Self-Control Theory

Travis C Pratt & Jonathon A Cooper. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. Sage Publications. 2009.

Self-control theory—often referred to as the general theory of crime—has emerged as one of the major theoretical paradigms in the field of criminology. This is no small feat, given the diversity of criminological perspectives that exist in general and the ever-growing roster of recently sprouted control theories in particular. To be sure, scholars have developed models of formal social control (e.g., rational choice/deterrence theories), informal social control (e.g., social disorganization, collective efficacy), indirect control (e.g., social bond theories), power control, and so on, yet self-control theory has arguably become the most influential member of the control theory family since its publication by M. R. Gottfredson and Hirschi in 1990. Accordingly, the purpose of this chapter is fourfold: (1) to provide an overview of the core theoretical propositions specified by self-control theory (i.e., what causes crime, according to this perspective?); (2) to critically assess its empirical status (i.e., what does the body of studies testing this theory have to say about the degree to which Gottfredson and Hirschi were right?); (3) to highlight the criticisms leveled against it (i.e., where do there appear to be “holes” in the theory?); and, finally, (4) to specify directions for future research within the self-control tradition.

Self-Control as a General Theory of Crime

Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) sought to accomplish a number of goals when they formulated their theory of self-control and crime. At the most fundamental level, they reinterpreted and reintroduced the classical school of thought in combination with a positivistic methodological orientation. More specifically, they intended to create a theory on the basis of what was known from research about criminal events and criminals rather than to rehash empirically vague sociological theories. Finally, they sought to develop a theory that would explain crime generally, that is, across times, persons, and situations.

To these ends, their general theory constituted a reassertion of the classical school’s initial contention that individuals seek personal pleasure while avoiding pain (Beccaria, 1764/1963). In short, people are motivated by self-interest. Furthermore, positivism attempts to understand human behavior through the scientific method. In its use of the scientific method, however, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) claimed that positivism went too far in creating needless disciplinary fissures, redundant theories, and contrived typologies. Moreover, positivist criminology confounds crime, delinquency, and other antisocial behavior. Gottfredson and Hirschi suggested that, by combining the methodological approaches handed down from positivist science, but in using the classical school as an overriding framework, criminologists could arrive at a general theory of crime.

Doing this, however, would require a good look at criminal acts and criminals, something that Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) claimed criminologists had not really done. They suggested that criminologists have instead focused their efforts on explaining crime in light of artificial statutory definitions and a rejection of individual choice. Accordingly, this has led to an abundance of theories that have succeeded in accounting for only a small proportion of the variance in crime; blindness to deviant behaviors that are analogous to crime; and misapprehension of criminals as being specialists, as opposed to generalists. Thus, to develop the general theory, Gottfredson and Hirschi started by looking at what criminologists do know about crime and criminals. Their research revealed that criminal events are generally based on immediate gratification or removal of an irritant, are easy, and are varied. Similarly, they found that criminals displayed characteristics similar to crime events: Criminals were found among individuals seeking immediate and easy gratification and whose behavior included numerous types of crime and other deviant behaviors. Gottfredson and Hirschi therefore claimed that the crime and the criminal were contiguous elements.

At the heart of criminal events and criminals was one stable construct: low self-control. This, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) claimed, explained criminal acts and behavior across time, gender, ethnicity, and crime types. Beyond crime, low self-control was further evident in behavior analogous to criminal acts, such as antisocial (but not illegal), deviant, and risk-taking behavior (e.g., smoking, excessive drinking, riding a bike without a helmet, skydiving). This, according to Gottfredson and Hirschi, constituted a general theory of crime: Low self-control was the general, antecedent cause of forceful/fraudulent acts “undertaken in pursuit of self-interest” (p. 15).

