Social Control Theory

The Social Control Theory was developed by Travis Hirschi in 1969. It states that an individual’s behavior is bonded by society, and the extent to which an individual feels the bond or commitment to society determines their deviance from conventional societal norms.

The theory is commonly used in criminology and aims to explore why an individual chooses not to engage (or engage) in criminal activity (Hirschi, 1967).

Usually, an individual in society would be involved in many social networks starting from childhood, such as school, work, and family. From early on in life, an individual is bonded to society, so their behavior conforms to what is expected in society.

On the other hand, macro social institutions such as religion, law, and the education system work together to maintain order in society.

small wooden pieces in the shape of people, connected by white lines

The common conception is that when individuals feel a strong bond with society, they are less likely to commit a crime. As the social bonds become stronger, the costs of committing a crime also increase, and when the individual’s bond to society weakens, delinquent behaviors surface (Schreck et al., 2009). 

However, even for those who conduct delinquent behaviors, there is a general agreement that laws and rules should be followed. The Social Control Theory also looks into why this is the case.

Ideas of social control date back several centuries ago, but it wasn’t until the mid-1900s that the theory received interest from crime researchers. It was initially known as the “Social Bond Theory.”

Hirschi: Bonds of Attachment

Travis Hirschi focused on factors stopping people from committing crimes. These factors would influence the bond that an individual feels toward society. In the end, four elements – attachment, commitment, involvement, and beliefs – were identified as helpful in explaining and summarizing relevant research. 

A. Attachment

Hirschi identified attachment as the first social bond, which refers to the level of psychological affection one has for prosocial others and institutions (Hirschi, 1969).

Attachment is prosocial in its role in stopping people from committing a crime. The impulse to commit a crime can be resisted because of the costs of crime associated with delinquent behaviors. One major cost is the disapproval of people whom the potential offender cares about.

This brings in the concept of sensitivity. Psychologists argue that some people are more sensitive to the opinion of others, and the extent to which one is sensitive to others’ views will predict rates of criminal activity. Attachment is used to capture the emotions associated with committing a crime.

If a person feels no attachment or emotion to anyone in society, then theoretically, he or she would be free to conduct crimes, and there is no reason for him or her to stop.

B. Commitment

Hirschi noted that people are less likely to commit crimes when they know that they have something to lose. A potential offender would calculate the benefits and costs of crime.

If a person has invested a lot of time and energy into achieving certain accomplishments and goals, then he or she has a lot to lose if they commit a crime; the crimes are thus less likely to be committed. For example, a person could lose property, life, liberty, and money if they commit a crime.

In the case of juveniles, the display of achievements and accomplishments is seen in academics, and researchers have found that a student’s grade point average explains why IQ test scores are correlated with delinquency (Schreck & Hirschi, 2009).

The higher the student’s grade is, the less likely the student will commit crimes. Explaining using commitment, this is because the student has higher achievement and would lose more if he or she commits a crime.

C. Involvement

The third type of social bond is known as involvement, which relates to the opportunity costs associated with how a person spends their time. Involvement in conventional activities includes things such as reading, playing sports, doing homework, listening to music, watching TV, and doing housework.

If a person is heavily involved in these activities, then they have less time and energy to think about committing delinquent acts. They would also be heavily involved in social networks and hesitate to engage in criminal activity.

On the other hand, some people may spend less time doing conventional activities, experience detachment from society, and thus be more likely to commit a crime.

 D. Beliefs

The fourth and last type of social bond identified by Hirschi is belief, which refers to the degree to which one adheres to the values associated with behaviors that conform to the law; the assumption being that the more important such values are to a person, the less likely he or she is to engage in criminal/deviant behavior.

This factor has long been disputed among theorists (Schreck & Hirschi, 2009). It states that some beliefs allow delinquent behaviors while other beliefs prevent delinquency. If an individual believes in following social norms and rules, then he or she would be less likely to commit actions that violate the rules.

On the other hand, an individual who doesn’t believe in the importance or necessity of societal rules would be involved in activities that go against societal norms.

Social Control Theory Examples

1.  Adolescents and minor crimes

There has been evidence stating that the Social Control Theory explains the reason why some adolescents conduct delinquent behaviors such as the use of marijuana and other alcohol use.

Massey and Krohn conducted a study in 1980 on how the four elements of the Social Control Theory play a part in predicting alcohol/marijuana use and other forms of delinquent behavior (Krohn & Massey, 1980). 

A self-report questionnaire was given to adolescents in grades 7 through 12 in midwestern states, with 3,065 participants recruited. Questions related to maternal, paternal, and peer attachment were asked to measure the student’s scale of attachment.

An index of commitment to activities and grade point average scores were used to measure the commitment and involvement of students. Beliefs were measured using agreeableness to social norms. 

After all four factors of the Social Control Theory were measured, researchers analyzed whether the factors were correlated with the frequency of drug use and delinquent behavior.

Results showed that Social Control Theory could explain the variance in delinquency to a moderate extent and that the theory was more adequate in explaining minor offenses and drug use.

More specifically, commitment and belief variables are stronger predictors of crime for females, while attachment is more important for males.

2.  Occupational misconduct

A study by Donner et al. looked to see if the Social Control Theory could explain occupational misconduct, which meant delinquent behaviors that would be subjected to formal punishment by employer or law. Researchers looked at 111 policemen and gave them surveys asking about their likelihood of future misconduct.

Findings showed that the most severe consequences of misconduct that participants reported were linked to a commitment to one’s job. Moreover, those with higher levels of commitment to their job and social connectedness are less likely to risk their career and misbehave in their occupation.

