Choice and Vulnerability

While there is much research on offender decision-making, some of which are classic (e.g. Cornish & Clarke, 1986; Felson, 1994), scholarship on the decisions potential targets make that result in some of them becoming victuns is harder to find. The choice perspective, upon inspection, appears able to suggest a potentially rich theory that is consistent with cunent knowledge, while also making inferences future research could profitably examine and develop. As a start to this process, we here derive a basic picture of how such a theory might look.

In the choice perspective, safety from victimization is its own incentive. The question turns to why humans would fail to do their utmost to procure that safety. Choice theories in criminology are restraint theories, which suggests the answer to this question—namely, that some circumstance reduces the desire and ability of the individual to act with effectiveness or at all. Some, but not all, of these barriers reflect the necessity of having to triage limited personal resources. Others fall within the realm of individual choice, specifically the necessity of having to manage multiple competing interests and obligations. If we return to the idea that humans are governed by pain and pleasure, it would seem to follow that many actions that a dispassionate commentator believes could optimally promote safety may in fact not be all that pleasurable to the person actually facing the choice, and may contain their fair share of pain, inlierent danger, or unacceptable sacrifice. Or, put differently, competing desires in the moment (having fun, doing things that feel good, not spending too much money) may seem more advantageous, especially if someone imperfectly grasps the consequences an action may set in motion. Choice theory thus suggests that why people do things that assist, alert, or provoke the offender rests in the fact that:

(1) Such actions, in the moment, seem advantageous to the potential victim (they are gratifying or avoid pain); they represent otheiwise rewarding activities (Lyng, 1990);

  • (2) The risk of falling victim because of the action is not immediately obvious at the time, meaning it is not considered as a serious possibility until it is too late; some targets are ignorant of their danger or fail to adequately anticipate the risks; and
  • (3) Even when the prospect of victimization is a recognized possibility, some people possess a self-serving faith that they have a uniquely excellent ability to manage the immediate situation and thus escape the costs (i.e., faith that the offender is less competent than they are). Therefore, they do not alter their current action as long as continuing it is gratifying; and
  • (4) Many forms of precautionary behavior require sacrifice and offer little inherent gratification beyond peace of mind about an event that might but usually does not occur at some unknowable point in the future. Thus, the decision-maker will be less reliable at using those precautions when they become inconvenient, take effort, and that instill no other sense of enjoyment.

We can expand any of the four points above by adapting the general principles of certainty, swiftness, and severity, famously explicated by other choice theorists to understand crime (Beccaria, 1963 [1764]; Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). First—before, during, and after the crime—actions that produce immediate and obvious advantage for the target will be considered more pleasurable than those where the benefits are deferred into the future, are uncertain, or unseen. For instance, a person who feels safe in the moment will be less willing to sacrifice much in order to take precautions than one who feels that victimization is certain. A feeling of certainty of victimization tends to appear when people are uncomfortably aware of incivilities, disorder, or who have recently become victims (Ferraro, 1995; Rountree, 1998). Fear and experiences with victimization do correspond with extensive safety-minded behavior (Schreck, Berg, Fisher, & Wilcox, 2018). Certainty of victimization also may be at the heart of why someone in a bar may be more belligerent in a confrontation whenever friends are nearby. Disputatiousness is known to increase the chances of provoking attack (Felson, Berg, Rogers, & Krajewski, 2018), but the presence of protectors might make the antagonist believe that the certainty is less—and therefore continuing what appears to be a gratifying course of action. After the crime, there is rarely any certainty that contacting the police will result in the restoration of, for example, stolen property, thus explaining why most crimes go unr eported. But, even if the police are ineffective, people may report anyway simply to enjoy the certain benefits accruing from filing an insurance claim.

Second, the target is more likely to perceive the quickest (or swiftest), that is to say easiest, precautionary behaviors as more pleasurable than any requiring greater investment of time, resources, and effort. Doing nothing is the easiest choice of all; many people make this choice when they feel safe. This is why, from the standpoint of crime prevention policy, precautions that do not require the active cooperation of the target are to be preferred over those that do. For instance, over those that do, like automatically locking doors, automatic updates of computer security software.10 Otherwise, the more that precautionary or defensive behavior entails effort, risk, inconvenience, cost, or thought, the less inclined the target will be to see them as realistic or worthwhile. For example, moving to another neighborhood to avoid victimization is often a costly ordeal, and thus targets tend not to resort to it as often as they would to locking a door or altering routines. Even when altering a routine, choice theory suggests that people will tend to do so in a way that is least intrusive to their other interests.

