Deviance & Social Control: Rational Choice Theory
Rational choice theory is an economic model of human decision making which assumes that people are motivated by their own self-interests and, through a process of weighing costs and benefits, work to maximize their gain. While economists would view this gain in monetary and market exchange terms, rational choice theorists might include less tangible outcomes like enhanced reputation, time saved, peer approval, and other possible desirable outcomes. In criminology, rational choice theory is used to understand when crime is profitable and how to decrease criminal action by making its risks too high. Theoretically speaking, if the difficulty in achieving a criminal objective is increased along with the risk of being caught and punished, the criminal will seek out some other means of obtaining money or reward -- maybe even a legal one.
Rational-Choice Theory in Economics
Rational-choice theory developed in the discipline of economics, where it remains the foundational premise for understanding individual human decision making. In the late 1700s, Jeremy Bentham, an English economist, argued that human beings are highly individualistic and surprisingly lazy when it comes to meeting their everyday needs. Given this desire not to work too hard, human beings are usually intent upon maximizing their utility, that is, producing the greatest amount of happiness with the least amount of suffering. According to this theory, two mechanisms govern human behavior: the desire for pleasure and the fear of pain. In order to make optimal utilization decisions, then, the individual must be a reasoning actor who weighs the costs and benefits of particular actions before acting in a manner that achieves the best possible outcome with the least likelihood of pain or failure. Since individuals cannot achieve all of the things they desire, they must choose to pursue specific goals and determine the best way to reach those goals. On the surface, the process by which an individual makes a decision and acts on it may seem like a rational process subject to scientific measurement and analysis. For economists and social scientists eager to have a model to understand human decision-making processes, this basic principle has served a profound purpose. However, in practice, individuals can act with misinformation, disregard obvious failings and flaws in their plans, or act with emotion and haste.
Rational-Choice Theory in Sociology
The application of rational choice in sociology is more formal and tries to statistically quantify human behavior. It argues that people's preferences can be evaluated and prioritized in relation to other options and that individuals seek to maximize the utility of these preferences, though they are subject to various constraints. Each choice is given a numerical value as a possible outcome. In order to maximize utility, for example, a robber will wish to rob the most lucrative business on Main Street. Preference A is the bank that is known to have the most cash on hand. Preference B is the less desirable liquor store. Preference C is the least desirable local coin laundry. Mathematically speaking, because the compelling goal of human behavior is to maximize utility, there is no rational reason for the robber to choose preference C over preference A. Because this is so, the rational-choice model has explanatory and predictive value in understanding the human decision-making processes. If preference C is chosen over preferences A and B, the model takes this into account by arguing that specific constraints affected the actor, such as time, money, access to special equipment, the need for co-conspirators, or the likelihood of getting caught. When these circumstances are taken into consideration, it is possible for preference C to become the rational choice for a robbery.
This idea of special circumstances affecting the outcome of an actor's decision is important, since the economist Adam Smith, Bentham's Scottish contemporary, argued that value is intrinsic or innate to a given object; gold, for example, would always be more valuable than water, he claimed. Bentham and others disagreed, arguing that the value of an object could vary according to circumstances. To a man dying of thirst, for example, a drink of water would have greater value than gold. Rational-choice theorists, then, try to given statistical values to an individual's preferences for predictive purposes. Not surprisingly, since it is premised on the idea that people are motivated by making money and maximizing their financial gain in a deliberative manner, economists can use this model to optimize their own market-driven goals and objectives. By determining the factors that cause a consumer to purchase one car over another, car manufacturers and marketing executives can retool their products or merely modify their advertising to move their car higher up in consumers' preferential priorities. The value of any theoretical framework that could discern human thought processes in decision making, delineate them in detail, predict outcomes, and account for special circumstances that might make this rational process seem irrational is, and has been, incalculable. In essence, rational-choice theory denies the existence of any action that is not rational, deliberate, calculated, and motivated by the pleasure of gain or the fear of pain. Altruism, morality, trust, social connections, social identity, past history, and human goodness have no place in the model unless they enter the equation in a practical, measurable manner.
Since rational-choice theory is based on the decision-making processes of the individual, it stems from the theory of methodological individualism, which believes that "the elementary unit of social life is the individual human action. To explain social institutions and social change is to show how they arise as the result of the action and interaction of individuals" (Elster, 1989, p. 13). One flaw in this logic is the attribution of social phenomena to discrete, individual actions committed by individuals who supposedly have no social identity. Similarly, many would argue that the theory is flawed in its assumption that individual behavioral studies can predict aggregate social phenomena. Complicated theories of "social structures, collective decisions, collective behavior, and systems of cultural ideas" are thus made dependent on self-interested individuals (Turner, 2006, p. 497). Through the lens of rational-choice theory, war, peace, environmentalism, and all other social phenomena become solely utilitarian. Additionally, others have noted that once the social system emerges, it redistributes resources and places restraints on individuals' seemingly rational choices and actions. The relationship between the individual and the collective whole described by rational-choice theory is completely disrupted. Nevertheless, rational-choice theory has played a significant role in the social sciences since the late 1960s. As noted below, rational-choice theory has provided criminologists with several mechanisms for predicting crime and devising methods of crime prevention. The model is extremely useful and powerful, and its predictions are frequently accurate.
Rational-choice theory has a foundational presence in classical criminological control theory, which assumes that people will always act in their own self-interest. According to Rock's (2002) explanation of control theory's underpinnings, "people seek to commit crime because it is profitable, useful, or enjoyable for them to do so, and they will almost certainly break the law if they can" (Rock, p. 56). One major problem with rational-choice theory is its central assumption that self-interest or egoism is the driving force of human behavior. No understanding of the role of altruism is possible within this framework. However, rather than discussing theory, control theorists are much more interested in creating...
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