Rational choice theory

Introduction to Rational Choice Theory in Criminology

Rational Choice Theory finds its modern roots in a seminal article authored by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker in 1968. This theory contends that criminal behavior is not fundamentally different from non-criminal behavior in that it is a chosen action. Individuals engage in criminal acts not because they are compelled or forced but because they believe it will yield greater rewards and incur fewer costs compared to lawful behavior.

Core Assumptions of Rational Choice Theory

Rational Choice Theory posits that neither biological, psychological, nor environmental factors predetermine criminal behavior by coercing individuals into crime. Instead, criminal acts are viewed as products of conscious decision-making processes. Individuals evaluate the potential benefits and drawbacks of committing crimes against those of abstaining from such actions. This decision-making process is driven by the perceived costs and benefits associated with each behavior.

Decision-Making in Rational Choice Theory

The theory does not assume that individuals are perfectly rational in their decision-making; rather, they may take shortcuts in gathering information about the costs and benefits of each course of action. They might be poorly informed about these costs and benefits and may not weigh each factor thoroughly. However, they are presumed to possess enough rationality to actively gather information and consider the consequences of their actions before deciding. Thus, while individuals might be flawed decision-makers, they are still decision-makers who operate within the bounds of limited rationality.

Factors Influencing Criminal Decisions

Individuals might opt to commit a crime if the perceived utility of the crime—because the expected benefits outweigh the costs—is greater than that of law-abiding behavior. This calculation suggests that, on average, behavior promising greater gain is chosen.

Applications of Rational Choice Theory

  1. Increasing the Cost of Crime: One common criminal justice policy strategy is to enhance the formal penalties for crimes in the hope that higher penalties will deter people from committing these crimes. This is based on the assumption that rational individuals will be dissuaded from engaging in costly behaviors.
  2. Enhancing the Benefits of Non-Criminal Activities: By increasing the rewards for engaging in legal activities—such as providing job opportunities and long-term career prospects for high-risk individuals—the likelihood of choosing non-criminal paths increases. Education and vocational training can make lawful behavior more attractive than criminal opportunities.
  3. Reducing the Benefits of Crime: Making criminal activities more difficult, time-consuming, and less economically profitable can decrease their allure. Efforts by society or potential victims to make crime less appealing or harder to commit can significantly reduce its perceived benefits.
  4. Lowering the Costs of Non-Criminal Behavior: Many ex-offenders revert to crime because reintegration into society is made difficult or costly. By removing these barriers and reducing the costs associated with lawful behavior, non-criminal paths may become more attractive.


Rational Choice Theory fundamentally argues that strong, compelling motivations for criminal acts do not exist; rather, crime occurs when an individual rationally considers that a criminal path will bring more benefits and incur fewer costs than a non-criminal alternative. Thus, despite not always gathering complete information or perfectly weighing the various costs and benefits, individuals are thought to be rational enough to be influenced by what they perceive as the potential gains and losses of different actions.