Who's to Blame? Elaborating the Role of Attributions in General Strain Theory*
Hoffmann, John P., Spence, Karen R., Western Criminology Review
Abstract: Agnew's general strain theory (GST) has motivated dozens of criminological studies over the past two decades. Borrowing in part from Cloward and Ohlin's model of delinquency, Agnew claimed that anger, a key component of GST, occurs when adolescents externalize blame for their adversity. This implies that adolescents who blame strain on an external causal agent (e.g., a parent, a teacher, economic disadvantages) are more likely to get angry and thus lash out through delinquent acts. However, this essential characteristic has been largely neglected in studies of GST. The purpose of this article is to show that external attributions of blame remain a fundamental moderator of GST and to elaborate how it affects the association between strain and delinquency. In particular, we draw from research on attribution theory and hostile attribution biases (HAB) to argue that understanding how adolescents interpret adversity is essential to GST.
Keywords: general strain theory, delinquency, attribution of blame, hostile attribution bias
General strain theory (GST) has motivated dozens of criminological studies over the past two decades. The developer of GST, Robert Agnew, considered versions of Merton's, Cloward and Ohlin's, and Cohen's strain theories, melded them with innovative concepts from contemporary criminological and social-psychological research, and crafted a new theoretical model of delinquent and criminal behavior. In particular, he re-envisioned this model to emphasize three types of strain and their influence on negative emotionality and delinquency. The three forms of strain addressed by GST are (1) the failure to achieve positively valued goals, (2) the removal of positively valued stimuli, and (3) the presentation of negative stimuli (Agnew 1992). Delinquency results when these strains are interpreted as unjust, high in magnitude, associated with low social control, and have created some pressure to engage in criminal coping (Agnew 2001). Moreover, a key emotion that links strain with delinquency is anger. Anger "increases the individual's feelings of injury, creates a desire for retaliation/revenge, energizes the individual for action, and lowers inhibitions," resulting in a sense that maladaptive behaviors, particularly delinquency, aggression, or violence, are justified (Agnew 1992:60). Feelings of anger motivate adolescents to attempt to defend or recover valued stimuli through delinquent actions (Brezina 1996) and may also be aroused through a threat to autonomy, which youths then attempt to reestablish through illicit means (Brezina 2000).
An important issue mentioned briefly in Agnew's seminal GST article involves under what circumstances strain leads to anger and delinquency. Although various coping mechanisms - such as high self-esteem, self-efficacy, self-control, or social support - may alleviate the likelihood of anger, a key factor that increases this negative emotion is when youths blame other people for stressful situations: "Anger results when individuals blame their adversity on others" (Agnew 1992:59). Presumably, this implies that adolescents who blame strain on an external cause (e.g., a parent, a teacher, economic disadvantages) are more likely to get angry and thus lash out through delinquent acts. Yet it also suggests that when the cause of strain is not attributed to others, adolescents do not tend to become angry and thus do not engage in delinquent behavior. Other negative emotions might occur, such as despair or dysphoria, but these will most likely result in depressive symptoms, anxiety, or feelings of sadness. In general, then, externalizing blame is the key moderating variable in GST.
It is peculiar to note, however, that many studies of GST have addressed the three types of strain, as well as anger and coping resources such as self-esteem, self-efficacy, self-control, and social support (e.g., Agnew 1997, 2001, 2006a; Agnew et al. …