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Role of Self Control in Juvenile Delinquency

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Social Work
Wordcount: 2644 words Published: 14th Aug 2018

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A common issue in the behavioral science field is attempting to determine who is in need of services, determining where best to spend resources, and in general trying to determine a model of prediction to determine juvenile delinquency in order to apply prevention techniques. It is the goal of this proposal to show that the General Theory of Crimes concept of self-control and the influence it has on determining juvenile delinquency is the better method than other more common models.

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Research has shown that self-control moderates some (if not all) of the relationships other theories have with delinquency. One of the more recent theories, the general theory of crime (Gottfredson, Hirschi. 1990), suggests that the concept of self-control is the single best forecaster of crime. Self-control refers to a person’s ability to think of the long-term consequences of antisocial behavior, (Hirschi, 2004). Substantial attention to this theory has resulted in remarkable empirical support for its direct effects on delinquency, yet various external factors (i.e. friends) still appear to have significant additional effects as well, (Pratt, Cullen, 2000). In contrast to relying upon a particular viewpoint, for example those used in the general theory of crime; others suggest using multiple theories at the same time, (Messner, Krohn, Liska, 1989).

Researchers have been investigating the extent to which self-control moderates the association between a variety of outside factors and criminal behaviors; however it is only recently that researchers have started to look at how much self-control influences criminal behavior. Some studies have found that outside factors, such as the area they live in, will have a more significant influence for those with a greater level of self-control, (Wikström, Loeber, 2000). In other words, some have suggested that outside influences are simply insignificant for those with low self-control, (Gottfredson, Hirschi, 1990).

As a result, those with some level of self-control will have an influence by outside factors. On the contrary, others have found that social influences (i.e. delinquent peers) have definite effects for those most at risk. For example, Wright and colleagues (2001) suggest that those with little self-control have a greater tendency towards deviant behavior and therefore harmful social influences serve only to worsen that tendency. In contrast, those with high self-control are able to defy the temptation of these negative social influences.

However, it has been suggested that certain individual characteristics could possibly moderate the effects of factors such as those found in social learning theory, (Agnew, 2006). Social learning theory has achieved a rather large amount of empirical support. Current theories may need to look at their concepts, and policies aimed at criminals who don’t have self-control may need to refocus their efforts on social issues that may not be as important for those criminals that show signs of superior levels of self-control.

As mentioned above, it remains uncertain how strong the connections are, and in what way their effects present, however it is believed that the General Theory of Crime presents a more defensible viewpoint to be the best predictor of juvenile delinquency, since it includes self-control. Moreover, the purpose of this proposal is to attempt to provide a greater insight into which of these theories best predict juvenile delinquency, in order to provide better treatment/prevention for this population (i.e. better management with impulses).

Literature Review

The behavioral science field has for a long time searched to find the best way to explain the broad ranges of criminal behavior. Numerous theories have developed due to this most often with distinct and more often than not incompatible suppositions to explain criminal behavior. These explanations vary from sociological factors and individual characteristics, to the more recent interaction between the two effects. Before describing these potential interactive relationships, a few theories will be discussed to show the important contribution each has made on its own.

Social Learning Theory:

Akers presented one of the best known social learning theories, and over the years has been given substantial support. Akers re-examined the theory of differential association put forth by Sutherland, in an attempt to explain criminal behavior that looked at the idea of differential reinforcements, imitation, definitions, and differential associations. The conforming or nonconforming of these factors will be determined by whether or not the behavior is balanced, (Akers, 1998). Differential associations are perhaps one of the most important parts of the social learning theory. The concept of differential association refers to the interaction with different groups, and how antisocial people associate more with each other than they do with those that would be considered pro-social, (Akers, 1985).

