Choice theory, sometimes called rational choice or decision theory, is a very simple concept to understand. Human beings will commit a given action because that action serves the interest of the actor. The action, in other words, brings more benefit than harm to the actor, therefore the action is done.
Rational choice can be termed the "capitalist" theory of action. Rationality in this economic category is the commission of an action that will lead to financial profit for the actor. Since the dawn of capitalist modernity in 17th century Great Britain and the Netherlands, it has been popular to hold that a criminal commits anti-social actions because the criminal will gain by it. Therefore, public policy should be aimed at making crime so painful that no rational person will commit crime.
Rational choice theory assumes that the criminal is acting because his choices are constrained. Crime is the only avenue available. If there were other options that could be just as lucrative and interesting, those would be done instead. It assumes that criminals are inherently rational, just like all people. Therefore, the only effective way to deter crime is to make the cost of crime so high that no rational person would commit it.
The main significance to rational choice theory and crime is that criminals were not seen as deviants. It was often the case that criminals were seen as inherently anti-social. In modern thinking, reason was stressed, and criminologists sought to consider the real motives for crime. Putting this differently, crime was committed not because a certain class of people were evil or ignorant, but because their choices were constrained and hence, crime was the rational option given their circumstances.
A criminal commits a crime, according to this theory, because she believes the crime will ultimately benefit her. Possible ways a crime might benefit someone might be financial gain, a sense of control, a sense of power, the mystique of the "outlaw" or just as an alternative career. For example, rational choice analyzes a drug dealer: Such a dealer might have few employment opportunities available. Drugs, especially in the short term, offer quick profits, local prestige and, once the person has made enough cash, she can quit and invest her money somewhere legitimate. In this case, the dealer is not seen as inherently antisocial, but as a rational thinker. The response by the community, therefore, must make enforcement so sure and clear as to make even this "plan" seem too risky. If the chances of getting caught are high, then this would not be an option, because it would be irrational.
Make certain to understand that Rational choice approaches to crime do not posit a criminal that goes through a cost/benefit analysis before a crime is committed. This is not the case. What really matters is that a life of crime is entered upon because of the constraints in choices available, rather than any strict accounting of gains and losses.
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