3.  Cheating

Academic cheating has been a significant issue in schools for a long time. Researchers from China conducted a study in an attempt to use the Social Control Theory to partially explain exam cheating (Zheng & Gao, 2018).

Seven hundred and one students from universities were recruited and given questionnaires assessing parental, school, and peer attachments as well as commitments and beliefs about rules. Questions such as “How much do you feel that your friends care about you” were asked.

Results of the study indicated that positive and strong ties to the educational institution and involvement in school-related activities were associated with lower odds of cheating in an exam in the future. This is aligned with the Social Control Theory.

Factors Influencing Social Control 


Family is the first society that a child will enter. Everyone enters the world in a state of low self-control as a toddler. However, family is an “institution” where one will learn from caretakers about what is right, what is wrong, how to behave, educational choices, religious beliefs, how to treat others, and much more.

It could influence the beliefs of a child. Bonds within a family would also be a prosocial attachment because children could be afraid of disappointing their family. Decades of research on parenting and delinquent behavior have also found that parenting type will influence a child’s likelihood of conducting future crimes.

More specifically, Diana Baumrind found that authoritarian parents who are high on responsiveness and demandingness to their child are the best for a child’s development.

These parents have a stronger bond with their child, who needs support and control. This type of parenting is positively related to social adjustment and negatively related to misconduct and delinquency (Baumrind, 1971).


The community and neighborhood that a person lives in could influence rates of delinquency. It acts as a prosocial attachment bond in stopping people from committing crimes. For example, suppose the person is in a close-knit community where everyone knows one another.

In that case, committing a crime could mean disappointing or hurting people from the community. Thus, someone with a strong bond with their community would suffer more from committing a crime than someone who doesn’t care and feel no attachment to their community.


Nowadays, people are often bombarded with tons of information from the internet through modes like phone apps, television, and radio. The way the media portrays crime influences public opinion on crime and whether or not one would indulge in criminal activities.

The fear of the consequences of crime would act as a protective factor and stop potential offenders from committing a crime. Crimes are portrayed negatively in the media, which helps shape audiences’ beliefs that crime is a “bad” thing.

Public criticisms of crime seen on television or in the newspaper would make a person think twice before engaging in criminal activities.

Criticisms of Social Control Theory

One of the major criticisms faced by the Social Control Theory is that it only considers external bonds, such as bonds with social institutions or family. It fails to consider factors like autonomy, impulsiveness, or personal choices influencing delinquent behaviors.

A person could be biologically influenced and be more likely to commit violent crimes. For example, irregular serotonin and dopamine pathways could influence a person’s functions and lead them to make impulsive choices such as getting illegal drugs. The MAOA gene was also found to predict aggressive behaviors (Paul, 2020).

Social Control Theory also does not explain white-collar crime, which generally refers to white-collar workers taking advantage of their power or position for financial gains. White-collar crimes include non-violent crimes such as money laundering and healthcare corruption.

These workers usually have strong commitments and bonds to their jobs but still choose to commit crimes.

What’s more, it is hard to operationalize the intensity of bonds between an individual and society, as most research conducted is based on questionnaires answered by participants, which could potentially be biased and misleading.

Overall, Social Control Theory can be said to be a very general theory of crime, but more research is needed to explore how different factors play a part in causing delinquent behaviors.


Baumrind, D. (1971). Types of adolescent life-styles. Developmental Psychology Monographs, 4(1, Pt. 2). Brody, G. H., Ge, X., Conger, R. D., Gibbons, F. X., Murry, V

Cretacci, Zheng, L., & Gao, Y. (2018). Young Pandas Cheat and Smoke: A Social Control Theory Explanation of Chinese University Student’s Exam Cheating and Smoking. International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences, 13(2), 264–282. 

Donner, Maskaly, J., & Fridell, L. (2016). Social bonds and police misconduct An examination of social control theory and its relationship to workplace deviance among police supervisors. Policing : an International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 39(2), 416–431.

Hirschi, T. (1969). Causes of delinquency. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hirschi. (2002). A Control Theory of Delinquency. In Causes of Delinquency (1st ed., pp. 16–34). Taylor & Francis. 

Hobbes, Thomas. 1957. Leviathan, or, The matter, forme and power of a commonwealth, ecclesiastical and civil. Edited by Michael Oakeshott. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 

Kempf-Leonard, K., & Morris, N. A. (2012, July 24). Social Control theory. obo. Retrieved December 20, 2022, from 

Krohn, M. D., & Massey, J. L. (1980). Social Control and Delinquent Behavior: An Examination of the Elements of the Social Bond. The Sociological Quarterly, 21(4), 529–544. doi:10.1111/j.1533-8525.1980.tb00634. 

Paul, S. (2020, November 19). The criminal behavior of genes – science repository. Science Repository. from 

Pratt, T. C., & Cullen, F. T. (2000). The empirical status of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s general theory of crime: A meta-analysis. Criminology, 38, 961–934.

Schreck, & Hirschi, T. (2009). Social Control Theory. In 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook (Vol. 1, pp. 305–311). SAGE Publications, Inc.

Wiatrowski, Michael David, “Social Control Theory and Delinquency” (1978). Dissertations and Theses. Paper 857.

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.

Fujia Sun

Peer Counselor

Psychology Undergraduate, Harvard University

Fujia Sun is a first-year undergraduate student from China studying psychology and economics at Harvard College. She has worked as a clinical psychology intern and peer counselor.