Gottfredson and Hirschi’s self-control theory

Their theory, outlined in “A General Theory of Crime,” moves away from conventional explanations of crime based on external control and instead emphasizes individual aspects, particularly self-control. Unlike theories that propose biological or genetic origins of criminal behavior, Gottfredson and Hirschi focus on self-control as a result of socialization in early childhood, especially within the family.

The core idea is that low self-control, emerging early and persisting throughout life, is a central trait leading to criminal activity when combined with an opportunity. In their view, self-control is not learned but is a subjective state that determines an individual’s vulnerability to momentary temptations. Traits associated with low self-control include impulsivity, shortsightedness, risk-taking, and insensitivity, and they emerge at an early age.

Although they acknowledge that most crimes are committed by youths and that crime rates decrease with age, they oppose a fundamental change in criminality. Instead, they attribute the differences to the manifestation of low self-control in non-criminal activities. Gender differences are attributed to closer family socialization during adolescence, affecting opportunities to engage in criminal activities.

The second component of the theory is the presence of opportunities for criminal activity. Gottfredson and Hirschi argue that opportunities should maximize immediate pleasure, involve simple tasks, and present low risk or detection. They recognize that social and structural aspects influence opportunities, depending on the individual’s situation and their level of self-control.

Empirical tests by Grasmick et al. found partial support, particularly for the opportunity element. However, they suggested the theory should be complemented with variables that affect the desire to commit crimes, like strain theory. Gottfredson and Hirschi reject this, arguing that criminality is equally appealing to everyone, with low self-control being the determining factor.

The theory’s reliance on the family as the primary socializing agent has been criticized, particularly for the potential to blame mothers for inadequate socialization. However, recent suggestions linking disturbed early childhood relationships with gender differences in crime rates have reinforced the theory’s emphasis on familial influence.

Notably, the theory rejects a deterministic explanation and emphasizes that anyone can be effectively socialized, but individual differences influence the effectiveness of socialization. While low self-control is externally shaped by socialization, once formed, it becomes internal. The theory suggests that most crucial socialization for the development of self-control takes place in the family, with peer groups and schools playing a peripheral role.

The differences with cognitive learning theories are apparent: both emphasize learned behavior, but they differ in how they treat motivation and the role of the family. Gottfredson and Hirschi argue against differences in motivation, claiming that low self-control is fully formed in early years and remains largely unchanged by later experiences.

Regarding the treatment of convicted offenders, the theory questions the effectiveness of severe punishments since deterrence theory presupposes rational decision-making, which may not apply to individuals with low self-control.

The theory’s suggestion that low self-control is formed early and remains relatively permanent implies limited prospects for change. Crime prevention is seen as either removing opportunities or, less practically, removing the individual.

In conclusion, Gottfredson and Hirschi’s social control theory underscores the central role of low self-control, formed at an early age and persisting throughout life, along with opportunities, in explaining criminal behavior. The theory’s attention to individual aspects, especially the influence of the family in the formation of self-control, distinguishes it from other criminological perspectives. Despite criticisms and debate, the theory provides valuable insights for understanding and addressing crime.