Thud, targets are inclined to make decisions that produce results that are gratifying in themselves. While locking a door is easy, the action is not inherently rewarding apart from a feeling of security. Contrast the door lock with defensive firearms, which can be repurposed for recreational use, offer social benefits (feelings of conununity with other owners), besides also producing feelings of power (Kleck, 1988). Gratification even plays a role during an incident. For instance, in an armed robbery where the offender has the initiative, the choice of compliance—if it offers the possibility of life and health—might appear more gratifying than fight or flight. In this way, the choice theorist does not see compliance as a role one is socialized to adopt for specific crime types (e.g., Anderson, 1999; Weis & Borges, 1973), but rather as a rational response to any situation where the target believes that attempted resistance or escape would be hopeless and dangerous. We have described here the roles of certainty, swiftness, and severity (gratification) in isolation; however, as should be evident from the examples, they veiy likely interact in ways that are complex—offering considerable scope for empirical research and theoretical development. For instance, firearms may be gratifying to own and cany for some, but choice theory suggests that others would be deterred to the degree they find them to be expensive, difficult to maintain or store safely, and dangerous. While weapons and firearms may be gratifying, they are not easy to own; however, the more certain that violent victimization appears to be, the more willing people may be to incur such costs anyway (Schreck et al., 2018).

The classical ideas of certainty, swiftness, and severity imply that the failure to undertake precautionary behavior is as rational as the decision to be safety conscious. However, these considerations are influenced by human variability in the tendency to make judgment errors, especially the sort of errors in which a person habitually is unresponsive to reasonably foreseeable long-term consequences of immediate actions. For instance, theft of one’s car is an obvious risk of leaving its doors unlocked and engine running while quickly stepping into a store. While the decision to leave one’s car in such a state may reflect an accurate awareness of the area’s safety, more often the overriding consideration is the desire to minimize hassle—and then hoping for the best. This tendency to make choices that consistently favor immediate and tangible gratifying action while ignoring long-term consequences is called low self-control (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990), and theory and research has linked low self-control to victimization as well as crime (Schreck, 1999; Turanovic & Pratt, 2019). Low self-control thus not only frees people to commit crime, but it makes criminal attempts upon them easier, less risky, and more rewarding for other offenders. Before an incident, low self-control makes immediately gratifying behavior more attractive, and makes the prospect of victimization appear less certain than it actually is (thus safety less important a consideration). Being less willing to take precautions does not mean that those with low self-control want victimization, but that they will defer defensive action as far as they can into the future—quite possibly, the moment they realize they are in fact the intended target. That is, people with low self-control feel safer because they overestimate their ability to manage a potential offenderin the immediate situation, while discounting the offender’s opportunism and tendency only to act when the odds of success and escape appear favorable. As a result, precautionary behavior seems harder, more tedious, and pointless. Only precautions that are immediately gratifying, like carrying a weapon, have any attraction. During an incident, low self-control makes the target more likely to be injured; it fosters the delusion that fight or flight is realistic when it is not. Afterward, low self-control makes the target less likely to learn from the incident and make appropriate safety-minded changes.

Low self-control is not the only cause of vulnerability, but the concept offers a parsimonious account for the victun-offender correlation. Since low self-control tends to result in decisions that are ultimately dangerous to physical health and future prospects and that are disruptive of relationships with others (e.g., Moffitt et al., 2011), besides being illegal, choice theory thus has no problem predicting that offenders and victims will share the same correlates. Both victims and offenders are more likely to feel no particular closeness to their parents (Hirschi, 1969; Lauritsen et al., 1992; Schreck et al., 2002). Like high rate offenders, repeat victuns are more likely to catch communicable diseases and die prematurely (Pridemore & Berg, 2017). Victims and offenders are both more likely to have criminal friends (Haynie, 2001; Schreck, Fisher, & Miller, 2004). Both victims and offenders tend to spend time engaged in activity with peers away from adult supervision (Lauritsen et al., 1991; Osgood, Wilson, O'Malley, Bachman, & Johnston, 1996). Frequent victims and offenders also do not appear to leant from their previous mistakes, going on to further offending and victimization (Lauritsen & Quinet, 1995; Schreck, Stewart, & Fisher, 2006). Further, since vulnerability and criminality both emerge from low self-control, choice theory views offending and victimization as spuriously correlated. Victimization does not improve or worsen an offender’s judgment (e.g., Schreck, Berg, Ousey, Stewart, & Miller, 2017; Schreck et al., 2006) any more than offending makes one better or worse at avoiding criminal predation. From the perspective of choice theory, placing victimization among the list of explanatory variables of crime is illegitimate.

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