Rational Choice Theory of Criminology

Ayesh Perera

B.A, MTS, Harvard University

Ayesh Perera has worked as a researcher of psychology and neuroscience for Dr. Kevin Majeres at Harvard Medical School.

Learn about our Editorial Process

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Social Psychology.

Key Takeaways

  • 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.

Table of Contents

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):

  • Humans possess the power to freely choose their conduct.
  • Humans are goal-oriented and purposive.
  • Humans have hierarchically ordered utilities or preferences.
  • Humans act based on rational judgments 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):

  • A suitable target
  • A motivated offender
  • 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
  • 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).

Further Information

Cornish, D. B., & Clarke, R. V. (1987). Understanding crime displacement: An application of rational choice theory. Criminology, 25 (4), 933-948.

De Haan, W., & Vos, J. (2003). A crying shame: The over-rationalized conception of man in the rational choice perspective. Theoretical Criminology, 7 (1), 29-54.

How Offenders Make Decisions: Evidence of Rationality

Beaudry‐Cyr, M. (2015). Rational Choice Theory. The Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment, 1-3.

Beccaria, C. [1764] (1996). Of crimes and punishments. (J. Grigson, Trans.) New York, NY: Marsilio Publishers.

Bentham, J. [1789] (1948). An introduction to the principle of morals and legislations. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Bouffard, J., Bry, J., Smith, S., & Bry, R. (2008). Beyond the “Science of Sophomores” Does the Rational Choice Explanation of Crime Generalize From University Students to an Actual Offender Sample?.  International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology ,  52 (6), 698-721.

Carmichael, S. and Piquero, A.R. (2004). Sanctions, perceived anger, and criminal offending. Journal of Quantitative Criminology. Special Issue: Offender Decision Making, 20(4), 371-393.

Carroll, J., & Weaver, F. (2017). Shoplifters” perceptions of crime opportunities: A process-tracing study. In  The reasoning criminal  (pp. 19-38). Routledge.

Corbett, C., & Simon, F. (1992). Decisions to break or adhere to the rules of the road, viewed from the rational choice perspective.  Brit. J. Criminology ,  32 , 537.

Clarke, R. and Harris, P. (1992). Auto theft and its prevention. In M. Tonry and N. Morris (Eds.), Crime and Justice: An Annual Edition (pp. 1−54). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Clarke, R. V. G. (1997). Situational crime prevention. Criminal Justice Press.

Clarke, Ronald R., ed. (1997). Situational Crime Prevention: Successful Case Studies (2nd ed.). New York: Harrow and Heston. ISBN 0-911577-39-4.

Cohen, Lawrence E.; Felson, Marcus (1979). “Social Change and Crime Rate Trends: A Routine Activity Approach”. American Sociological Review. 44 (4): 588–608.

Cornish, D. and Clarke, R. (1986)  The reasoning criminal: Rational choice perspectives on offending  New York: Springer-Verlag.

Cornish, D. B., & Clarke, R. V. (1987). Understanding crime displacement: An application of rational choice theory. Criminology, 25(4), 933-948.

Cornish, D. (2017). Theories of action in criminology: Learning theory and rational choice approaches. In  Routine activity and rational choice  (pp. 351-382). Routledge.

Farrell, G. (2017). Situational crime prevention and its discontents: Rational choice and harm reduction versus ‘cultural criminology’. In  Crime Opportunity Theories  (pp. 343-369). Routledge.

Felson, Marcus; Cohen, Lawrence E. (1980). “Human Ecology and Crime: A Routine Activity Approach”. Human Ecology. 8 (4): 389–406.

Government of Ontario, Ministry of Children and Youth Services, Communications and Marketing Branch. “Ministry of Children and Youth Services.” Chapter 3: Rational Choice And Routine Activities Theory, Government of Ontario, Ministry of Children and Youth Services, Communications and Marketing Branch, http://www.children.gov.on.ca/htdocs/English/professionals/oyap/roots/volume5/chapter03_rational_choice.aspx

Hobbes, T (1651). Leviathan. New York: Modern Library.

Homel, R. (1996). The politics and practice of situational crime prevention. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.

MacCoun, R. and Reuter, P. (1992). Are the wages of sin $30 an hour? Economic aspects of street-level drug dealing. Crime and Delinquency, 38(4), 477−491.

Maher, L. (1996). Hidden in the light: Occupational norms among crack-using street level sex workers. Journal of Drug Issues, 26, 143−173.

Matsueda, R. L., Kreager, D.A. and Huizinga, D. (2006). Deterring delinquents: A rational choice model of theft and violence. American Sociological Review, 71(1), 95-122.

