Expanding the Model of Human Nature Underlying Self-Control Theory: Implications for the Constructs of Self-Control and Opportunity

By Wiebe, Richard P. | Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Expanding the Model of Human Nature Underlying Self-Control Theory: Implications for the Constructs of Self-Control and Opportunity


Wiebe, Richard P., Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology


Self-control theory holds that human nature consists of selfish impulses whose satisfaction often entails offending. Modern behavioural science has discerned emotional systems and cognitive biases underlying tendencies to engage in prosocial and self-directed behaviours, which themselves predict offending. Many of these tendencies appear in the construct of self-control, but are not sufficiently dealt with by life-course criminology. This paper presents an expanded model of human nature that implies that self-control is factorially-complex, containing self-regulation; prosociality (tendencies to form social bonds and engage in social reciprocity); and self-direction (tendencies to work on one's own long-term behalf without external sanctions). This model also suggests that the construct of opportunity should be expanded to include opportunities for prosocial and self-directed behaviours in addition to crime and deviance.

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What is human nature, and what does it have to do with crime? Human nature consists of the inherent potentials and abilities shared by all or most individuals. These potentials interact with environmental influences to produce behaviour, some of which is considered criminal. In the 20th century, many behavioural scientists, including criminologists, embraced radical environmentalism, a doctrine that considers only environmental influences when explaining human behaviour (Walsh, 2002). In this view, human nature consists of "vague and consequently plastic predispositions" that constitute "the indeterminate material that the social factor molds and forms" (Durkheim, 1895/1962, pp. 105-106). Thus, social influences determine behaviour, and predispositions may be ignored. (1)

In contrast, self-control theory expressly rejects radical environmentalism. Consistent with the "classical" view of Hobbes and other 18th-century thinkers, it postulates that humans seek the immediate gratification of selfish desires and commit crimes in pursuit of this gratification (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990; see Greenberg, Tamarelli, & Kelley, 2002). This pursuit often occurs at the expense of the legitimate rights of others, undermining group interests. To enhance its interests and reduce offending, the group must either teach self-control--the restraint of natural impulses out of concern for their long-term consequences (Hirschi & Gottfredson, 2000)--or limit opportunities to satisfy these impulses (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990).

Self-control theory is not alone in speculating about human nature. Though they may preach radical environmentalism, most criminological theories, in practice, make implicit assumptions about inner motives (Kornhauser, 1978; Walsh, 2002). Cultural deviance theory, for example, postulates that humans seek the approval of their group and commit crimes at the group's behest (Kornhauser, 1978), while strain theory postulates that humans seek goals determined by the dominant culture and commit crimes when blocked from legitimate opportunities to attain those goals (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990).

So, by most lights, humans have a "nature". But is this nature innately selfish or social? This is a "false dichotomy" (Brannigan, 1997, p. 428). Modern behavioural science has replaced both radical environmentalism and one-sided theories with a model that describes a host of innate predispositions (Pinker, 1997), including but not limited to both selfish and social traits and tendencies (Alexander, 1987; Brannigan, 1997; de Waal, 1996; Hrdy, 1999; Wilson, 1993) as well as drives to pursue self-directed activities for their own sake (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Contrary to radical environmentalism, but consonant with self-control theory, this model considers predispositions to be relevant causes of behaviour and, indeed, of social and cultural influences themselves (Tooby & Cosmides, 1992). Although predispositions for prosocial and self-directed traits and tendencies may fully develop only in prosocial environments, while many selfish traits appear perinatally (Brannigan, 1997; see also Kagan, 1998; Tooby & Cosmides, 1992), this does not make prosociality or self-direction any less "natural". …

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