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Deterrence And Rational Choice Theory Of Crime

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Autor:  mikki1288  12 December 2009
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The issue of whether decision making by criminals is a rational process is a heated topic of discussion when one asserts that crime is the role of choice. Before the classical school of criminology, crime was thought to be the product of the paranormal occurrence of demons, witches, ghouls, and other creatures. The time prior to the classical school of criminology, called the preclassical era, is divided in two parts. Before the time of state intervention into private matters, each individual dealt with violations of their rights. This was a problem because of the continuous cycle of violence being perpetuated. Soon the State (and even the Church) took on the task of dispensing law and order to the masses of the Middle Ages. This led to a period called the Holy Inquisition which lasted from the twelfth century to the eighteenth century. During the Holy Inquisition, punishment that was harsh and capricious was the norm. Also, there was no protection against bogus allegations, meaning, the burden of proof was on the accused to prove his/her innocence.
The classical school of criminology was a response to the harsh times of the Holy Inquisition. It was a product of the Enlightenment, seeking to replace the notions of the divine rights of royalty and clergy with rationalism, intellectualism, and humanitarianism. The two chief ambassadors of the classical school of criminology are Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Beccaria is widely recognized as the father of the classical school of criminology. In his essay Dei deliti e delle pene (On Crimes and Punishment), Beccaria asserted that humans are rational, have free will, and are hedonistic. He also claimed that crime can be prevented by convincing warnings of punishments. To succeed in preventing crime, certainty, severity, and celerity of punishment must be present. Jeremy Bentham embraced the utilitarian philosophy of replacing harsh and capricious punishments with humane punishments and protection against bogus allegations.
The classical school of criminology was the foundation of the modern criminal justice system in the Western world. Criminal law and criminal procedure now assume that people are rational actors, thanks to the classical school of criminology. In addition, penalties for crime became more humane and policing turned to a deterrence base. Sir Robert Peel was responsible for the passage of the London Metropolitan Police Act in 1829 which organized the first modern police department based on the principles of deterrence.
Whether one believes in the deterrence theory depends on their ideology. Up to the 1970’s, the theory was rejected by the criminological community while being accepted by criminal justice practitioners. Both points of view are concurrently right and wrong. The tiger prevention fallacy is a humorous analogy drawn to illustrate the widespread fallacy that absence of crime demonstrates the effectiveness of deterrence efforts. The story identifies a man snapping his fingers in the middle of New York City and claiming that his efforts have deterred tigers from congregating. The warden’s survey is a humorous analogy drawn to illustrate the widespread fallacy that the presence of crime demonstrates that deterrence does not work. The story identifies a prison warden pointing to his inmates as proof of the absence of deterrence. Now there is care taken to distinguish between general deterrence, which is directed at the community in general, and specific deterrence, which is geared toward preventing a particular offender from committing an offense.
Tipping levels is the idea that punishment certainty, severity, and celerity must reach a minimum level before a deterrent effect can be reached. The total prevention of crime through threats of punishment is absolute deterrence, this is not possible. Marginal deterrence is possible. Marginal deterrence is the prevention of some, but not all, crime through threats of sanctions. With marginal deterrence, crime may not be prevented but it may be shifted to other times, places, or forms.
Most criminologists believe informal sanctions are more deterrent than the formal sanctions of the criminal justice system. For example, the shame of being exposed as a deviant to friends and family is more threatening than official sanctions. John Braithwaite asserted that shaming someone served to shape one’s conscience.
The crimes that seem to be the most deterrable seem to be those that are rational, instrumental, mala prohibita (acts that are not inherently evil but prohibited for other reasons), and typically committed in public places. Evidence of the deterrability of drunk driving is limited. Although, the sanctions associated with drunk driving may have a moral education effect. Capital punishment as a deterrent has little effect partly because of the irrational nature of acts punishable by death. Actually there is considerable support for a brutalization effect where it seems that violent crime tends to increase after an execution.
There are factors that make someone more or less deterrable. Those who are future oriented, have high self control, are low risk-takers, have an authoritarian personality, are pessimistic, and older people. Also, those who are from higher classes are more deterrable. Females are more deterrable than males. Those who have much to lose and little to gain are also in this category. Surprisingly, race has very little to do with one’s level of deterrence.
Cesare Beccaria contended that for someone to be deterred, they had to be rational. Contemporary deterrence expands conventional deterrence by not only considering the choices mad by potential offenders, but also the choices made by potential victims.
Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson came up with the routine activities theory to explain rising crime rates in the 1970’s. The routine activities theory is a theory of victimization comprised of three variables that contributed to the likelihood of a crime being committed. The first of the three variables is the abundance of motivated offenders. Motivated offenders are those who commit crimes whenever viable opportunities are encountered. The presence of suitable targets is the second variable. A suitable target is something or someone of value that is available to a potential offender. The absence of capable guardians is the third variable. This is when neither persons nor other agents are present to protect property or vulnerable persons. The rationale of this theory is that one’s lifestyle may expose them to opportunities or experiences that increase their odds of being an offender or a victim.

