Review of the Roots of Youth Violence: Literature Reviews

Volume 5, Chapter 3:

Rational Choice And Routine Activities Theory2

This section of the report looks at rational choice theory and one of its subsidiaries, routine activities theory. The discussion will commence with an explanation of each of the theoretical perspectives. The research literature is then reviewed, exploring the applicability and limitations of the perspectives. This is followed by a brief consideration of potential policy implications.

Rational Choice Theory

Rational choice theory is based on the fundamental tenets of classical criminology, which hold that people freely choose their behaviour and are motivated by the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure. Individuals evaluate their choice of actions in accordance with each option's ability to produce advantage, pleasure and happiness. Rational choice provides a micro perspective on why individual offenders decide to commit specific crimes; people choose to engage in crime because it can be rewarding, easy, satisfying and fun. The central premise of this theory is that people are rational beings whose behaviour can be controlled or modified by a fear of punishment. In this way, it is believed offenders can be persuaded to desist from offending by intensifying their fear of punishment. In terms of setting the quantum of punishment, according to this theory, sanctions should be limited to what is necessary to deter people from choosing crime (Siegel and McCormick, 2006).

Rational choice is premised on a utilitarian belief that actions are based on a conscious evaluation of the utility of acting in a certain way. This perspective assumes that crime is a personal choice, the result of individual decision-making processes. This means that individuals are responsible for their choices and thus individual offenders are subject to blame for their criminality. In terms of offending, rational choice posits that offenders weigh the potential benefits and consequences associated with committing an offence and then make a rational choice on the basis of this evaluation. Therefore, before committing a crime, the reasoning criminal weighs the chances of getting caught, the severity of the expected penalty and the value to be gained by committing the act. This means that if offenders perceive the costs to be too high, the act to be too risky, or the payoff to be too small, they will choose to not engage in the act.

The tenets of this theory are based on a number of assumptions about the decision-making process and behavioural motivations. It is held that people decide to commit crime after careful consideration of the costs and benefits of behaving in a certain manner. This involves considering both personal factors, which may include a need for money, revenge, or entertainment, and situational factors such as the target/victim’s vulnerability and the presence of witnesses, guardians, or the police. Rational choice focuses on the opportunity to commit crime and on how criminal choices are structured by the social environment and situational variables.

Routine Activities Theory

Routine activities theory is a subsidiary of rational choice theory. Developed by Cohen and Felson (1979), routine activities theory requires three elements be present for a crime to occur: a motivated offender with criminal intentions and the ability to act on these inclinations, a suitable victim or target, and the absence of a capable guardian who can prevent the crime from happening. These three elements must converge in time and space for a crime to occur.

Routine activities theory provides a macro perspective on crime in that it predicts how changes in social and economic conditions influence the overall crime and victimization rate. Felson and Cohen (1980) postulate that criminal activities are a “structurally significant phenomenon,” meaning that violations are neither random nor trivial events (390). In consequence, it is the routine of activities people partake in over the course of their day and night lives that makes some individuals more susceptible to being viewed as suitable targets by a rationally calculating offender. Routine activities theory relates the pattern of offending to the everyday patterns of social interaction. Crime is therefore normal and is dependent on available opportunities to offend. If there is an unprotected target and there are sufficient rewards, a motivated offender will commit a crime.

In terms of suitable targets, the choice is influenced by the offender’s perception of the target’s vulnerability; the more suitable and accessible the target, the more likely that a crime will occur. The number of motivated criminals in the population also affects crime levels. It is held that offenders are less likely to commit crimes if they can achieve personal goals through legitimate means. This implies that criminal motivations can be reduced if offenders perceive that there are alternatives to crime.

The presence of capable guardians is also held to deter individuals from offending. Guardianship can be the physical presence of a person who is able to act in a protective manner or in the form of more passive mechanical devices such as video surveillance or security systems. These physical security measures help limit an offender’s access to suitable targets. The essential aspect of routine activities theory is the interaction of motivation, opportunity and targets. In this way, the presence of guardians will deter most offenders, rendering even attractive targets off limits. Therefore, the presence of opportunity coupled with a lack of guardianship increases criminal motivations and the likelihood of an offence taking place.

Empirical Research on Rational Choice Perspectives

Rational Choice

There is some research that supports the rational nature of crime. This support, however, is confined primarily to instrumental crimes, such as property and drug offences. These offences are generally crimes of opportunity. In this way, if offenders come across an opportunity to commit an offence, but perceive a high likelihood of capture, they will likely refrain from partaking in the activity. Property offenders tend to stay away from locations that are occupied, have security measures, or are in areas where neighbours look out for one another. Conversely, property offenders are enticed by unlocked doors and windows, secluded areas and unsupervised property. Similarly, it appears that drug dealers tailor their transactions in a similar fashion, as they tend to work in locations where they are able to clearly see anyone approaching and where there is an insignificant presence of watchful guardians.