Nickerson, C. (2021, Dec 15). Rational Choice Theory. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/rational-choice-theory.html

O”Grady, William (2011). Crime in Canadian Context (2nd ed.). Don Mills: Oxford University Press. pp. 127–130.

Paternoster, R., & Simpson, S. (2017). A rational choice theory of corporate crime. In  Routine activity and rational choice  (pp. 37-58). Routledge.

Petraitis, J., Flay. B, and Miller, T. (1995). Reviewing theories of adolescent substance use: Organizing pieces in the puzzle. Psychological Bulletin, 177, 67−86.

Schlueter, G. R., O”Neal, F. C., Hickey, J., & Seiler, G. L. (1989). Rational vs. nonrational shoplifting types; The implications for loss prevention strategies.  International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology ,  33 (3), 227-239.

Topalli, V. (2005). Criminal expertise and offender decision-making: An experimental analysis of how offenders and non-offenders differentially perceive social stimuli.  Brit. J. Criminology ,  45 , 269.

Turner, J. (1997). The structure of sociological theory. 6 th edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Wright, R., Brookman, F. and Bennett, T. (2006). Foreground dynamics of street robbery in Britain. British Journal of Criminology, 46(1), 1-15.

rational choice theory criminology essay

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In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Rational Choice Theories

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  • Data Sources
  • Classical Theory
  • Economic Models
  • Psychological and Neurobiological Factors
  • Routine Activity Theory
  • Criminal Decision Making
  • Applications of Routine Activity Theory and Rational Choice
  • White-Collar Crime

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Rational Choice Theories by John Paul Wright LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2017 LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0007

Rational choice theory and its assumptions about human behavior have been integrated into numerous criminological theories and criminal justice interventions. Rational choice theory originated during the late 18th century with the work of Cesare Beccaria. Since then, the theory has been expanded upon and extended to include other perspectives, such as deterrence, situational crime prevention, and routine activity theory. The rational choice perspective has been applied to a wide range of crimes, including robbery, drug use, vandalism, and white-collar crime. In addition, neuropsychological literature shows that there are neurobiological mechanisms involved in our “rational choices.”

Cornish and Clarke 1986 includes numerous theoretical and empirical essays that describe the process of criminal decision making. Piquero and Tibbetts 2002 includes scholarly chapters that address a number of issues relating to rational choice theory, such as the methodological issues associated with rational choice and the integration of rational choice theory into other theories (such as feminist theory). This book also contains chapters that describe how rational choice can be applied to a number of criminal behaviors, such as organized crime, corporate crime, and violent behavior. Clarke and Felson 1993 includes a series of essays that apply rational choice to different types of crimes, and that discuss the integration of rational choice with other theories. In addition, this volume includes essays that discuss how opportunity structures and rational choice come together to create a criminal offense. Ariely 2008 discusses how human decision-making processes are more irrational than rational.

Ariely, Dan. 2008. Predictably irrational: The hidden forces that shape our decisions. New York: HarperCollins.

Covers decision making from a general standpoint. Provides numerous examples of how people’s decisions are often more irrational than rational. In addition, the author discusses how various factors, such as sexual arousal and relativity, shape decision-making processes.

Clarke, Ronald V., and Marcus Felson, eds. 1993. Routine activity and rational choice . New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Discusses how rational choice and routine activity theory can be applied to victimology, corporate crime, gun crimes, violent offending, political violence, and kidnapping. The second part of the book discusses how routine activity, opportunity structures, and decision-making processes lead to the commission of specific types of crimes.

Cornish, Derek B., and Ronald V. Clarke, eds. 1986. The reasoning criminal: Rational choice perspectives on offending . New York: Springer-Verlag.

Contains a number of essays that are relevant to decision-making processes regarding crime. In particular, there is a chapter on Cornish and Clarke’s rational choice model, while other chapters discuss theoretical issues regarding rational choice theory. Further, the book includes chapters that empirically evaluate offenders’ decision-making processes for a variety of offenses, such as shoplifting and robbery.

Piquero, Alex R., and Stephen G. Tibbetts, eds. 2002. Rational choice and criminal behavior: Recent research and future challenges . New York: Routledge.

Contains essays regarding the integration of rational choice with traditional criminological theories. In addition, there are chapters that apply rational choice to a host of antisocial behaviors at a theoretical, empirical, and practical level.

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Rational Choice Theory Essay

Rational choice theory postulates that individuals make decisions that they think will best advance their self interest, even though this is not usually the case. It is based on the premise that human being is a rational being, and freely chooses their behavior, both conforming and deviant, rationally. That is, to make a decision, it involves a cost benefit analysis. It is an approach that is widely employed by social scientists to understand the human behavior, based on the effect of incentives and constraints on the human behavior. This approach was widely originally a reserve of economics but it has found general acceptance in other disciplines. This paper examines critically the rational choice theory, and its relationship to the situational crime prevention. It traces the history of the theory, and applies the theory to a contemporary problem, the cultivation of marijuana, to explain how cultivation sites are chosen. The paper finally makes recommendations how the theory can be employed to reduce outdoor marijuana cultivation.