The Context of the 1980s

Lilly, Cullen, and Ball (2007) declared that Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) theory has remained a robustly empirically supported criminological theory throughout the almost two decades since A General Theory of Crime was published. Lilly and colleagues ascribed such popularity to the theory’s parsimonious nature; the combative stance it takes against structural theories, which draws attention from the academy; and the fact that it is elegantly testable. The theory’s popularity can also be explained in light of the context in which it was developed: the 1980s, which witnessed a renewed interest in individual-level explanations of criminal behavior (Pratt & Cullen, 2005). This renewal coincided with a conservative takeover of criminal justice policy throughout the United States, owing much to the reaction/response to the prior two decades of secularism, hedonism, and social welfare programs (Pratt, 2009). During the 1960s and 1970s, it was common within the university environment to question the status quo and social order. Race, class, and gender inequalities were increasingly being discussed and debated, and crime became linked to such inequalities, as well as to inequalities associated with legitimate social and economic opportunities. Crime was also explained in terms of the state’s response to criminals. It was during this time that labeling and Marxist theories were popular among criminologists (Lilly et al., 2007).

The ideological pendulum swung most forcefully at the beginning of the 1980s, with the election of Ronald Reagan and the institutionalization of the “silent majority’s” agenda. This movement was characterized by patriotism, hard work, religion, and the role of the individual in directing his or her affairs. This time was also characterized by a mistrust of secular culture and a lack of patience with social welfare programs and policies (Murray, 1984). In this environment, several conservative values-based criminological theories proliferated that emphasized choice and agency among individuals in the commission of criminal acts and that shifted the focus of the criminal justice system toward a punitive orientation. Furthermore, emphasis was placed on the role of families as agents of social control. It was in this context that Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) proclaimed that they “have for some time been unhappy with the ability of academic criminology to provide believable explanations of criminal behavior” (p. xiii).

The Nature of Low Self-Control

Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) defined self-control as “the tendency of people to avoid criminal acts whatever the circumstances in which they find themselves” (p. 87). Thus, low self-control can essentially be defined as a lack of that tendency. Individuals with low self-control are characterized as impulsive, insensitive, physical, “risk-taking, short-sighted, and nonverbal” (p. 91). In short, these are “factors affecting calculation of the consequence of one’s acts” (p. 95). Gottfredson and Hirschi further elaborated on the behavior and attitudes of individuals with low self-control, stating that such individuals have a here-and-now orientation; they lack diligence, tenacity, and persistence; and they are self-centered, indifferent, and insensitive. Furthermore, people who lack self-control tend to exhibit adventure-someness and are active and physical; they also generally have unstable families, friendships, and professional lives. Finally, individuals with low self-control can be characterized as having a minimal tolerance for frustration; they tend to respond to conflict physically rather than verbally; and they do not necessarily possess or value verbal, academic, cognitive, or even manual skills. Because of these characteristics, individuals with low self-control may not only be involved in crime, but they may also be involved in various other risky behaviors, such as smoking, doing drugs, and engaging in illicit sex. According to Gottfredson and Hirschi, low self-control is the stable construct that ties all of these characteristics, attitudes, and behaviors together. It is a construct that is recognizable in childhood, prior to the age of accountability, and is stable throughout the life course.

The “Development” of Low Self-Control

Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) contended that, ultimately, one does not develop low self-control. Instead, possessing low self-control is more a matter of having not developed self-control as a young child. Accordingly, low self-control manifests itself in the “absence of nurturance, discipline, or training” (p. 95). Stated otherwise, “The causes of low self-control are negative rather than positive; self-control is unlikely in the absence of effort, intended or unintended, to create it” (p. 95). Here Gottfredson and Hirschi are stating that if a person does not develop self-control, the default is low self-control. Acquiring self-control is a matter of socialization.

Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) placed the onus of this socialization primarily on parents. A child with low self-control then becomes the product of “ineffective child-rearing” (p. 97). Specifically, the authors stated that consistent supervision and discipline, coupled with affection, results in the proper development of self-control. They noted that several things may impede this socialization process, however, including parents who may not feel affection toward their children or who lack the time or energy to devote to supervision, and parents who may not see problem behavior for what it is and who may, having witnessed and processed their child’s inappropriate behavior, not be so inclined to punish them. Such situations may become exacerbated when parents engage in behavior indicative of low self-control themselves.

