Rational Choice Theory Essay

Rational choice theory postulates that individuals make decisions that they think will best advance their self interest, even though this is not usually the case. It is based on the premise that human being is a rational being, and freely chooses their behavior, both conforming and deviant, rationally. That is, to make a decision, it involves a cost benefit analysis. It is an approach that is widely employed by social scientists to understand the human behavior, based on the effect of incentives and constraints on the human behavior. This approach was widely originally a reserve of economics but it has found general acceptance in other disciplines. This paper examines critically the rational choice theory, and its relationship to the situational crime prevention. It traces the history of the theory, and applies the theory to a contemporary problem, the cultivation of marijuana, to explain how cultivation sites are chosen. The paper finally makes recommendations how the theory can be employed to reduce outdoor marijuana cultivation.

In criminology, it is employed to explain the criminal behavior. It assumes that the state is responsible for the maintenance of order and for preserving the common good through legislation. The laws controls human behavior through swiftness, severity and certainty of punishments (Phillips, 2011,7).The theory consists of 3 core elements: a reasoning criminal, crime specific focus and separate analysis of criminal involvement and criminal event (Phillips, 2011, 4). The reasoning criminal element postulates that criminals commit crimes in order to benefit themselves. The element proposes that criminals have specific goals and alternative ways to achieve these goals. In addition, they hold information that assists them in choosing the best alternative to implement their goals.

The element on crime specific focus, assumes that decision making differs with the nature of crime, that is, decision making is different for each crime. For instance, the decision making to commit a robbery differs with the decision making to commit burglaries, while the decision making by a burglar to target wealthy neighborhood, differs with the one to target middle class and public housing.

The last element addresses three issues: deciding to get involved in a crime, continuing to get involved once one has decided to get involved, and the decision to withdraw from the commission of the crime. On the other hand, criminal event implies the decision to get involved with a specific crime.

Crime prevention is critical, since it is too expensive to wait until crimes have been committed in order to act. Traditionally, criminologists approach crime prevention through identification of the social and psychological and social causes of crime and treating the offenders as a remedy to the deficiencies, examples through correctional measures. An alternative to the above is situational crime prevention that is based on the rational choice theory. It based on the assumption that criminals will proceed to commit crimes where the benefits outweigh the risks and costs involved and whereby the opportunity to commit a crime exists. Therefore, situational crime prevention aims to make the costs of a crime outweigh the benefits derived, and eliminate the opportunity to c omit that crime.

This theory has deep roots in economic, and has made important inroads in other spheres. Rational choice theory first emerged in the mid-eighteenth century, and was first referred to as classical theory. It was developed by the classical school of criminology, through the works of Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham, in their response to primitive and cruel justice system that existed prior to the advent of the French revolution.

The modern theory stems from the age of reason. It is classical origins is captured in Leviathan (1651) by Thomas Hobbes, where he tried to explain the role of individuals choices in functioning of political institutions. His efforts were developed further by other scholars such as Adam Smith, David Hume and utilitarians such as Jeremy BenthamThe rational choice theory was developed by Derek Cornish and Ronald Clarke.

In relation to outdoor marijuana cultivation, rational choice theory is conspicuous. The predicaments that face outdoor cannabis growers are the same one that faces other criminals. Therefore, they employ the rational choice theory like other criminals in examining whether to grow cannabis and if yes, where. The growers are rational beings, driven by rational theory’s key tenets. For instance, the growers choose locations that have the greatest potential for a greater reward, pursuant to the rational choice theory of maximum greatest benefit.

To begin with, the choice of outdoor cultivation is informed by the fact that it has a lower cost of production. Consequently, they choose locations whereby they maximize their rewards, while minimizing their efforts. While doing this, they consider the risk that the site will be detected by the law enforcement officers. Therefore, they have to choose a site that will not only give the maximum yield, but also one that cannot be easily detected.

To add, the rational choice theory applies where the grower decides the number of plants to grow in the selected site. Here also, the grower has to weigh the benefit derived by an extra plant grown versus the increased risk of detection by the law enforcement officers. Growers gamble with the number, but only to a certain extent, and the location of the site. Therefore, the numbers are likely to be high in prime sites where the risk of detection is low. To add, the finding of a research by Bouchard et al (2011,16) concludes that even in areas where aerial detection is less common, even if the risk of detection is perceived as nontrivial, offenders are willing to take a chance in the event of a successful outcome.

Moreover, growers have several sites among which to choose from. Like other rational beings, they also possess information, which helps them with choosing among the alternatives. For instance, they know areas where the yields are likely to be high, that is, areas whose topography and climate, suits the growth of marijuana, and areas that are prone to detection by law enforcement agencies. On the other hand, law enforcers also employ the theory to increase the detection of outdoor growers and, therefore, curb growth of cannabis while at the same time reducing the benefits and increasing the costs in order to deter growers.

Rational choice theory explains to a certain extent why growers choose certain sites to grow cannabis. The site must be weighed against other competing interests in order to arrive at the site that gives the maximum yield at the least cost. To begin with, a rational grower gathers information about possible sites and chooses the best alternative based on the information that is available.

According to Bouchard et al (2011,23), such information involves the distance from the road, distance from sources of water, nature of the terrain and security of the region generally. For instance, with regards to proximity to the nearest road, the longer the site is from the road, the greater the effort required to set up the site and to take care of the plants, while the closer the sites to the road, the greater the risks of detection, by both the law enforcers as well as thieves. To add, with regards to the accessibility of the areas, the growers have to consider the easiness of access and exit from the area.

Moreover, the growers have to rationally decide the number of cannabis plants to grow in a certain site. While it would be more profitable to grow the maximum yield, rational choice theory requires that they should balance the number of plants, with the desire to hide the site from the law enforcement officers.

Situational crime prevention techniques can be employed in a number of ways to curb outdoor growth of marijuana, through increasing the risk, reducing the reward, increasing the effort of the growers, and reducing the provocation that is associated with specific criminal events. Risk can be increased through increasing and coordinating the anti-marijuana growth operations efforts across police agencies. This would increase the level of detection, and, therefore, the growers will materially decrease production of marijuana, for example by growing lesser plants to reduce the risk of detection.

With regards to decreasing the rewards, all international law enforcement stakeholders should work hand in hand to reduce the opportunities for production, trafficking and sale of marijuana. This shall affect the market of marijuana, while making it more difficult to produce and traffic marijuana, and, therefore, reduce the rewards while increasing the costs. Finally, the penalties for production and possession of marijuana should, to a large extent, be made severe in order to deter the users, producers and traffickers.

In conclusion, therefore, rational choice theory has wide applicability in criminology, especially in situational crime prevention. It explains why the criminals act the way they do, and consequently, the law enforcers can employ the theory to detect and prevent the crime before it happens.


Bouchard, M. Beauregard, E. and Kalacska, M. (2011). Journey to grow: Linking process to

outcome in target site selection for cannabis cultivation. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency.

Clarke, R. V. (2010). Situational crime prevention. In Bradley R. E. Wright and Ralph B.

McNeal Jr. (eds.), Boundaries: Readings in deviance, crime and criminal justice. Boston:Pearson Custom Publishing.

Sacco, V. F. and Kennedy, L. W. (2011). The criminal event: An introduction to criminology in Canada 5th ed. Toronto: Nelson Education, pp. 128-131, 195-198, and 370-375.

Phillips, C.(2011). Situational crime Prevention and crime Displacement: Myths and miracles? Internet Journal of Criminology.