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Criminology Offender Decision-Making and Motivation
by
Volkan Topalli

Introduction

Though it may seem odd to think of it as such, breaking the law (i.e., criminality) is a social behavior, one that occurs through a process of decision making as do other social behaviors. Cognitivists regard decision making as a continuous process based on an individual’s interaction with the environment. Social scientists are concerned with the manner in which this process produces individual decisions, guided by logic and rationality. They see offender decision making as a problem-solving pursuit that ends when an acceptable or suitable solution to the decision maker’s dilemma is reached. Because the process is cognitive and individuated but embedded within a larger social and cultural context, questions about the nature of offender decision making lie at the core of what criminology is, and why it is a field of study rather than a discipline in and of itself.

General Overviews

Social cognitivists regard decision making as a continuous mental process that precedes behavior, based on an individual’s interaction with the environment. Social scientists are concerned with the manner in which individual decisions are guided by logic and rationality. They see decision making as a problem-solving pursuit that ends when an acceptable or suitable solution is reached. Breaking the law (i.e., criminality) is a social behavior that requires the decision-making process to be engaged just as do other social behaviors. Because the process is cognitive and individuated but embedded within a larger social and cultural context, questions about the nature of offender decision making lie at the core of what criminology is, and help to explain why criminology operates as a field of study—addressing criminal behavior from a variety of disciplinary perspectives—rather than a discipline in and of itself. Key contributions to the study of offender decision making come from Katz 1988, which explores how offender decision making is bound not only by the background factors we normally think of as related to crime (e.g., low socioeconomic status, lack of education, poverty), but also the foreground dynamics of crime (those aspects of the criminal opportunity that attract the offender to act at a given moment in time). Neal Shover (Shover 1996, Shover and Honaker 1992) added to this approach with his particular emphasis on how street life and street culture serve to shape offender decision making. A useful framework for understanding and researching the nature of offender decision making has been developed and promoted by Trevor Bennet, Richard Wright, and colleagues. It relies on a temporal analysis strategy to understand the nature of offender decision making situated within criminogenic contexts and the offender’s own background. Semi-structured interviews focus on four distinct, conceptualized categories: motivation (where the notion to commit an offense first came to the offender’s mind and why is does so), planning (the process of offense preparation just prior to the decision to commit a crime), enactment (those decisions and actions taken during the commission of a crime), and aftermath (those decisions, perceptions, and actions which take place immediately following the offense, and which may have consequence for future offenses). The strategy has proven to be empirically robust and applicable to a wide range of offending behaviors. As such, it has subsequently been used in a number of seminal studies of offender decision making related to burglary, such as Bennet and Wright 1984 and Wright and Decker 1996; and robbery, such as Wright and Decker 1997 and Jacobs, et al. 2000.

  • Bennett, T., and R. Wright. 1984. Burglars on burglary: Prevention and the offender. Hampshire: Gower.

    E-mail Citation »

    The authors found that the decision to offend was based on an imminent need for money, which led to a scanning of vulnerable areas to locate a suitable target; that burglars were oriented toward environmental cues indicating occupancy, surveillability, accessibility, and security at the targeted property; and finally, that burglars demonstrated a systematic and rational approach to target selection.

  • Jacobs, B. A., V. Topalli, and R. Wright. 2000. Managing Retaliation: Drug robbery and informal sanction threats. Criminology 38.1: 171–198.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2000.tb00887.xE-mail Citation »

    Authors examine how active drug robbers (individuals who take money and drugs from dealers by force or threat of force) perceive, plan, and respond to the risk of dealer-victim retaliation in real-life settings and circumstances. Data were drawn from in-depth interviews with twenty-five noninstitutionalized, active drug robbers recruited from the streets of St. Louis, Missouri. Available online to subscribers.

  • Katz, J. 1988. Seductions of crime: Moral and sensual attractions in doing evil. New York: Basic Books.

    E-mail Citation »

    Katz argues that understanding crime requires beginning with a phenomenological study of the criminal event, the lifestyle of the perpetrators, and the thought processes and emotions (including the sensual characteristics of the criminal situation) immediately preceding and following a crime, all of which amount to the “foreground” of crime. Employs an inductive analytic strategy in an attempt to develop a grounded theoretical basis for explaining offender decision making.

  • Shover, N. 1996. Great pretenders: Pursuits and careers of persistent thieves. Crime and Society. Boulder, CO: Westview.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book provides an in-depth analysis of the characteristics of “persistent” criminals (in this case, thieves), who continue to commit burglary, robbery, auto theft, and ordinary theft despite previous attempts to desist or previous negative interactions with the legal system. The author employs a “crime-as-choice” framework and a life-course perspective to make sense of how desistence-resistant offenders continue their offending ways.

  • Shover, N., and D. Honaker. 1992. The Socially Bounded Decision Making of Persistent Property Offenders. Howard Journal of Criminal Justice 31.4: 276–293.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2311.1992.tb00748.xE-mail Citation »

    An ethnographic study of criminal decision employing a sample of persistent property offenders. The authors argue that improved understanding of criminal decision making by persistent property offenders is gained by exploring how their utilities are shaped and sustained by their day-to-day lifestyle choices and characteristics. Lifestyles that emphasize hedonistic pursuits and short-term planning encourage the constant need for financial capital and an outlook on offending that discounts the real risks of crime. Available online to subscribers.

  • Wright, R., and S. Decker. 1996. Burglars on the job: Streetlife and residential break-ins. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Authors studied 190 active burglars’ decision-making processes within the context of their street life culture. They present their findings in the areas of motivation, target selection (planning), techniques of entering and searching a targeted residence (enactment), and methods of selling stolen goods (aftermath), concluding with a discussion of the theoretical implications of their research.

  • Wright, R., and S. Decker. 1997. Armed robbers in action: Stickups and street culture. Northeastern Series in Criminal Behavior. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    The authors conducted interviews with active, noninstitutionalized robbers operating on the streets of St. Louis to understand their decision-making processes (from motivation and offense planning through enactment to the aftermath of crime) embedded within a dominant street culture emphasizing violence, conspicuous consumption, and retribution.

LAST MODIFIED: 05/25/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396607-0105

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