Self-Control Theory: Meaning & Applicability

In a General Theory of Crime (1990), Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi proposed the dissimilarities in attention to the ramifications of one's actions as an explanation for why some people are now more inclined to engage in criminal as well as similar behaviors than others. They claim that those who learn to control their impulses at a young age are much less likely to engage in delinquent, criminal, or otherwise problematic behaviors later in life (such as substance abuse, accidents, or difficulty maintaining gainful employment). Individuals who acquire the ability to self-regulate as children are less likely to exhibit antisocial behavior as youths and to be arrested or prosecuted as adults. They are healthier as adults, have more successful careers, earn higher salaries, and benefit from fewer health problems overall.

What does Self-Control Theory Explain?

The inability to control oneself or a constant internal conflict are unrelated factors in criminal behavior and recidivism. According to this theory, self-control is more of a propensity to prioritize the immediate satisfaction of desires over their potentially negative effects in the long run. In contrast to the view that one's behavior is predetermined, the self-management theory emphasizes the importance of free will. While some people with impulse control issues may turn to crime, this is only the case for some. Self-control can be seen as a financial resource and, more generally, as a social benefit because it improves many things in life and the results of social institutions (like marriage).

Sin, as defined by the Theory of Self-Control

Most acts of deviance and criminality are impulsive, spontaneous, or accidental, requiring little preparation. In most cases, deterrents like locks, lights, or other people's availability are enough to discourage them. They frequently involve gaining a short-term advantage in personal relationships (as with many assaults) or promoting one's interests. Offenses that promise little gain for the offender (but often a high cost for the victim) and involve little ingenuity (breaking a window, bullying one's way to the front of the line, striking with an available instrument) are not a path to success or status or the satisfaction of some deep-seated psychological issue. Instead, they cater to the most basic human desires seemingly effortlessly, but this is only possible because they gloss over the associated costs

Where Self-Regulation Comes From Infancy and the Home

Caregivers (such as parents, siblings, other family members, friends, and teachers) keep an eye on children as they grow up and correct them when they do something that endangers themselves or others. Therefore, it is important to teach kids to think about how their actions will affect them in the future. High levels of self-control are established and appear to be a stable characteristic of the individual over the life course when a caring adult is present in the developing child's environment and takes an active role in socialization. However, there are times when a child does not receive this nurturing because an adult looking out for the child's best interests is not present or because the caregiver available to the child does not possess the knowledge, experience, or tools necessary to instill the child the discipline necessary to become an independent adult.

The theory was shaped by the realization that, even before puberty sets in, there are substantial individual differences in the degree to which people discount the consequences of their actions. When restraint is well established, the most consequential sanctions are those that instill fear of disapproval from parents, an embarrassment in the eyes of friends and acquaintances, and rejection by those who matter most to the individual. These worries solidify and strengthen over time, becoming an indelible part of who one is. Consciously (sometimes) and unconsciously (often), one's self-control determines one's actions, preventing the pursuit of unbridled self-interest and the subsequent commission of delinquent or criminal behavior

The Reality Behind the Theory of Self-Control

Many antisocial behaviors, such as theft, drug use, accidents, and disciplinary issues, are frequently found together; the intrinsic nature of self-control can partially explain this "versatility effect." All the behaviors linked to these issues ultimately benefit the actor in the short term (money, pleasure, the end of a troubling dispute, etc.). However, if you use any of them, there is always the risk of something bad happening.

Effects of Age, Generality, but instead Stability in Modern Research

The age thesis of self-control theory postulates that the influence of age on antisocial and related behaviors holds regardless of when or where the study was conducted. Because it sheds light on the underlying causes of a wide variety of behaviors across the lifespan, it paves the way for a general theory and enables both practical stability and flexibility. These results may prompt adjustments to social policy and research strategies. Policies like incapacitation, which aim to reduce crime rates by limiting people's freedom of choice, are doomed to fail because the results of conceptually similar measures of self-control will be the same regardless of age. It "organizes consistently an enormously diverse body of criminological findings," as the authors put it.

Effects of "Treatment" and "Selection" on self-control

Differences in character traits like self-control will impact people's decisions about their social circles, romantic partnerships, and professional entanglements. So, it is hard for studies that do not use random assignment to tell the difference between the effects of self-control (which may have caused the selection) and the effects of expected decreases with age and the influence of affiliations (like peers, marriage partners, or jobs) on individual crime rates.

Future Directions

More empirical studies should investigate these interrelated factors to further our understanding of the interplay between parenting and children's maturation of self-control. Although important, research into the impact of structural and community factors on parents' ability to raise healthy, happy children is just getting off the ground.

Research and public policy in the field of psychology encourage discipline and self-management. Young children and society benefit from adults taking an interest in their surroundings. Children are expected to learn "the most basic and common demand that societies place on them: the need to experience pleasure, control impulses, or even modulate feelings and emotions," the author writes. Having self-discipline is crucial for accomplishing many goals.


While criminologists have reached a near-unanimous agreement on the effects of self-control (how it affects criminal and analogous behavior), they are much less in agreement on the causes of self-control. Self-control as an explanation for criminal and deviant behavior, however, appears to be here to stay. It remains to be seen how strongly self-control purists will fight against such a movement and how hard scholars will work to combine it with other theories.

Updated on: 27-Dec-2022


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