In terms of common street crime, it was found by Clarke and Harris (1992) that auto thieves are selective in their choice of targets, selecting different types of vehicles depending on the purpose of the theft. This suggests that the decision with respect to a target and opportunity is rationally motivated. This rationale of decision-making is also found to hold true for sex-trade workers. Maher (1996) suggests that women rationally choose whom to solicit, whom to engage with and what risks they are willing to take to fulfill an interaction. For substance offenders, the decision to use has been reported as being related to the benefits associated with use. Specifically, according to Petraitis et al. (1995), this means the benefits of consuming illegal substances outweighing the potential costs associated with use. In terms of the distribution of drugs, MacCoun and Reuter (1992) found it to be related to the economics of the trade; drug dealers often cite the desire for a supplementary income as a prime motivator for getting involved in the drug trade.

Matsueda et al. (2006) also found that acts of violence and theft conform to a rational choice model. Perceived risk is formed in part by information gleaned from informal peer groups, as well as from direct experience with the legal system. Social status within groups, as indicated by the importance of being seen as “cool,” is a key component of the decision to offend. Theft and violence are a function of the perceived risk of arrest, subjective psychic rewards (including excitement and social status) and perceived opportunities. The perceived risk of punishment has a small but significant effect. Similarly, Honkatukia et al. (2006) found that anger and feelings of powerlessness influence how rational decisions are made, with violence being used as a means of protecting oneself from violence. The preeminence of instrumental violence, and its use in situations where youth feel they lack power, supports the notion that crime emerges out of a rational thought process.

With respect to violence, it has also been found that perpetrators are selective in their choice of target; they select people who appear vulnerable, without the means to protect themselves. By way of example, Wright and Rosi (1983) found that violent offenders avoid victims who may be armed and dangerous, preferring to select more defenceless victims who are less likely to resist. More recently, Siegel and McCormick (2006) conclude that although some acts of lethal violence are the result of angry aggression, others seem to show signs of rational planning. Therefore, although violent acts appear to be irrational, they do seem to involve some calculations of the risk and rewards (134). Taken together, these studies indicate that there is an element of rationality in the decision to engage in offending behaviour.

Carmichael and Piquero (2004), however, found mixed support for the rational nature of decision-making. They found that individuals who perceive higher informal sanction severity are less likely to report assault intentions, while individuals who perceive a thrill from engaging in the assault are more likely to report assault intentions. The research demonstrates that perceived anger is an important component of decision-making, and that it influences how rational choice considerations are interpreted by would-be offenders. The authors concluded that although rational choice considerations and perceived emotional arousal are both important in this regard, emotional impulses exert particularly strong influences on decision-making.

Further, the rational nature of violent offences was not confirmed by Wright et al. (2006), who found robberies were the source of income for people who lived within a street culture that emphasizes living for an immediate “feel-good” experience, without regard for consequences or long-range planning. These people, who live a lifestyle of desperation, can not afford to pay for the basic necessities of life except by impulsive robberies. These robberies also tend to fit patterns of aggressive and violent behaviour that has no regard for the needs or feelings of others. Robbery, therefore, was not a rational choice based on a consideration of alternatives and measured consequences; rather, robberies were an impulsive act of desperation used as a source of income for a lifestyle of immediate personal gratification.

Exum’s (2002) research also challenges the strength of the rational choice model. Though alcohol and anger interacted to increase one measure of aggressivity, the perceived costs and benefits of violence were unaffected. This suggests that perceived cost/benefits are of differential importance, depending on the participant’s state of mind. This challenges the robustness of the rational choice model, as the theory was unable to uniformly explain aggression across experimental conditions. In a related study, Exum (2002) concludes that alcohol and anger do not increase subjects’ intentions to engage in assaults, but do increase their expectations of others engaging in violence. Consequently, the rational choice model does not fully explain the effects of alcohol and anger on aggressive responding, suggesting that the two come together in order to increase violence above and beyond the influence of perceived costs/benefits.

