The Rational Choice Theory of Criminology

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  • 0:01 Criminology
  • 0:50 Hedonistic Calculus
  • 3:04 Pros and Cons
  • 4:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Many people weigh pros and cons when they have to make a big decision. But is the same true for people trying to decide whether to commit a crime? Watch this lesson for more on the rational choice theory of crime and hedonistic calculus.


Chris is confused about something. His apartment was recently broken into, and the intruder took a lot of expensive electronics. Chris is upset, but he's also confused about what led to the crime. Why did the intruder choose Chris' apartment to break into?

Criminology is the study of crime and punishment. There are different approaches to criminology. Some people believe that people are predestined to be criminals. Others believe that people become criminals due to environmental forces. Still others believe that people take a rational approach, weighing the pros and cons of a crime and acting logically. Let's look at one theory of criminology, the rational choice theory, including important elements of it and some of the support and criticisms of it.

Hedonistic Calculus

Chris wants to know why the intruder broke into his apartment and stole his things. Is it because the intruder was born with a biological defect that made him choose that particular apartment? Because something in the intruder's upbringing made him a criminal? Or, was it something else?

The rational choice theory of criminology says that people make logical choices about under what circumstances to commit crime. For example, perhaps the burglar saw that Chris had left a window open to his apartment. If the window hadn't been open, the burglar would have moved on, looking for an easier target. But the open window gave the criminal an opportunity to rationally consider options and to realize that his job was made easier by the open window.

An important element of rational choice theory is the idea that people will weigh the possible pleasure from committing the crime against the possible pain from punishment, and act accordingly. This is known as hedonistic calculus. The word 'hedonism' means seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, and 'calculus' is a type of math. So essentially, hedonistic calculus is doing math around the idea of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.

Let's go back to the intruder at Chris' apartment for a moment. Before breaking into the apartment, he does a little hedonistic calculus. He figures that, if he steals the electronics from Chris' apartment, he can sell them for a lot of money. This will let him buy things that he wants or spend the money in another way that will bring him pleasure.

But if he's caught, he can go to jail, which would cause him pain. He has to weigh the possibility of getting caught (and the subsequent pain) against the possible pleasure he'll derive if he gets away with it. If the possibility of pleasure is higher than the possibility of pain, he'll likely go ahead and break into Chris' apartment.

As the name suggests, rational choice theory implies that criminals act in a logical, premeditated way, and make rational choices about whether to commit crimes or not. And hedonistic calculus is a good example of this; it is about making a logical choice in order to seek pleasure and avoid pain as much as possible.

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