Rational Choice Theory of Criminology

By Ayesh Perera, published Jan 28, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


  • Rational choice theory in criminology states that individuals partake in criminal activity following a logical thought process that consciously analyzes and weighs the benefits and costs of committing crimes. If the perceived cost of committing the crime is outweighed by the benefit, people will be more likely to offend.
  • Rational choice theory is a school of thought which holds that individuals decide upon the course of action most in line with their subjective preferences.
  • The theory has been employed to model decision-making in contexts ranging from economics to sociology.
  • Rational choice theory in criminology states that individuals partake in criminal activity following a logical thought process that consciously analyzes and weighs the benefits and costs of committing crimes.
  • If the perceived cost of committing the crime is outweighed by the benefit, people will be more likely to offend.

Theoretical Origins

The emphasis on the relationship between human rationality and criminal conduct dates to the 17th century which saw increasingly naturalistic views on human beings gain predominance in intellectual discourse.

Hobbes, for instance, contended that humans pursue self-interest with little regard to such a pursuit’s impact on others (Hobbes, 1651). Thus, the ensuing chaos would necessitate a social contract to ensure safety and order.

The 18th century saw Beccaria and Bentham arguing that a conscious endeavor to minimize pain and maximize pleasure governs human behavior (Beccaria, 1764, 1789). Beccaria additionally held that certain, severe and swift punishment, proportionate to the crime perpetrated, constitutes the finest deterrent against future maleficence.

More recently, Clarke and Cornish (1987) have appealed to rational choice theory to better understand crime control policies. Using the theory as a framework, they have introduced ‘choice structures’ to classify crimes, and identify factors individuals must consider before engaging in transgressions.

Clarke and Cornish reason that the rational choice model can unveil lines of inquiry accounting for criminal conduct, and that attempts to fight crime should ideally increase the barriers to perpetrating it.

What are the key components of rational choice theory criminology?

In criminology, rational choice theory assumes that a decision to offend is taken by a reasoning individual, weighing up the costs and benefits of their action, in order to make a rational choice.

The following assumptions underpin rational choice theory in criminology (Beaudry-Cyr, 2015; Turner, 1997):

  1. Humans possess the power to freely choose their conduct.
  2. Humans are goal-oriented and purposive.
  3. Humans have hierarchically ordered utilities or preferences.
  4. Humans act based on rational judgements pertaining to:
    • The utility of alternatives based on their hierarchically ordered preferences.
    • The cost of each alternative.
    • The best opportunity to maximize utility.

How Rational Choice Theory Explains Crime

Rational choice theory employs two subsidiary theories to explain crime (Beaudry-Cyr, 2015):

Routine Activity Theory

Developed by Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson, routine activity theory holds that the occurrence of a crime is dependent upon the presence of three elements (Cohen & Felson, 1979)(Felson & Cohen, 1980):

  1. A suitable target
  2. A motivated offender
  3. The absence of guardianship

Instead of attributing crime to what some sociologists identify as root causes (such as poverty and inequality), routine activity theory argues that the interplay between opportunity, motivation and vulnerable targets primarily accounts for criminal conduct.

The rise of crime following WWII, which coincided with the boom of Western economies and the expansion of welfare states, has been cited as an example of how the opportunity to steal more (because of the society’s increased prosperity), better accounts for crime (rather than problems such as inequality and poverty).

Cohen and Felson have further noted that significant structural phenomena, rather than random and trivial factors, characterize the conditions under which predatory violations transpire.

Though routine activity theory remains controversial among many, its potency to explain crimes such as the following seems seldom disputed:

  • Ponzi schemes
  • Wage theft
  • Copyright infringement
  • Insider trading
  • Corporate crime

Situational Choice Theory (Situational Crime Prevention)

Advanced by R.V. Clarke, this subsidiary theory holds that, in addition to the crime itself, situational factors inspire people to commit crime (Clarke, 1997).

As such, it seeks to reduce criminogenic opportunities by manipulating the environment and portraying criminal conduct as riskier, harder and less rewarding.

Instead of merely responding to a crime following its perpetration, situation choice theory calls for the systematic design and permanent management of the physical and social atmosphere.

Examples of such measures have included better streetscaping, the installation of alarms, improved lighting over public spaces, surveillance of neighborhood activities, the employment of security guards and the incorporation of property marking (Homel, 1996).

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Theory

Empirical Support

Research by Clarke and Harris points out that auto thieves selectively choose their targets as well as varying vehicle types based on the objective of their theft (Clarke & Harris, 1992) (Government of Ontario, Rational Choice and Routine Activities Theory).

This implies that rational decision-making governs identifying opportunities and targets. The same seemingly holds true for sex-trade workers. Research shows that women rationally decide whom to solicit and engage with, and what risks to take in fulfilling an interaction (Maher, 1996).

Moreover, substance offenders too, appear to rationally make their decisions to use drugs based upon the apparent benefits thereof in light of potential related costs (Petraitis, Flay and Miller, 1995).

Furthermore, research on drug dealers point out that a cost-benefit analysis on the economics of the drug trade likely precedes involvement in illicit drug distribution (MacCoun and Reuter, 1992).

Additionally, theft and acts of violence too, seem to conform to the rational choice theory model (Matsueda, Kreager and Huizinga, 2006). They appear to be a function of perceived opportunities, risk of arrest and psychic rewards—especially involving being viewed as ‘cool’ within groups.

Perpetrators of violence seem highly selective in choosing their targets, often picking vulnerable people incapable of protecting themselves.


Despite its wide appeal, the rational choice model in criminology has garnered notable criticism. O’Grady, for instance, has argued that the theory falsely assumes that all persons are capable of making rational choices (O'Grady, 2011).

He has pointed out that the theory fails to explain why young offenders, unlike their adult counterparts, would have the burden of responsibility excused from them. O’Grady further reasons that the theory seem to disregard persons considered NCRMD (Not Criminally Responsible on account of Mental Disorder).

Additionally, research suggests that rational choice considerations can be overridden by emotional arousal (Carmichael and Piquero, 2004). The role of anger in the perpetration of assault is one such example.

Moreover, individuals who, without regard for possible alternatives or long-term consequences, engage in impulsive robberies to procure the basic necessities of life for immediate gratification provide another case to consider (Wright, Brookman and Bennett, 2006).

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Perera, A. (2022, Jan 28). Rational choice theory of criminology. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/rational-choice-theory-of-criminology.html


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