if an agreed policy is formulated, it is appropriate to speak of collective actors (Hindess, 1988). The related problem is to show why individuals would ever feel an obligation or wish to act in a unselfish way. If they do, why would individuals follow norms that make them achieve less than they could if acting alone? This may be because they have some kind of ethical sense or are ideological obligated to the group or organisation. (Cook and Emerson, 1978) Giving help to others may be considered an act of rational self-interest if they get a sense of pleasure from doing so (Hindess, 1988).
The presence of trust cannot be understood in purely rational terms (Cook and Emerson, 1978). These terms shows that the norms of trust and justice that persons use in their actions has a moral power that that can out weight the purely rational reflections. The sense of obligation appears to be real and it can be felt very intensely (Cook and Emerson, 1978).
It has also been claimed that norms are not outcome-oriented, but are adopted and to obtain a irrational character that cannot be understood in true rational terms (Elster, 1989). Norms stimulate feelings like guilt and shame, rather than the rational reward and punishment (Elster, 1994). Rational choice theory has no explanation to guide us to understand norms.
The rational choice methodology can only explain what individuals do. It can explain why individuals institute a norm and then might enforce the norm. The theory cannot describe how or why they should alter their values.
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The rational choice theory cannot explain choices that are considered to be irrational. This could be if a person are choosing the less beneficial options because of a religious belief (Coleman and Fararo, 1992), if a person acts on emotions or are driven by a wish for revenge (Elster, 1990). Within the rational choice perspective it is also considered irrational if an individual choose an option that will be more beneficial to a collective group, rather to the individual him or herself (Elster, 1985).
Rational choice theory builds on the old saying that 'opportunity makes the thief,' that anyone would steal if they have the opportunity to do so without being caught and punished (Felson and Clarke, 1998).
The strategies with rational choice theory based crime prevention programs aim to increase the associated risks and difficulties, and reduce the possible rewards associated with the crime. They emphasises that crime is often committed through the sudden or attractive opportunity. A typical example is that it is more likely that someone will steal car if a it is found unlocked or a window left open.
The rational offenders are viewed to consider their choices before they commit a crime. The decision to commit a crime is limited by time, rational ability and information. This results in just a partial way of thinking for the offender, because they are lacking the complete knowledge of the implications of the choice. The intent to commit a crime is controlled by the lawbreaker. The delinquent will commit the crime to earn the benefits gained from the criminal act. The choice to commit the crime is based on the profits being greater than the gains of not performing the crime. This, not always a sound reasoning helps the lawbreaker to control the risks of being detected against the predictable final reward.
The rational choice approach in crime prevention concentrates on the criminal's decision-making process, hence providing a construction to prevent crime through deterrence. As an example, this could be more surveillance which increases the possibility of detection. This methodology considers the offender's viewpoint and how they use the situation and circumstances, rather than just examining what was the motivating aspects.
When examining the offender's perception, the reasons that influence on the decision making process differ at both stages of the crime and among diverse offences. The academics (Cornish and Clarke, 1986) are crime-specific when exploring the lawbreakers decision-making. They focus on the initial involvement in the crime, the choice of target, and focuses on the separate decisions relating to the different stages of involvement in offences. They claim that this allows a more complete view of lawbreaker decision and choice making. This way they claim to have better information from which to apply the most suitable interventions.
Situational crime prevention theory aims to prevent the opportunity for committing crime (Newman et al., 1997). This theory are concentrating on elements within a given area that holds crime 'hotspot' characteristics that possibly will make some individuals more exposed to victimisation than others (State of New South Wales, 2008b).
Situational crime prevention measures can contain the design of the environment, including open space and the built environment, that will influence on a possible lawbreaker's choice to commit a crime or not. If a crime is more difficult to commit or if it is an increase in the risk of being caught, it is more likely that there will be less crime committed. It is argued that the same will happened if there is a decrease in the reward associated with the crime and also if there is a decrease for the excuse of an lawbreaker's behaviour in that location.
By increasing the alertness of a possible victim about his or her vulnerability, it may reduce their chances of victimisation.
The situational crime prevention theory is both rational and simple: If the lawbreaker perceive an increase the effort that is needed to succeed with the crime or if there is an increase of risks for being caught, it is less likely that there will be committed a crime. It is also less likely that a crime will be committed if the expected reward or if provocations are reduced and if that excuses are removed (Newman et al., 1997). Twelve years ago there was close to one hundred evaluated examples of effective and successful implementation of different situational crime prevention measures (Felson and Clarke, 1998).
Another crime prevention theory is the routine activity theory. This theory states that crime is normal and depends on what opportunities that is available. Crime will happen if a target is not well enough protected and if the possible benefit that can be gained is large enough. Crime is not dependent of tough offenders or bad people. It needs just an opportunity to occur (Felson and Clarke, 1998).
The fundamentals of routine activity theory are that most crimes are small and stay unreported to the police. Another principle is that crime is somewhat unaffected by social causes like unemployment and poverty (Felson, 2010). As a crime prevention methodology this theory focuses on basic components that make up a crime. (Felson, 2010). This theory states that a crime happens when three features come more or less together. The features are an accessible target, the absence of a capable guardian and the presence of a motivated lawbreaker (Felson and Clarke, 1998).
An accessible target can include an object, a person or a place. The capable guardian is usually a person who, just by their presence, would prevent potential lawbreakers from committing a crime. A capable guardian could also be surveillance by CCTV-cameras, providing that someone is monitoring it at the other end. Some of these guardians are formal and deliberate, like police patrols. Others are more informal and unintentional, like friends and neighbours.
It is also possible for a guardian to be ineffective even if a guardian present. As an example, the above mentioned CCTV camera is not viewed upon as a capable guardian if it is monitoring the wrong areas or if it is not functioning the way it is intended. Another example is that staff might be present in a shop, but they may not have necessary awareness on possible lawbreakers to be an actual capable guardian.
It is the potential lawbreaker's assessment of a situation that determines whether a crime will be committed or not. Routine activity theory is controversial for the sociologists. This is because the often believe in the social causes of crime (State of New South Wales, 2008a).
Focused opportunity reduction can create broader drops in crime rates. Crime prevention measures one place can lead to less crime in near time periods and close by places because lawbreakers appear to overrate the reach of the measures taken. Additionally, there seems to be good reasons to believe that a drop in criminal opportunities can drive down greater crime rates for particular communities and our society in general.
The rational choice theory and the crime prevention theories that follow the theory target the opportunities of crime. There is no focus on the potential criminal. To cite dr. Justice Tankebe from a lecture in Cambridge this fall; 'Where is the moral in that?'
And, of cause, we will keep on locking our bikes to prevent it from being stolen.