Routine Activities Theory

Routine activities theory is commonly used to explain why and how youth are at a heightened risk of being involved in offending behaviour and of being victimized. Since an individual’s demographics influence their daily activities, they are predictive of their risk of victimization. Young unmarried males experience the highest frequency of victimization; their nightly activities, then, provide significant support for the theory, as it is these that take them away from the security of the home. By being out at night, these youth come into increased contact with offenders, partake in high-risk behaviours such as drug and alcohol use, participate in delinquent activities themselves, and frequent high-risk situations and areas (Kennedy and Ford, 1990; Lauritsen, Sampson and Laub, 1991). Therefore, as a consequence of their routine activities and lifestyle, they are at a substantially higher risk for victimization. Felson (1997), however, did not find a connection between females’ night-time activities and their risk of victimization, though this may be attributable to females being more risk-averse and avoiding dangerous situations and areas (213–217). Similarly, as people age, their risk of victimization decreases, and this may be the result of alterations in their routine activities.

Research also supports the situational nature of crime and how certain “risky behaviours” increase the likelihood of encountering violent situations. By putting oneself in a risky environment or disorganized neighbourhood, youth increase their likelihood of criminal involvement. Engaging in “risky behaviours” (i.e., alcohol and drug consumption, being out at night, gang involvement, associating with delinquent peers, dating) increases proximity and exposure to violence and increases the likelihood that youth will find themselves in situations where they become perpetrators or victims of violence (Brown, 2003; Daday et al., 2005; Gabor and Mata, 2004; Gatez, 2004; Gover, 2004; Logan et al., 2006; Nofziger and Kurtz, 2005; Rapp-Paglicci and Wodarski, 2000). According to Chapple and Hope (2003), low levels of self-control, along with exposure to criminal opportunities and criminogenic situations, are associated with engaging in dating and gang violence, as these youth have a tendency to put themselves in “risky situations” where they are more likely to be involved in violent encounters.

Further supporting the situational nature of offending, Campbell et al. (2002) found the concept of opportunity to be predictive of both violent and property school-based offences. Similarly, Gouvis (2002) found that schools act as a social milieu for violence, with social disorganization and routine activities influencing block-level violent crime rates. During the after-school period, blocks near schools that are categorized by resource deprivation experienced higher rates of violence than blocks near schools with more resources. This finding suggests that a lack of resources results in less supervision of youth, which creates more opportunities for offending. Hummer (2004), however, did not find support for the situational nature of offending, as it was found that these factors were insignificant in reducing violent or property crimes on campuses.

In terms of guardianship, Schreck and Fisher (2004) found that tightly knit families are better situated to provide direct protection for children, as well as to reduce their exposure to motivated offenders. Children who associated with delinquent peers tended to experience enhanced exposure to motivated offenders and to be ineffectively supervised and were seen as more suitable targets for violence. The effects of peer context, however, did not seem to detract from the influence of family variables; each appears to predict violent victimization independently. The findings also revealed that demographic variables remain important predictors, net of the routine activities, family, and peer variables. Similarly, Spano (2005) concluded that, over all, routine activities theory receives mixed support in terms of the influence of deviant lifestyles as a risk factor and social guardianship as a protective factor, with these factors exerting inconsistent influence depending on race and sex.

Taken collectively, this research seems to indicate that though there may be rational elements involved in the decision to engage in offending behaviour, there are other motivators and factors that exert influence on the decision above and beyond a cost/benefit analysis. Much offending behaviour appears to be impulsive, without consideration of the consequences. In this way, the likelihood of apprehension or the seriousness of the sanction do not appear to cross the minds of offenders when they make the decision to offend. Offenders, particularly property offenders, may give some consideration to the chances of being caught; however, this does not appear to be the deciding factor in the decision to offend. It appears that, instead of thinking of the long-term negative consequences, offenders focus primarily on the immediate benefits associated with the offence. This suggests that offenders may not be as rationally motivated or calculating as it is often assumed.

Policy Implications

Rational choice and routine activities theory both hold that crime rates are a product of criminal opportunity. It is thus thought that by increasing the number of guardians, decreasing the suitability of targets or reducing the offender population, the crime rate should decline. A central implication of understanding offending in terms of a rational calculation means that the criminal justice system is capable of controlling crime, that aggressive law enforcement and severe punishment should deter offenders, and consequently, produce a notable reduction in criminal offending.

The question, however, remains: Is crime rational? The inherent difficulty with these theories is they are premised on the assumption that offenders are rationally calculating individuals. Though there is some support for the tenets of this theory, the primary weakness in its applicability is the assumption that offenders think before acting, that they conduct a cost-benefit analysis before deciding to engage in crime. Despite the appearance of rationality in offending, the implications of assuming this rationality, in terms of deterrence, is not strongly supported by research.

