Self-control theory revisited
A General Theory of Crime by Gottfredson and Hirschi suggests that we can reduce crime by improving self-control. Inheriting the conservative idea that by nature we are all plagued by impulses to harm each other - that to quote Travis Hirschi on crime “we would if we dared” – they write that what distinguishes a law abiding person from a criminal is his successful suppression of those impulses. He learns from his parents and other authority figures that they are disapproved of, and develops the ability to abstain from acting on them.
Lack of self-control, they argue, is criminality. Having the impulse to commit a crime is taken for granted as natural and universal. Self-control theory, social bonding theory, and social control theory are all examples of conservative theories of crime containment rather than crime itself.
Interestingly, the theory does not distinguish between self-destructive behaviors and behaviors that are destructive towards others – both, they argue are symptoms of lack of self-control, the essence of criminality. G&H make a number of useful observations on criminals, indicating that they have low self-control not only in their commission of crimes but in other behavior such as alcohol and drug use, or sex. They conclude that a criminal’s self-control is much lower than the average person’s, accounting for impulsive behavior of all kinds. Many people have problems controlling unhealthy impulses, for example to overeat or spend too much money. But it is only at much lower levels of self-control where you will encounter behaviors such as theft or violent episodes.
Describing criminality in terms of self-control, however, is very problematic. To say a person lacks self-control is to say he acts without considering the costs of his behavior. This is why both deterrence models of justice and theories of socialization claim that punishment reforms criminals by giving them a negative experience to associate with the crime. Yet risk and cost are important factors to the criminal: first in choosing his victim, and in the location of the crime and the weapon used, if any. These factors are selected to balance payoff and risk of arrest, and he practices techniques to avoid being observed during the act. That a thief steals from a clothing store discretely (perhaps by hiding smaller items while pretending to use the dressing room) demonstrates that he is aware of the risk and has changed his behavior accordingly. To argue that he steals because he is ignorant of the risk or suffers from a disorder that makes him unable to control his actions, is contradicted by the crime itself.
Impulsiveness means a different world view
If, then, we are all are born with criminal impulses that we must control and both the criminal and the law abider demonstrate a capacity for self-control, then what’s left to explain the crime? The answer is that everyone does not share these impulses. The criminal experiences an impulse to steal, and often does exercise a measure of self-control to ensure he can pursue that action without getting caught. You or I on the other hand might have an impulse to eat cake, or to buy the latest gadget. Whether we plan a diet or budget around those choices or not, it’s the nature of the impulse that matters when defining criminality rather than how those impulses are managed.
It’s true that criminals are often guilty of making very poor choices aside from crime, including alcohol and drug abuse, irresponsible spending, and fits of rage when dealing with others. However when discussing self-control, the other side of the coin is the reward of action. Does the criminal recognize and pursue the kinds of rewards that others do, and how might that impact his choices? If he scoffs at the 9 to 5 “suckers” who work, save and invest, is he likely to set goals similar to theirs? Will he put the money away from his latest score, or blow it on cocaine, confident that there are enough victims for tomorrow? Why would he wish to learn to express his anger more respectfully, when he believes his fists are all he needs to get his way? His impulsive actions are not merely a failure to consider consequences, but reflect his deeply held beliefs about the world.