Self-Control as a General Theory of Crime 

What is Gottfredson and Hirschi Self-Control Theory 

The Self-Control Theory of Crime is a criminological theory that helps to explain why certain individuals commit crimes (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990).

The theory holds that individuals who did not receive effective parenting before the age of 10 are more likely to lack self-control, or the ability to give up acts that grant immediate pleasure (Gottfredson, 2017), than those who had good parenting.

Good parenting occurs when parents care for their children, monitor their behavior, and both recognize and punish deviance when it occurs. As a result, those who lack this form of parenting are more likely to commit a crime. 

In other words, the self-control theory of crime holds that a lack of self-control is the main driver of criminal behavior.

a masked criminal committing a cyber crime.

Centering this theory in the nature vs. nurture debate (i.e., the extent to which genes or the environment play a role in behavior), the self-control theory of crime advocates for the role of the environment (in this case, how a child is parented) in determining who will engage in criminal behavior. 

This theory was first developed by criminologists Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi in 1990. The pair observed that there was a strong correlation between age and criminal behavior, whereby the vast majority of individuals commit their first crime by the age of 20, and most individuals who commit crimes, in general, are under the age of 30 (1983).

This gave Gottfredson and Hirschi reason to believe that there was something unique about child development that motivated certain individuals to have a high propensity for violence and crime.

The unique factor, the researchers concluded, was a lack of self-control, developed as a result of insufficient parenting.

Criminal acts are often explained by an absence of self-control, and this ability improves with age as an individual develops and becomes socialized. Thus, limited self-control helps account for why the majority of crimes are committed by younger people. 

The Self-Control Theory of Crime is a generalized theory. Therefore it is meant to apply to all forms of behavior where an individual cannot resist the temptation of immediate gratification and thus impulsively engage in criminal activity that requires little to no long-term planning, such as drunk driving, fraud, petty and grand theft, assault, and property and personal crimes.

This theory is not the first of its kind. Rather, it stems from a body of literature beginning in the 1950s that classified a broader Social Control Theory as the way in which socialization and social learning build self-control and reduce the tendency to engage in antisocial behavior (Nye, 1958).

From there, Travis Hirschi developed his bonding theory which stated that the strength of a person’s social bonds determines the likelihood that they will commit a crime (Hirschi, 1969), and from there the Self-Control Theory of Crime was born, focusing specifically on the role of parenting in hindering the development of self-control and increasing the likelihood of petty crimes. 

The theory operates on a couple of assumptions regarding individuals who commit crimes. It assumes that criminal offenders are predisposed to commit crimes by external factors (in this case, bad parenting).

It also assumes that, if all else is equal, crime-prone people have a much higher probability of actually violating the law than do non-crime-prone people. 

The Self Control Theory of Crime helps us understand one important factor in explaining why individuals commit crimes: insufficient parenting that leads to a lack of self-control. But what does an individual with low self-control look like?

What are characteristics of someone with low self-control? 

As we know, individuals who grow up with parents who don’t properly care for and monitor their behavior have low self-control.

These individuals become impulsive, attracted to simple rather than complex tasks, self-centered, risk-seeking, attracted to physical rather than mental activities, and hot-tempered, among other characteristics (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990).

This is not to say that all individuals with low self-control possess all of these traits or even that individuals with low self-control exhibit these traits in identical ways, but rather that these are the most common manifestations of having low self-control.

Thinking about these characteristics allows us to not only better understand these individuals but also be able to better predict how their personalities may translate into harmful actions. 

What are 3 major elements of the self-control theory? 

The Self-Control Theory of Crime can be broken down further into three major elements:

Parental management/socialization thesis

This component is the core of the self-control theory of crime. It holds that inadequate parenting is what is responsible for lower levels of self-control.

When parents insufficiently monitor the behavior and recognize and punish deviance (i.e., when parents don’t exhibit traits that resemble those of good parents) at early stages of a child’s life, this encourages the child to have an overall lack of self-control that motivates their criminal activity.  

Stability thesis

This thesis states that self-control is developed early in childhood and remains relatively stable throughout the course of a person’s life after a person reaches the age of 10 (Hay & Forrest, 2006).

It also argues that not only is self-control stable throughout time but so is continuity in offending. In other words, after an individual commits their first crime, the likelihood that they will re-commit a future crime (defined as recidivism) is high.

This is a result of persistent heterogeneity or the idea that there are stable underlying differences across individuals that affect how people behave in all situations and make them unique from one another. 

Spuriousness thesis

The third and final key element of the self-control theory is the idea that many social experiences and relationships that researchers often attribute to being the cause of crime are, in reality, not true causes and rather spurious (or fake) correlates of crime that is really a result from low self-control (Junger & Tremblay, 1999).

This thesis emphasizes that it is low self-control, above all other potential explanations for crime, that best explains why an individual may engage in such lawless activity and disregards other explanations. 

How does self-control theory explain crime? 

As discussed, the self-control theory helps to explain why certain individuals have a higher propensity for criminal activity.

Gottfredson and Hirschi argue that individuals who were inadequately parented before the age of ten develop less self-control because their parents did not monitor their behavior and discipline them accordingly.