It is important to note that this perspective differs in a fundamental way from Hirschi’s (1969) social bond theory. Specifically, Hirschi’s original social bond theory held that, once social bonds were formed between a child and parents, parents would then be able to indirectly control the behavior of their children. Put differently, once the bond was established—even if the child was quite young—the child would voluntarily control his behavior even in the absence of a parent watching over him, because he would feel the psychological presence of the parental guardian, who would be disappointed in the child should he misbehave. For Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990), however, the faith in indirect control was abandoned in favor of a model that emphasized the importance of direct parental control; that is, parents should not expect children to control themselves (at least not prior to the formation of self-control, which should happen by around age 8–10), but instead it is only through direct supervision and control that self-control may be instilled. In the end, Gottfredson and Hirschi conceived of self-control as a singly unitary factor that is formed early in life through effective parenting, fixed by a relatively young age, stable over the life course, and solely responsible for explaining the variation in criminal/deviant behavior across individuals.

Self-Control and Crime

Classical theories of crime did not assume that some individuals were more predisposed to criminal conduct than others; instead, such theories assumed that it was one’s location in the social system, or whether one understood the nature of sanctions, that determined whether one was a criminal. Criminals and noncriminals alike had one purpose in mind: to enhance their exposure to pleasure and to reduce their exposure to pain. Therefore, classical criminologists sought to combat crime by increasing painful sanctions through the legal and moral systems of the time. Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990, p. 85) therefore referred to classical theories as theories of social control. On the other hand, positivism did assume differential propensities to commit crime; that is, that criminals and noncriminals were different in some fundamental respect (be it biological, psychological, economic, or sociological). Early positivists, however, denied the impact of social location, assuming that criminal propensities remained stable regardless of social location. Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) answer to these opposing views was to join them under the category of low self-control; that is, they explained crimes in terms of both individual propensity (positivist theory) and in terms of the desire to enhance pleasure while reducing pain (classical theory). One’s ability to avoid criminal acts (keeping in mind Gottfredson and Hirschi’s expansive definition of crime) and analogous behaviors are dependent on his or her level of self-control in light of environmental contingencies. Crime, and its analogous behavior, is simply a manifestation of low self-control.

To illustrate, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990, pp. 89–90) sifted through a number of attitudes, behaviors, and characteristics of individuals with low self-control and demonstrated how each relates to crime. First, low self-control is associated with having a present orientation, as opposed to being able to defer gratification. Accordingly, individuals with low self-control are likely to commit crimes because such acts amount to the immediate gratification of one’s desires. Similarly, those with low self-control tend to lack diligence, tenacity, and persistence. Again, crime events are easy and represent a simple means of gratifying one’s appetites while not requiring pesky or inconvenient longterm planning or commitment. Low self-control is also associated with adventurous, physical activities, making such individuals especially prone to crime. Individuals with low self-control generally have shaky marriages, unstable friendships, and spotty job histories. This demonstrates an inability on their part to form long-term plans, which is equally amenable to the short-term nature of crime and analogous conduct. Similarly, the fact that individuals with low self-control are more likely to engage in such analogous behavior indicates a preference for immediate pleasure and an inability to defer gratification. Finally, low self-control is associated with minimal tolerance thresholds and a self-centered, indifferent attitude, which allows criminals to remove themselves from the harm they do to their victims and gives them the justifications for committing crimes (i.e., in an effort to remove frustrations and pains).

Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) noted that the criminological literature demonstrates that, for the most part, offenders are generalists, not specialists (Blumstein, Cohen, Roth, & Visher, 1986; see also Sullivan, McGloin, Pratt, & Piquero, 2006). This makes sense in light of the concept of low self-control: Individuals with low self-control are unable to focus to the extent required to specialize in one area, even within crime. This is evident in the fact that individuals with low self-control do not maintain marriages, jobs, and other activities that require commitment and diligence. Furthermore, Gottfredson and Hirschi considered crime to be simple and easy in general, begging the question as to why one would specialize when it is easier and quicker to generalize in one’s offending preferences. Finally, that offenders generalize is evidenced by Gottfredson and Hirschi’s contention that individuals with low self-control engage in criminal, risky, and antisocial behavior because opportunities to engage in such behavior are constantly present. Furthermore, according to Gottfredson and Hirschi, low self-control predates and predicts all other correlates of criminal behavior. Moreover, Gottfredson and Hirschi maintained that their theory can robustly predict criminal behavior across gender, time, sex, and ethnicity. They ultimately claimed that their theory succeeds in revitalizing the classical assertion that pleasure and harm avoidance guide human behavior, including criminal behavior.