Differential associations happen first and provide the context for the conceptualization of definitions, introduction to reinforcements, and models to copy, (Akers et al., 1979). The rewards and punishments of recognized associations will influence the capability to create new associations and uphold the old ones, (Akers, 1998). The common groups with whom one differentially associates include, family, peers, church, neighbors, schools, and teachers, however they are not limited to just these, (Akers, 1985). The priority, duration, frequency, and intensity of each relationship establish its strength, (Akers, 1998). Specifically, those relationships that happen most often, begin earlier, last the longest, and involve those with whom one is closest will have the greatest sway on the behavior. The number of delinquent friends that one associates with is the best forecaster of criminal behavior, (Akers et al., 1979). In the end, it is this balance of these reinforcements (either as rewards or punishments) that provide to increase or decrease delinquent behavior.

The General Theory of Crime:

The General Theory of Crime unlike the previous theories seeks to explain delinquent behavior as the result of a single individual trait, (Gottfredson, Hirschi, 1990). This single trait, i.e. self-control, refers to a person’s ability to think about the long-term, negative consequences of antisocial behavior, and all of the possible consequences of a individual’s actions, (Hirschi, 2004). With the understanding that pain is experienced differentially and that pleasure is equally enjoyed by everyone, a person’s level of self-control will have an effect on how much a person works out consequences. Therefore, the less a person ponders prospective consequences, the greater the chance they will commit delinquent acts when the opportunities to do so arises, (Gottfredson, Hirschi, 1990). Hirschi and Gottfredson (1994) felt that their theory explains not only delinquent acts, but also a number of behaviors concerning instant gratification at the risk of long-term pain. Moreover, if one lacks self-control they are often described as impulsive, short-tempered, having risky behaviors, insensitive, and selfish, (Gottfredson, Hirschi, 1990).

Delinquent acts are committed in order to satisfy ones self-interest, and their immediate satisfaction. For those lacking self-control, these delinquent acts tend to satisfy their impulsive desires, and are often harmful to others, (Gottfredson, Hirschi, 1990). Additionally, because those low in self-control are more inclined to look for acts that offer instant satisfaction at the risk of long-term pain, one can assume that they will engage in delinquent behaviors (i.e. drinking and drug use. Furthermore, those committing one type of delinquent behavior are more likely to commit another type of delinquent behavior, which means ones past delinquent behavior is the best forecaster of future crime, (Hirschi, 2004). On top of variety, delinquent behaviors will be committed more often by those lacking self-control, (Gottfredson, Hirschi, 1990). According to Hirschi and Gottfredson, everyone is prone to deviate in the beginning; however it is through good parenting that self-control is acquired, and will remain somewhat stable throughout a person’s life (Hirschi, Gottfredson, 1994). Though, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) felt that opportunity was necessary along with self-control they did admit that there were numerous opportunities to commit delinquent acts, and therefore diminished the part they play.


Research has shown that important concepts resulting from social learning theory (i.e. associations, definitions, and reinforcements), and the general theory of crime (i.e. self-control) are linked to antisocial behavior. Concepts from each of these theories have shown to have an effect on delinquent behavior; however there is also evidence that shows that there are interactive effects as well, though they have failed to agree on the exact way this interaction takes place. The theories discussed earlier attempt to show why people commits deviant acts through direct and independent measures, and can be considered as either a social causation or social selection model. Social causation proposes delinquent acts are the result of deviant social relationships, which social learning would fall under since it suggestions factors outside the person lead to antisocial behavior.

On the contrary, social selection suggests delinquent acts are the result of individual characteristics, which the general theory of crime is a good example of since it proposes that self-control predicts a person’s involvement with deviant peers or having attachments that are weak to other people that are more generally open. Looking at only social causation or social selection model has led to a partial description of delinquent behaviors, and has been shown that the effects of outside factors remained considerable when individual measures (i.e. self-control) were included, (Wright, Caspi, Moffitt, Silva, 1999). For that reason, a model that includes both processes would present a more defensible viewpoint, (Wright et al., 1999).