The Application and Robustness of the Rational Choice Perspective in the study of Intoxicated and Angry Intentions to Aggress
The hypothesis of this study was: the rational choice model is robust across different states of mind such that the model’s explanatory power is comparable and its structural integrity is maintained across participants in different experimental conditions.
The procedure from Exum is as follows: Those persons interested in participating in the study contacted the experimenter, who described the study as an examination of the effects of alcohol on cognitive skills, mood, and social behavior. The experimenter also explained the inclusion criteria for the study (e.g., participants must be of legal drinking age, must fast prior to the study, etc.), and screened individuals using the Brief MAST. Those who met all inclusion criteria were scheduled an appointment to complete the study.
All participants completed the study individually. Each participant was greeted upon his arrival by a male research assistant; the experimenter (also male) was not present at this time. The research assistant verified that the participant was of legal drinking age, recorded the participant's height and weight, provided the participant with a manila envelope in which to place all his completed questionnaires, and administered the Background Questionnaire and Time 1 Mood Questionnaire. As the participant completed this latter task, the research assistant excused himself to retrieve the experimenter. Together the experimenter and research assistant checked the randomization schedule, gathered the necessary beverages, and returned to the laboratory.
Upon meeting the participant, the experimenter introduced himself and positioned a financial ledger book on the table near the participant. Located inside the book but clearly visible to the participant were five, five-dollar bills. The experimenter informed the participant that this money, which he would receive at the conclusion of the study, was his payment for participating. After reviewing the procedures of the study and informing the participant of the beverage he would be asked to consume, the experimenter administered the Time 1 breath test, explained the video game task, and began preparing the participant's drinks as the participant practiced the video game. Once comfortable with the procedures, the participant was instructed to play the game again in order to determine his baseline “reaction-time” score.
The participant then consumed the prescribed beverage. During the absorption period, the experimenter engaged the participant in various tasks to prevent participant boredom. For example, the experimenter administered the first Cognitive Task and the Time 2 Mood Questionnaire, and then explained the instructions for each of the remaining tasks. As he reviewed the instructions for the Scenario Packet, the experimenter casually indicated that the participant could imagine the experimenter as the character “Joe” in the story if it helped to make the scenario more vivid. This interchange was designed so that when reading the story, the participant would ideally envision himself engaged in a potentially violent confrontation with the experimenter. The experimenter next reminded the participant that he would be playing the video game again later in the study, and that the participant could possibly win an additional $25 based on his performance during this task.
At this point in the study, approximately 5 minutes would remain in the absorption period. The experimenter therefore instructed the participant to complete the second Cognitive Task and the Time 2 breath test. The participant was then told to sit for a brief (approximately two-minute) rest period. The anger manipulation occurred during this time.
For those participants assigned to the No-Anger condition, the experimenter casually looked at his watch, indicated he needed to check on another participant in a nearby room, instructed the research assistant to “finish up here,” and then left the room. For those participants assigned to the Anger condition, the experimenter casually looked at his watch, appeared puzzled by the time, and asked the research assistant if his watch was correct. The research assistant confirmed the time, to which the experimenter stated under his breath but loud enough to be heard by the participant, “We're running behind.”
Appearing confused by this “setback,” the experimenter questioned what time the participant arrived at the lab. After the participant responded, the experimenter accused the participant of coming to the study 30-minutes late and conflicting with the next scheduled appointment. To make these accusations appear more unjust and more likely to instill anger, the experimenter argued that the participant had previously phoned to reschedule his appointment. When participants claimed that the experimenter was in error and that they had not rescheduled, the experimenter responded angrily by saying “bullshit!” (Pilot testing revealed that challenging participants' honesty with such an emotionally charged word induced anger more effectively.)
Refusing to hear any additional arguments, the experimenter instructed the research assistant to “finish up here” while he attempted to call and reschedule the next participant. The experimenter left the room, but after taking a few steps returned to the laboratory in an apparent afterthought. He then took the ledger book containing the money off the table, turned to the participant and stated, “I don't think we can pay you the full twenty-five dollars for this,” and then left the room again.
With the experimenter out of the room and the 25-minute absorption period now completed, the research assistant administered the Time 3 breath test and the Scenario Packet. The participant then completed the video game, the Time 4 breath test, and the Exit Questionnaire. During this latter task, the research assistant excused himself in order to retrieve the experimenter, who returned to debrief the participant as to the true purpose of the study and to the experimental manipulations. All participants were paid in full. Sober participants were excused immediately, whereas intoxicated participants were escorted to a nearby room to sober up before leaving. The findings suggest there is no single rational choice model that underlies the decision to engage in physical assault. Within the hedonic calculus, perceived costs and benefits do not carry the same relative weight across “hot” and “cold” cognitive states. Among those in the intoxicated and/or angry conditions, costs and benefits were of lesser importance in the decision to aggress than to those in a sober/calm frame of mind.