Empirical Status of the General Theory of Crime

Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) theory makes many testable claims, some of which have weathered the storm of empirical criticism, others of which remain wanting. In general, however, the general theory of crime has remained robustly supported across multiple types of samples, methodologies, and variations in measurement, in terms of its central claim that low self-control predicts criminal and analogous behaviors. In Gottfredson’s (2006) most recent review of the literature, he concluded that low self-control has remained predictive across gender, location, age, race, offense type, offenders, analogous behavior, and time. Lilly et al. (2007) further noted that the theory has received extensive support across individual studies, a comprehensive meta-analysis, and a full narrative literature review. Akers and Sellers’s (2004) review also found substantial support for self-control theory across cultures, explaining anywhere from 3.0% to 19.0% of the variation in criminal behavior.

The most quantitatively sound review of the general theory of crime was conducted by Pratt and Cullen (2000), who used meta-analytic techniques to ascertain the empirical status of self-control theory. The authors’ data came from 21 peer-reviewed published articles, for a total of 126 effect size estimates, across 17 individual data sets, and a total of 49,727 individual cases. To control for measurement effects, the researchers coded for whether studies had used behavioral versus attitudinal measures of self-control; when attitudinal measurements were used, the studies were further coded to control for whether the researchers used Grasmick, Tittle, Bursik, and Arneklev’s (1993) extremely popular self-control scale. Finally, Pratt and Cullen controlled for whether studies had used longitudinal versus cross-sectional research designs. In terms of the predictive value of low self-control as it relates to crime, they found that the effect size of low self-control regularly exceeded 0.20, net of variables specified by other theories and methodological considerations. Furthermore, the meta-analysis results supported the theory’s contention that crime and analogous behavior can be predicted from a single source (low self-control) across race, sex, age, and community. It is important to note that Pratt and Cullen found that similar effect sizes were found across behavioral and attitudinal scales of self-control and regardless of whether attitudinal scales invoked Grasmick et al.’s indicators of low self-control. These findings go a long way toward responding to the criticism that self-control studies that use behavioral measurements are inherently tautological (i.e., that the use of behavioral indicators of low self-control—in short, deviant yet legal behaviors—to predict other deviant yet illegal behaviors merely amounts to bad behavior being related to bad behavior, a finding of little interest to criminologists).

Beyond the low self-control–criminal behavior link, Pratt and Cullen’s (2000) meta-analysis failed to support at least two of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) contentions, namely, (1) that the self-control–crime relationship would hold across both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies and (2) that low self-control represents a general explanation of behavior. Gottfredson and Hirschi argued that because self-control is invariant across the life course, cross-sectional research designs (which represent the bulk of social science research) were adequate for testing self-control theory. Pratt and Cullen, however, found that the effect sizes for self-control were significantly weaker in longitudinal studies compared to those from cross-sectional studies. Further, Gottfredson and Hirschi explicitly stated the irrelevance of other criminological theories because of their assumption that self-control was a precursor to all other criminogenic factors. Even so, Pratt and Cullen found that variables specified by social learning theory—in particular, deviant peer influences and antisocial attitudes—not only had an impact on crime independent of self-control but also increased the explanatory power of each study’s overall statistical models. This strongly suggests that Gottfredson and Hirschi’s general theory of crime may not be so general.

Indeed, much of the research reviewed by Akers and Sellers (2004) and by Lilly et al. (2007) found Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) claims beyond the low self-control – criminal behavior connection wanting. For example, Akers and Sellers found mixed results for the hypothesis concerning the relative stability of self-control over the life course, with some research suggesting its relative stability, others indicating its variability, and yet others finding it to be at once both stable and variable. They found similar results among the research exploring the extent to which low self-control is a unidimensional factor. Furthermore, they found research suggesting that, in regard to low self-control’s causes, those proposed by Gottfredson and Hirschi were predictive, but not independent other factors, such as fair discipline and parental acceptance. Similarly, Lilly et al. found support for sources of low self-control outside of the family, including neighborhood-level factors as well neurobiological factors—findings that are reviewed at length later in this chapter.