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In criminology, it is employed to explain the criminal behavior. It assumes that the state is responsible for the maintenance of order and for preserving the common good through legislation. The laws controls human behavior through swiftness, severity and certainty of punishments (Phillips, 2011,7).The theory consists of 3 core elements: a reasoning criminal, crime specific focus and separate analysis of criminal involvement and criminal event (Phillips, 2011, 4). The reasoning criminal element postulates that criminals commit crimes in order to benefit themselves. The element proposes that criminals have specific goals and alternative ways to achieve these goals. In addition, they hold information that assists them in choosing the best alternative to implement their goals.

The element on crime specific focus, assumes that decision making differs with the nature of crime, that is, decision making is different for each crime. For instance, the decision making to commit a robbery differs with the decision making to commit burglaries, while the decision making by a burglar to target wealthy neighborhood, differs with the one to target middle class and public housing.

The last element addresses three issues: deciding to get involved in a crime, continuing to get involved once one has decided to get involved, and the decision to withdraw from the commission of the crime. On the other hand, criminal event implies the decision to get involved with a specific crime.

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Crime prevention is critical, since it is too expensive to wait until crimes have been committed in order to act. Traditionally, criminologists approach crime prevention through identification of the social and psychological and social causes of crime and treating the offenders as a remedy to the deficiencies, examples through correctional measures. An alternative to the above is situational crime prevention that is based on the rational choice theory. It based on the assumption that criminals will proceed to commit crimes where the benefits outweigh the risks and costs involved and whereby the opportunity to commit a crime exists. Therefore, situational crime prevention aims to make the costs of a crime outweigh the benefits derived, and eliminate the opportunity to c omit that crime.

This theory has deep roots in economic, and has made important inroads in other spheres. Rational choice theory first emerged in the mid-eighteenth century, and was first referred to as classical theory. It was developed by the classical school of criminology, through the works of Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham, in their response to primitive and cruel justice system that existed prior to the advent of the French revolution.

The modern theory stems from the age of reason. It is classical origins is captured in Leviathan (1651) by Thomas Hobbes, where he tried to explain the role of individuals choices in functioning of political institutions. His efforts were developed further by other scholars such as Adam Smith, David Hume and utilitarians such as Jeremy BenthamThe rational choice theory was developed by Derek Cornish and Ronald Clarke.

In relation to outdoor marijuana cultivation, rational choice theory is conspicuous. The predicaments that face outdoor cannabis growers are the same one that faces other criminals. Therefore, they employ the rational choice theory like other criminals in examining whether to grow cannabis and if yes, where. The growers are rational beings, driven by rational theory’s key tenets. For instance, the growers choose locations that have the greatest potential for a greater reward, pursuant to the rational choice theory of maximum greatest benefit.

To begin with, the choice of outdoor cultivation is informed by the fact that it has a lower cost of production. Consequently, they choose locations whereby they maximize their rewards, while minimizing their efforts. While doing this, they consider the risk that the site will be detected by the law enforcement officers. Therefore, they have to choose a site that will not only give the maximum yield, but also one that cannot be easily detected.

To add, the rational choice theory applies where the grower decides the number of plants to grow in the selected site. Here also, the grower has to weigh the benefit derived by an extra plant grown versus the increased risk of detection by the law enforcement officers. Growers gamble with the number, but only to a certain extent, and the location of the site. Therefore, the numbers are likely to be high in prime sites where the risk of detection is low. To add, the finding of a research by Bouchard et al (2011,16) concludes that even in areas where aerial detection is less common, even if the risk of detection is perceived as nontrivial, offenders are willing to take a chance in the event of a successful outcome.

Moreover, growers have several sites among which to choose from. Like other rational beings, they also possess information, which helps them with choosing among the alternatives. For instance, they know areas where the yields are likely to be high, that is, areas whose topography and climate, suits the growth of marijuana, and areas that are prone to detection by law enforcement agencies. On the other hand, law enforcers also employ the theory to increase the detection of outdoor growers and, therefore, curb growth of cannabis while at the same time reducing the benefits and increasing the costs in order to deter growers.

Rational choice theory explains to a certain extent why growers choose certain sites to grow cannabis. The site must be weighed against other competing interests in order to arrive at the site that gives the maximum yield at the least cost. To begin with, a rational grower gathers information about possible sites and chooses the best alternative based on the information that is available.