As a result of this lack of self-control, these children are more inclined to listen to immediate impulses and neglect to consider any long-term consequences that could potentially result from unlawful actions.

Although actions that result from a lack of self-control are not unique to criminal behavior (it can be as simple as punching someone with whom you are angry), in the context of crime, a lack of self-control typically causes misdemeanor crimes such as drunk driving, fraud, or petty theft.

This does not mean that a lack of self-control cannot also result in certain white-collar crimes, such as money laundering or embezzlement, or more serious felonies, such as domestic abuse or murder, but this tends to be less common. 

Although the self-control theory put forth by Gottfredson and Hirschi largely focuses on the environmental role of the type of parenting a child receives, it is also important to acknowledge the role of biology that interacts with this environmental factor to produce a lack of self-control.

The prefrontal cortex (PFC), the region of the brain responsible for cognitive functioning, helps mediate self-control. But the PFC does not fully develop until an individual is roughly 25 years old (Arain et al., 2013), making younger children more likely to act in rash and impulsive ways.

Beyond PFC development, other biological factors such as birth complications, maternal cigarette smoking during pregnancy, and genetic polymorphisms are also linked to a lack of self-control (Boutwell & Beaver, 2010).

Together, these biological and social factors can contribute to a child’s impulsive personality that drives them to commit crimes. 

Self-control theory and victimization 

Research demonstrates how a lack of self-control does not only contribute to criminal activity but can also often lead to the victimization of an individual (i.e., being victims of crime; Pratt et al., 2014).

Specifically, low self-control has been found to be positively associated with both violent and property victimizations (Ren et al., 2017). This reveals the complexities of the role of self-control and crime — being a perpetrator is not the only outcome. 

Self-control theory and cybercrime 

Beyond common misdemeanors like drunk driving, a lack of self-control also motivates cybercrimes. Research has found that low self-control is positively correlated with cyber deviance in general (Holt et al., 2012).

Specifically, hacking is a common form of cybercrime that directly results from a lack of self-control. Sinchul Back and colleagues (2018) conducted research on self-control and social bonding, finding that both of these factors are significant predictors for the execution of computer hacking offenses.

Computer hacking is a common avenue for low-self-control youth because it can provide these individuals with immediate forms of income, especially at a life stage when gaining wealth is more difficult than during adulthood (Richet, 2013).

Additionally, the barriers to hacking have become much lower and less complex over the years, making it a feat that is easy to accomplish and requires little planning (Richet, 2013).

Self control theory and domestic violence 

Unfortunately, research points to a linkage between self-control and domestic violence. A study conducted by Christine Sellers (1999) found that low self-control, opportunity, and the perception of immediate gratification were significant predictors of using violence in a dating relationship.

However, a more recent meta-analysis done by Yayouk Williams and colleagues (2018) found only a small to moderate negative association between self-control and family violence (i.e., less self-control led to more family violence).

Thus, more research is needed to better understand the relationship between self-control and domestic violence. 

Self control theory and serial killers

Although misdemeanors are definitely more common among those with low self-control, there is also a relationship between low self-control, bad parenting, and being a serial killer.

Those who grow up in neglectful environments not only develop low levels of self-control but also become unable to form meaningful relationships and resort to extreme forms of crime.

In accordance with this, research reveals that serial killers do appear to have low-self control (Zeigler, 2007). 

Self-control theory and white-collar crime 

In addition to extreme felonies, those who are lower on self-control may be more prone to develop attitudes that motivate them to commit white-collar crimes (Lugo, 2013).

As with other forms of crime, having a lack of self-control makes people more impulsive and less likely to consider the consequences of their actions, including engaging in white-collar activity, such as identity theft and money laundering. 

Self-control theory juvenile delinquency 

Finally, self-control theory also plays a role in explaining broader juvenile delinquency. The interaction of genetic and environmental factors previously discussed helps to make sense of why a juvenile would engage in such behavior.

Additionally, a lack of self-control also helps to explain why an individual would re-commit a crime (i.e., why recidivism rates are high among juveniles; DeLisi & Vaugn, 2008).

Self-control theory strengths and weaknesses 

The Self-Control Theory of Crime has been around for more than three decades and helps us better understand why certain individuals are more likely to commit crimes.

That being said, there is insufficient empirical evidence to actually support this claim. Additionally, this theory does not help explain why some children who are raised under nonideal circumstances turn to crime and others do not.

Thus, it is unclear the extent to which this theory is truly a general theory of crime. Furthermore, while bad parenting is certainly one factor that helps to explain why certain people have lower levels of self-control, this is by no means the only factor.

Neighborhoods, attachment to teachers and peers, and other factors also play a strong role in the development of self-control. 

Therefore, while this theory has obvious strengths in contributing to our collective understanding of why people commit crimes, the Self-Control Theory of Crime does not paint the full picture and thus more research is needed to fully understand the drivers behind criminal activity. 


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Saul Mcleod, PhD

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

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Charlotte Ruhl

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B.A., Psychology, Harvard University

Charlotte Ruhl is a recent Harvard College graduate with more than six years of research experience in clinical and social psychology.