Ultimately, the central proposition of the general theory of crime—that low self-control predicts criminal, delinquent, antisocial, and analogous behaviors—holds across several studies, methodologies, samples, and measurements. Research has not, however, supported Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) claim to having authored a “general” theory. Instead, it appears that their theory of criminal behavior, based on levels of low self-control, specifies a vital predictor of criminal behavior that is necessary for criminological models so as to avoid misspecification but is nevertheless far from the sole predictor of criminal and deviant behavior.

Critiques of Self-Control Theory

Scholars have taken issue with a number of tenets of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) theory, from its seeming inability to explain white-collar offending to problems with how researchers should go about measuring self-control. Others have called attention to the potential problem of rectifying the explanation of crime—that such behavior is due to a single latent trait that is stable over time—with the well-known age–crime curve (the observed empirical pattern in which adults tend to reduce their rate of criminal behavior following a peak in their late teens). Although these debates are certainly important in their own right and will most definitely continue into the future, Gottfredson and Hirschi face their most serious challenges with regard to the following: (a) the influence of adult social bonds in the criminal desistance process, (b) the enduring importance of deviant peer influences on one’s criminal behavior, and (c) the sources of self-control.

Adult Social Bonds and Life Course Criminology

Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) were clear in their assertion that changes in one’s social circumstances from childhood, to adolescence, to early adulthood and beyond are irrelevant to the explanation of crime. In particular, according to Gottfredson and Hirschi, the age–crime curve cannot be predicted by traditional sociological variables, such as marriage and work. Instead, the authors claimed that the attachments to employment and spouses are merely consequences of self-control; that is, people with higher levels of self-control are more likely to self-select into healthier relationships with work and family. That such factors are, in turn, associated with reductions in criminal behavior therefore comes as no surprise to Gottfredson and Hirschi. Indeed, one would expect relationships to exist between an adult’s bonds to social conventions (e.g., marriage and work) and criminal behavior, because both emerge from the common source of self-control.

Recent developments in life course theory and research, however, paint a much different picture. To be sure, the work conducted by Sampson and Laub (1993; see also Laub & Sampson, 2003) has taken levels of self-control into account in an assessment of the role that adult social bonds play in the criminal desistance process. Specifically, their study of men’s criminal behavior up to age 70 revealed that, independent of one’s level of self-control, attachment and involvement with prosocial activities through employment and marriage significantly reduce levels of offending. Thus, although it is certainly true that individuals with lower levels of self-control find it more difficult to form the kinds of social relationships necessary for a stable work and family life, those who do nonetheless do a better job of controlling whatever criminal impulses they were previously in the habit of letting loose. These findings are particularly challenging of Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) because they indicate that the explanation of criminal behavior over the life course clearly requires more than the specification of a single variable that is assumed to be fixed within individuals by age 10.

The Enduring Importance of Deviant Peers

In extending the importance of understanding the context in which people (both children and adults) live their lives, scholars have also taken issue with Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) rather bold assertion that deviant peer influences—a staple of criminology for years—are also irrelevant to the explanation of crime. Like the influence of adult social bonds, Gottfredson and Hirschi argued that individuals with low self-control will seek each other out because of their common interests in engaging in risky behaviors that provide immediate gratification. Thus, the concept of the deviant peer group, which has been a main-stay in the social learning tradition in criminology for at least six decades, is merely the consequence of self-control, according to Gottfredson and Hirschi.

The problem again, however, comes when the empirical evidence is examined. In particular, Pratt and Cullen’s (2000) meta-analysis of the self-control literature found that the relationship between deviant peers and one’s own criminal behavior was every bit as strong as that between self-control and crime. These peer effects stood up even in studies that included statistical controls for self-control. Thus, Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) claim that peer influences should not matter once self-control is taken into account is inconsistent with the social scientific evidence. Instead, the research indicates that both self-control and deviant peer influences are important to the explanation of criminal behavior.