According to Bouchard et al (2011,23), such information involves the distance from the road, distance from sources of water, nature of the terrain and security of the region generally. For instance, with regards to proximity to the nearest road, the longer the site is from the road, the greater the effort required to set up the site and to take care of the plants, while the closer the sites to the road, the greater the risks of detection, by both the law enforcers as well as thieves. To add, with regards to the accessibility of the areas, the growers have to consider the easiness of access and exit from the area.

Moreover, the growers have to rationally decide the number of cannabis plants to grow in a certain site. While it would be more profitable to grow the maximum yield, rational choice theory requires that they should balance the number of plants, with the desire to hide the site from the law enforcement officers.

Situational crime prevention techniques can be employed in a number of ways to curb outdoor growth of marijuana, through increasing the risk, reducing the reward, increasing the effort of the growers, and reducing the provocation that is associated with specific criminal events. Risk can be increased through increasing and coordinating the anti-marijuana growth operations efforts across police agencies. This would increase the level of detection, and, therefore, the growers will materially decrease production of marijuana, for example by growing lesser plants to reduce the risk of detection.

With regards to decreasing the rewards, all international law enforcement stakeholders should work hand in hand to reduce the opportunities for production, trafficking and sale of marijuana. This shall affect the market of marijuana, while making it more difficult to produce and traffic marijuana, and, therefore, reduce the rewards while increasing the costs. Finally, the penalties for production and possession of marijuana should, to a large extent, be made severe in order to deter the users, producers and traffickers.

In conclusion, therefore, rational choice theory has wide applicability in criminology, especially in situational crime prevention. It explains why the criminals act the way they do, and consequently, the law enforcers can employ the theory to detect and prevent the crime before it happens.

Bouchard, M. Beauregard, E. and Kalacska, M. (2011). Journey to grow: Linking process to

outcome in target site selection for cannabis cultivation. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency.

Clarke, R. V. (2010). Situational crime prevention. In Bradley R. E. Wright and Ralph B.

McNeal Jr. (eds.), Boundaries: Readings in deviance, crime and criminal justice. Boston:Pearson Custom Publishing.

Sacco, V. F. and Kennedy, L. W. (2011). The criminal event: An introduction to criminology in Canada 5th ed. Toronto: Nelson Education, pp. 128-131, 195-198, and 370-375.

Phillips, C.(2011). Situational crime Prevention and crime Displacement: Myths and miracles? Internet Journal of Criminology.

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16. Environmental Criminology

16.6 Rational Choice Theory

Antonio Robert Verbora

The third theoretical framework to be discussed in this chapter is rational choice theory . This theory was first posited in 1987 by Ronald Clarke and Derek Cornish. Rational choice is used to understand a criminal event. For example, if we look at property crime, it is a crime often committed for immediate monetary gain. The complexities of this theory are most often seen when we look at non-property violent crime (i.e., crimes not seen as rational). The fundamental concept within rational choice theory is rationality. Rationality refers to the role of reasoning in human behaviour and views crime as the outcome of an individual thinking through the possible rewards and downsides of a criminal act.

Rational choice theory purports that a potential offender must make four primary choices: (1) whether or not to commit a crime, (2) whether or not to select a particular target, (3) how frequently to offend, and (4) whether or not to desist from crime. Each of these primary choices is discussed in more detail in Table 16.3 below.

  An important point about rational choice theory is the following: if a person commits a property crime, for example, this does not mean this same person will commit a sexual assault. The environmental cues for one crime (e.g., automotive theft) differs from those of another crime (e.g., sexual assault). This can apply to both the frequency of offending and desistance from offending.  With that said, Cornish and Clark (1987) argue against any general rational choice theory of crime.  To understand and/or implement a rational choice theory of crime, we must consider “the rational choices for each type of crime as independent from all others” (Andresen, 2010, pp. 31-32; Cornish & Clark, 1987).

To conclude, it is important to discuss how rational choice theory fits into environment criminology. Environmental criminology is closely connected with situational crime prevention. Situational crime prevention attempts to reduce the opportunity for specific crimes by permanently manipulating the immediate environment. For example, to prevent stealing, some stores have installed electronic access control inserts. This is a practical strategy that focuses primarily on preventing criminal events.  Theories in environmental criminology assume that because offenders behave in a rational manner, we are able to predict their actions, prevent further crime, and reduce crime hot spot activity.  This is all to say that rational choice relates to environmental criminology in terms of the interplay between individual reasoning and environmental cues and situational crime prevention manipulates the environment to specifically act on the rational calculations of potential offenders.

individuals use rational calculations to make rational choices and achieve outcomes that are aligned with their own personal objectives.

Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Antonio Robert Verbora is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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