Commitment Problems in the Theory of Rational Choice
The hypothesis of this study is that the presence of a taste for cooperation can be reliably discerned by outsiders.
In a series of experiments, Tom Gilovich, Dennis Regan, and Robert H. Frank found that subjects were surprisingly accurate at predicting who would cooperate and who would defect in one-shot prisoner’s dilemmas played with near strangers. If both players in this game cooperate, each does better than if both defect, and yet each gets a higher payoff by defecting no matter which strategy the other player chooses.
Your Partner
Cooperate Defect
$2 for your partner
$2 for you $3 for your partner
$0 for you
$0 for your partner
$3 for you $1 for your partner
$1 for you

Defect Cooperate
$0 for your partner
$3 for you $2 for your partner
$2 for you
$1 for your partner
$1 for you $3 for your partner
$0 for you
In the tables, note that when each player cooperates, each gets a payoff of $2, for a total payoff of $4, the highest total among the cells in the tables. Note also, however, that each player’s dominant strategy is to defect. If your partner cooperates, for example, you get $3 by defecting instead of the $2 you would have gotten by cooperating; and if your partner defects, you get $1 by defecting instead of the $0 you would have gotten by cooperating.
As in all prisoner dilemmas, the collectively optimnal strategy for the payoff matrix is mutual cooperation, but the individually optimal strategy is defection. If both players commit themselveds to a strategy of mutual cooperation, they would have a clear incentive to do so. Yet multiple promises issued by narrowly self-interested persons would not seem to suffice, for each person would have no incentive to keep such promises.
Suppose, however, that some people have a taste for cooperating in one-shot prisoner’s dilemmas. If two players knew one another to have such a taste, they could interact selectively, thereby reaping the gains of mutual cooperation. It is important to stress that merely having such a taste is by itself insufficient to solve the problem. One must also be able to communicate its presence credibly to others and be able to identify its presence in them.
In these experiments, the base rate of cooperation was 73.7%, the base rate of defection only 26.3%. A random prediction of cooperation would thus have been accurate 73.7% of the time, while a random prediction of defection would have been accurate only 26.3% of the time. The actual accuracy rates for these two kinds of predictions were 80.7% and 56.8%, respectively. The likelihood of such high accuracy rates occurring by chance is less than one in one thousand.
Subjects in this experiment were strangers at the outset and were able to interact with one another for only 30 minutes before making their predictions. It is plausible to suppose that predictions would be considerably more accurate for people who have known one another for a long time.
The conclusion of this study is that in the end, theories of human behavior depend critically on their assumptions about people’s goals. The egoistic goals assumed under the self-interest standard exist and are important. Yet there is compelling evidence that many people are willing to make significant financial sacrifices in pursuit of a variety of other less egoistic goals. The adaptive rationality standard provides a principled basis for expanding the repertoire of assumed goals. Although it is difficult to prove that a particular non-egoistic taste is adaptive on balance, it can often be shown that such a taste confers benefits as well as costs. If we also know that the taste is widespread, the burden of proof should rest on those who insist that it be excluded from the utility function.
New Economics of Sociological Criminology
The hypothesis of this study is that, all else being equal, increases in the severity and certainty of state punishments should decrease offending. This is the economic theory of crime.
This study was conducted by using justice and unemployment insurance income data (from employers) for a random sample of 14,000 men arrested in California. This study extended the usual economic analysis of sanction effects and considered
the role of structural variables in conditioning deterrence.
The results point to large deterrent effects emanating from the certainty of punishment, and smaller, generally insignificant effects from the severity of sanctions. However, punishments are conditional. The certainty effect is greatest for serious felony crimes and for whites, and declines in strength for nonserious offenses and for blacks and Hispanics. In contrast, the severity effect is positive for whites and negative for blacks.
List of References
Brown, Stephen E., Finn-Aage Esbensen, and Gilbert Geis. Criminology: Explaining Crime and
Its Context 5th ed. Cincinnati, OH: Matthew Bender & Company, Inc., 2004
Exum, M. Lyn. “The Application and Robustness of the Rational Choice Perspective in the

Study of Intoxicated and Angry Intentions to Aggress.” Criminology. Nov. 2002. Vol. 40

Issue 4, p933.

Frank, Robert H. “Commitment Problems in the Theory of Rational Choice.” Texas Law Review.

Jun. 2003. Vol. 81 Issue 7, p1789.

McCarthy, Bill. “New Economics of Sociological Criminology.” Annual Review of Sociology.

2002. Vol. 28 Issue 1, p417.

Mendes, Silvia M. “Certainty, Severity, and Their Relative Deterrent Effects: Questioning the

Implications of the Role of Risk in Criminal Deterrence Policy.” Policy Studies Journal.

2004. Vol. 32 Issue 1, p59.

Nagin, Daniel S. and Raymond Pasternoster. “Personal Capital and Social Control: The

Deterrence Implications of a Theory of Individual Differences in Criminal Offending.”

Criminology. Nov. 1994. Vol. 32, Issue 4, p. 581.

Wood, Peter B. and David C. May. “Racial Differences in Perceptions of the Severity of

Sanctions: A comparison of Prison with Alternatives.” Justice Quarterly. Sep. 2003. Vol.

20, Issue 3, p. 605


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