In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The General Theory: Self-Control

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Measurement of Low Self-Control
  • Empirical Associations between Low Self-Control and Misbehavior
  • Tests on the Generality of Low Self-Control
  • Tests on the Stability of Low Self-Control
  • Origins of Low Self-Control
  • Critiques of the General Theory

Criminology The General Theory: Self-Control
John Paul Wright
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2009
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0004


The "General Theory" of self-control posited in Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990 (see General Overviews) has spawned a broad array of research and debate. This General Theory provides scholars with a set of testable propositions. The first proposition outlines the dimensions of self-control. Most crimes, they argue, are simple to commit, require no long-term planning, and provide few long-term benefits. Given the nature of criminal behavior, individuals lacking in self-control should be risk-taking, adventurous, short-sighted, nonverbal, impulsive, and insensitive to others. Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990 argues that lack of self-control is not only “the” cause of crime but that lack of self-control also causes other “analogous” behaviors. Because individuals lacking in self-control are insensitive to others and are risk-taking, they are also more likely to experience problems in social relationships, such as marriage, they are more likely to use drugs and to abuse alcohol, and they are more likely not to wear a seat belt and to get into automobile accidents. This is referred to as the “generality” postulate of the General Theory. The cause of low self-control is found in parenting. Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990 maintains that parents must monitor their children, recognize bad behavior, and correct this bad behavior. This is referred to as the “origins” postulate. If self-control has not developed by ages eight to ten, they argue, it is not likely to develop. Self-control should thus be relatively stable across the life course. This is referred to as the “stability” postulate.

General Overviews

The original statement of the theory can be found in Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990, which details the authors’ theory and provides a critique of criminology. Goode 2009 is the first edited volume dedicated to empirical coverage and critique of the General Theory. It includes a series of essays covering the major propositions of the theory, as well as a broad array of research studies thus far conducted on the General Theory. Pratt and Cullen 2000 is a widely cited meta-analytic review of the empirical tests of the General Theory. According to this work, the association between low self-control and criminal behavior has gained substantial empirical support.

  • Goode, Erich, ed. 2009. Out of control: Assessing the general theory. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    An edited volume that includes chapters on all of the major theoretical postulates. Also includes critiques of the General Theory.

  • Gottfredson, Michael, and Travis Hirschi. 1990. A general theory of crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    The original statement of the theory. Proposes a series of testable hypotheses on the nature of self-control, the generality of the effects associated with low self-control, the stability over time of low self-control, and the origins of self-control. Also provides a critique of positivistic criminology.

  • Pratt, Travis, and Francis T. Cullen. 2000. The empirical status of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s general theory of crime: A meta-analysis. Criminology 38:931–964.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2000.tb00911.x

    A meta-analytic review of studies into the association between low self-control and criminal behavior. Findings reveal substantial empirical evidence in favor of the association.

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