Deterrence comprises the certainty, severity and celerity (speed) of legal sanctions. According to deterrence, rationally calculating offenders can be swayed from committing offences if the chances of apprehension are high, the punishment is severe and justice is swift. Therefore, if criminals are indeed rational, an inverse relationship should exist between punishment and crime; as the sanctions for offending are increased, a threshold should be reached where it is no longer beneficial to the offender to engage in offending behaviour. By implication, it is held that crime rates are influenced and controlled by the threat and imminence of criminal punishment. It is commonly assumed that if offenders were punished more severely, offenders, being rationally calculating individuals, would choose not to offend because the offence is not worth the punishment. However, Doob and Webster (2003) conducted a comprehensive review of deterrence literature published in the last 30 years and concluded that variations in sentence severity do not affect the level of crime in society. Therefore, while deterrence makes intuitive sense, it is not supported by empirical research.

The difficulty, according to LeBlanc and Frechette (1989), is that offenders make almost no preparation for an offence, something that is especially true for young offenders. This means that the offence is not the result of a calculated or well thought out process. While it is conceded by Ladouceur and Biron (1993) that some thought goes into offending, the plans tend to focus on the immediate offence, not the long-term consequences of that action. Doob and Cesaroni (2004) suggest that a distinction needs to be made between rational choice in the short term and consideration of the long-term implications. Youth do not consider the long term; they are impulsive and focus on the immediacy of the rewards associated with offending. Even if youth do think of the criminal justice consequences, they find them irrelevant as it is unlikely that they will be apprehended (242). In fact, in interviews with prisoners, Tunnell (1996) found that all 60 respondents reported that they simply did not think about the criminal consequences of their actions. Though they knew their actions were criminal, and therefore tried to avoid capture, more than half were unaware of the severity of the punishment for the offence (44).

Since most offenders do not think they will be caught, and in fact it is unlikely that they will be caught, increasing the penalty has no prolonged effect on the crime rate. It is the perceived risk of apprehension, not the severity of punishment, that holds the greatest power to deter, though this ability is limited as well. This is amply demonstrated by the Kansas City experiment, where it was found that variations in police patrol techniques had little effect on the crime patterns (Kelling et al., 1974). Regardless of the actual likelihood of apprehension, most offenders do not think they will be caught. This finding is supported by Burski et al. (1990), who failed to find a relationship between the likelihood of being arrested or imprisoned and corresponding crime rates.

Originally postulated by Oscar Newman in the 1970s, situational crime prevention is supposed to create defensible space, which suggests that crime can be prevented through the use of architectural designs that reduce opportunity. Situational crime prevention is aimed at convincing would-be criminals to avoid specific targets. It is thus held that criminal acts will be avoided if the potential targets are carefully guarded, if the means to commit crime are controlled, if potential offenders are carefully monitored, and if opportunities for crime are reduced (Siegel and McCormick, 2006: 135). The difficulty with situational crime prevention strategies in general, and closed-circuit television and public surveillance in particular, is that they tend to displace offending behaviour to locations that are not under surveillance. Instead of preventing crime, these often costly surveillance strategies simply move crime to another location (Barr and Pease, 1990). This is exemplified by the 2003 police crackdown on illicit drug use in Vancouver. Rather than reducing drug offending, the only “success” the crackdown had was to disperse drug activity over a larger area. Wood et al. (2004) assert that since enforcement efforts do not address deeper issues such as poverty, health, harm reduction, welfare and housing, they are incapable of producing real reductions in crime.

Assuming a rational basis for committing a crime overestimates the extent to which people consider the legal consequences of their actions. This theory also focuses on individuals and their choices while ignoring the social constraints and conditions that shape an individual’s circumstances, thought processes, and life chances. These exert considerable influence on people. Engaging in crime is not simply a rational decision. It is affected by the interaction of a number of factors and influences. Furthermore, increasing the penalty also assumes that offenders were aware of the original sanction and felt it was worth the risk, while the new, more punitive punishment makes it no longer worth the risk in a cost/benefit analysis. This, again, is assuming that offenders are aware of the change in the severity of the sentence and rationally calculate their choice of action. Since this assumption is not supported by the literature, both specific and general deterrence strategies have not yielded the results predicted by rational choice theorists.


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2 This section was prepared with the assistance of Nicole Myers, PhD candidate, Centre of Criminology, University of Toronto.


Volume 1. Findings, Analysis and Conclusions

Volume 2. Executive Summary

Volume 3. Community Perspectives Report

Volume 4. Research Papers

Volume 5. Literature Reviews