Criminology: Rational Choice Theory Explained

Rational choice theory in criminology views man as a reasoning actor who weighs means and ends, cost and benefits, and makes a rational choice. The foundation of rational choice theory is behavioral choices, that includes the choice of the person to engage in criminal activity based on intent/premeditation and that the possible benefits outweigh the risk.

Rational Choice as a Criminology Theory

Rational choice theory was first introduced by economists and later adopted by criminology studies in the late 1970s. Rational choice theory in criminology grew out of same utilitarian philosophy as deterrence associated with the classical school of criminology developed by Cesare Beccaria. Working from the classical school of criminology and the theoretical framework of utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham discuss the concept of calculus of pleasure or hedonistic calculus. Hedonistic calculus states that people will weigh the possible pleasures from committing the crime against the possible pain from punishment, and act accordingly.

Theory in Practice

A good example of rational choice theory is white-collar crime. An investment banker decides to skim money from his clients’ accounts and hides the loss, and then personally takes the money to fund his/her lavish lifestyle. The white-collar criminal premediated and weighing the options of his/her choice, decides the personal benefit of stealing money outweighs any chance of his/her theft being discovered.

Another example would be a burglary with two offenders deciding to work together to plan to break into a home at night when the family is on vacation. The burglars made a decision by planning and carrying out the burglary by weighing the means and benefits, and making a decision to violate the law despite the punishment if caught.

Rational choice theory implies that criminals are rational in their decision-making, and despite the consequences, that the benefits of committing the crime outweigh the punishment.

The Wire: Rational Choice Theory


“The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor, ‘Can they talk?’ but rather, ‘Can they suffer?”…..Jeremy Bentham

Rational choice theory has its fair share of non-supports, simply because the theory suggest criminals act rational in their thinking. It does not take a long time for an offender to plan or think about a crime of opportunity. The offender just acts or reacts to a given opportunity but this is still premeditation in their intent to make a choice and act upon this decision knowing if they are caught there will be legal consequences; however, the gain outweighs the risk.

This theory is not going to fade away as many modern criminologist have hoped because it does explain why some people commit crimes. Offenders make a choice with free will after weighing the options, and then act accordingly if the benefits outweigh the chance.

About the Author

Mark Bond
Mark Bond worked in law enforcement and has been a firearms trainer for more than 30 years. His law enforcement experience includes the military, local, state, and federal levels as a police officer and criminal investigator. Mark obtained a BS and MS in Criminal Justice, and M.Ed in Educational Leadership with Summa Cum Laude Honors. Mark has a Doctor of Education (Ed.D) with a concentration in college teaching and learning. Mark is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at a university and adjunct professor of administration of justice studies at a community college.


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