The aim of this research project is to target adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 years in both middle school and high school in the Lexington, KY area. Two surveys, one based on social learning theory and another based on the general theory of crime, will be designed to examine crime and delinquency in both middle and high school students. Two weeks before the surveys will be distributed to the students and an informed consent form will be passed out detailing information about the researcher, that the surveys are voluntary and not required by the school to be taken, their purpose, and explaining how the surveys and their collections will be confidential. Both parents and students will need to sign the consent form indicating that they have acknowledged the above and give consent for the student to participate in the survey, which the student would be required to turn in at the time of the surveys. Multiple (4+) team members will be required to be on hand in order to assist the students with any questions, and to insure that the survey sheet is placed in a sealable envelope and that there are no identifiable markings on the survey. All surveys once completed would then be gone over and any with identifiable marking would then be destroyed and the rest would be shuffled to insure that someone could not tie a particular survey to a particular student.

Delinquency, the dependent variable, would then be measured by asking the students how many different crimes they have ever committed; spread over multiple different types of delinquent behavior questions, i.e. have you ever used alcohol, have you ever stolen something worth $50 or less, and as such. The independent variable social learning theory would then be comprised of three items, which are reinforcements, peer associations, and definitions. Definitions are defined as the student’s attitude towards a behavior that they recognize as positive, negative, or neutral. Peer associations, would then be measured by asking the number of their friends that had committed any of the acts of delinquency previously mentioned. Finally, reinforcements would then be measured by asking whether or not their friends would respect the student getting away with any of the acts of delinquency previously mentioned. The independent variable general theory of crime would then be broken down into two measures of self- control, which are behavioral and attitude; with self-control being defined as being impulsive, insensitive, physical, risk-taking, short-sighted, and nonverbal (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). Behavioral would then be measured by behaviors similar to crime (i.e. I’m more likely to hit vs. talk when mad), and attitude would then be measured by the students character traits (i.e. I often act on the spur of the moment without stopping to think). After all of the data has been completed I would then compare the two results to each other and see which of the variables showed the greater correlation.

Works Cited

Agnew, R. (2006). General strain theory: Current status and directions for further research. In F. Cullen, J. Wright, and K. Blevins (Eds), Taking Stock: The Status of Criminological Theory (pp. 101-123). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Akers, R. (1985). Deviant behavior: A social learning approach, 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Akers, R. (1998). Social learning and social structure: A general theory of crime and deviance. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Akers, R., Krohn, M., Lanza-Kaduce, L., Radosevich, M. (1979). Social learning and deviant behavior: A specific test of a general theory. American Sociological Review, 44, 4, 636-655.

Gottfredson, M., Hirschi, T. (1990). A general theory of crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Hirschi, T. (2004). Self-Control and Crime. In R. Baumeister and K.Vohs (Eds.), Handbook of Self-Regulation: Research, Theory, and Applications (pp. 537-552). New York: The Guilford Press.

Hirschi, T., Gottfredson, M. (1994). The generality of deviance. The Generality of Deviance (pp. 1-22). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Magnusson, D. (1988). Individual development from an interactional perspective: A longitudinal study. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Messner, S., Krohn, M., Liska, A. (Eds). (1989).Theoretical integration in the study of deviance and crime: Problems and prospects. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Pratt, T. Cullen, F. (2000). The Empirical Status of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s General Theory of Crime: A Meta-Analysis. Criminology, 38, 3, 931-964.

Wikström, P., Loeber, R. (2000). Do disadvantaged neighborhoods cause well-adjusted children to become adolescent delinquents? A study of male juvenile serious offending, individual risk and protective factors, and neighborhood context. Criminology, 38, 4, 1109-1142.

Wright, B., Caspi, A., Moffitt, T., Silva, P. (1999). Low self-control, social bonds, and crime: Social causation, social selection, or both? Criminology, 37, 3, 479-514.

Wright, B., Caspi, A., Moffitt, T., Silva, P. (2001). The effects of social ties on crime vary by criminal propensity: A Life-course model of interdependence. Criminology, 39, 2, 321-351.


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