Sources of Self-Control

Although the link between self-control and crime/deviance has been consistently demonstrated empirically, what is less clear at this point is how self-control is established within individuals. As stated earlier, the primary explanation regarding the “cause” of self-control according to Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) involves a parenting thesis. In short, Gottfredson and Hirschi contended that self-control will develop in children through effective parenting, whereby parents who monitor their kids’ behavior, recognize deviant behavior when it happens, and punish such behavior consistently will produce in their children the internal control mechanisms necessary for resisting the temptations that criminal and deviant behavior provide. Support for this proposition is certainly present (see, e.g., Hay, 2001; McGloin, Pratt, & Maahs, 2004; Perrone, Sullivan, Pratt, & Margaryan, 2004); nevertheless, empirical evidence has emerged indicating that the processes that establish individuals’ levels of self-control are more complex than those specified by Gottfredson and Hirschi. This problem is beginning to emerge as perhaps the most serious challenge to the validity of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s theory, and research related to this question comes from multiple fronts.

First, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) downplayed the possibility that low self-control has a genetic or biological component. For example, following their analysis of adoption studies, they argued that this research provides “strong evidence that the inheritance of criminality is minimal. … we conclude that the ‘genetic effect’ … is near zero” (p. 60). They also noted that “obviously, we do not suggest that people are born criminals, inherit a gene from criminality, or anything of that sort. In fact, we explicitly deny such notions” (p. 96). Gottfredson and Hirschi nevertheless raised the possibility that “individual differences may have an impact on the prospects for effective socialization (or adequate control)” (p. 96), yet they quickly countered that such differences would be important only if they resulted in problematic responses from parenting, once again echoing the importance of parental efficacy in the development of self-control.

A number of criminologists, however, fundamentally disagree with this position and have instead adopted a more interdisciplinary (as opposed to strictly sociological) view of the sources of self-control—one that recognizes the intellectual contributions of psychology and biology to the understanding of human behavior (see, e.g., Pratt, Cullen, Blevins, Daigle, & Unnever, 2002; Pratt, McGloin, & Fearn, 2006). Accordingly, despite the evidence of a parenting–self-control link, these scholars have noted a potential model misspecification problem with this line of research. In particular, much of this work has failed to consider potential biological and neuropsychological sources of self-control independent of (and in conjunction with) parental sources.

To that end, research has begun to emerge that examines these alternative sources of low self-control (Pratt, 2009). As such, two primary conclusions can be reached from this body of work. First, indicators of biological predisposition (e.g., attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; indicators of neuropsychological deficits, such as low birth weight and low cognitive ability) are significantly related to levels of self-control independent of measures of effective parenting (McGloin, Pratt, & Piquero, 2006; Unnever, Cullen, & Pratt, 2003; Walsh, 2002). Second, controls for such biological and neuropsychological factors tend to partially mediate—and in some cases fully mediate—the effect of parenting on the development of self-control (see, e.g., Wright & Beaver, 2005). Taken together, this research indicates that certain biological and neuropsychological risk factors need to be considered in the formation of self-control.

Another line of research into the sources of self-control highlights the interrelationships among community context, parenting, and the development of self-control. Specifically, to the extent that communities act “as a complex system of friendship and kinship networks and formal and informal associational ties rooted in family life and ongoing socialization processes” (Kasarda & Janowitz, 1974, p. 329), it seems particularly important to focus on how different types of neighborhoods influence parenting behavior and, in turn, the development of self-control in children. Researchers have begun to do just that. The first study in this tradition was Pratt, Turner, and Piquero’s (2004) analysis of data drawn from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which found that conditions of neighborhood deprivation significantly influenced measures of parental monitoring and socialization. Furthermore, such neighborhood conditions directly affected the development of self-control in children independent of the measures of parental efficacy. A subsequent study by Hay, Fortson, Hollist, Altheimer, and Schaible (2006) went a step further and found a significant interaction between neighborhood conditions and parental efficacy on the development of self-control. This work clearly indicates that community context is yet another factor that must be seriously considered by scholars with regard to the development of self-control in children.

Furthermore, although attributing the main sources of self-control to parental socialization, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) also acknowledged that school has certain advantages to socializing children. First, schools, and teachers in particular, have the ability to monitor several students at one time. Second, because of their interest in maintaining a healthy educational environment, teachers are in a good position to recognize antisocial behavior when children are exhibiting it. Third, many schools and teachers are given the authority to maintain order and to implement effective discipline. Therefore, Gottfredson and Hirschi suggested that “like the family, the school in theory has the authority and the means to punish lapses in self-control” (p. 105). Also, as Denise Gottfredson (2001) observed, “Schools have the potential to teach self-control and to engage informal social controls to hold youthful behavior in check” (p. 48).

Empirical work has recently emerged that has tested these various propositions. Turner, Piquero, and Pratt’s (2005) analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth data revealed two conclusions along these lines. First, indicators of school socialization (which closely resembled typical parenting measures associated with the monitoring and supervision of children) were significantly related to the development of self-control, independent of parental efficacy. Second, the effects of school socialization on youth’s levels of self-control varied according to (i.e., interacted with) levels of parental efficacy as well as conditions of neighborhood deprivation. In particular, the effect of school socialization on children’s development of self-control was strongest when parental efficacy was low and when neighborhood conditions were criminogenic. These results therefore highlight the ability of social institutions—in this case, the school—to pick up the slack for instilling self-control in children when other mechanisms, such as parents and the community, break down.

Future Directions

For the continued vitality of the self-control tradition, there are a number of directions future research should take. First, future empirical work should continue to focus on the complex relationships surrounding parenting and the development of self-control in children. In particular, the literature examining the influence of structural/community characteristics on parental efficacy, although certainly important, is still in its infancy. In addition, there is still a need to systematically assess the causal mechanisms underlying the relationship between ineffective parenting and self-control in children. Specifically, some scholars have highlighted the potential for “child effects” on parenting, whereby children with early temperament and behavioral problems may be more likely to elicit problematic responses from parents (e.g., overly lenient or inconsistently harsh parenting practices; see Moffitt, 1993). Nevertheless, whether these effects exist independent of parents’ levels of self-control is still unclear (see Nofziger, 2008); that is, do difficult children elicit bad parenting, or do the parents of such children simply lack self-control themselves and therefore the capacity to exert vigilant and consistent control over their children? Either way, the problem is that the comparative validity of these two explanations for the parenting–self-control relationship has yet to be assessed.

Second, it would be particularly useful for future studies to continue to assess systematically the interaction effects surrounding parenting, biological and neuropsychological deficits, and community and institutional efficacy on self-control. As such, three questions are immediately salient: (1) Is the effect of neuropsychological deficit on self-control more pronounced for children with low parental efficacy? (2) is the effect of neuropsychological deficit on self-control more pronounced for children in environments with low community or institutional efficacy? and (3) are child effects on parental efficacy more pronounced for parents with low self-control? Answering each of these questions would help to flesh out the complexity of the causes of self-control in critically important ways.

Finally, future studies should continue the recent work of Baumeister and colleagues regarding self-control depletion (see, e.g., Baumeister, 2002). In essence, this perspective focuses on the consequences to individuals when they exercise self-control; namely, because self-control may be a limited resource within any given person, using it in one situation may partially consume it so that it may less available in future situations. This prospect may be particularly important for individuals with relatively high levels of self-control who reside in neighborhoods plagued by multiple criminogenic risk factors (e.g., limited opportunities for legitimate participation in the labor market; constantly having to resist cultural pressures to engage in “code of the street” behavior; see Anderson, 1999). Indeed, because such individuals will inevitably be forced to exercise their self-control on a regular basis should they want to resist the criminal opportunities and temptations surrounding them, they are most likely to be susceptible to self-control depletion. Furthermore, because replenishing one’s reserves of self-control takes time and distance away from the kinds of social pressures that cause depletion in the first place, individuals residing in harsh neighborhood conditions will find it more difficult to restock their levels of self-control. If this is the case, it may be that variations in the degree to which individuals’ self-control becomes depleted—not merely variations in the distribution of individuals’ levels of self-control—help to explain the spatial distribution of crime across communities.


Along with the anomie/strain and social learning traditions, Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) self-control theory has emerged in the last couple of decades as one of the major criminological paradigms in the field. Although a virtual empirical consensus has been reached with regard to the consequences of self-control (i.e., its effect on criminal and analogous behaviors), there is considerably less agreement among criminologists concerning the causes of self-control. What is clear, however, is that self-control as an explanation of criminal and deviant behavior is here to stay. What remains to be seen is how diligent scholars will continue to be in integrating it with other theories and how committed the self-control purists will be in resisting such a movement.