Exploring Why Motivation, Context, and Violent Offending

In Chapter 2, we discussed developmental processes and factors that could foster a propensity for violence. Here we provide our reasoning for choosing three external factors—poverty, community, and substance use—as worthy of evaluation in the differential etiology of violence. First, we review various ways that scholars have conceptualized the motivation to commit a criminal act and how poverty might be associated with violence. We then segue to neighborhood contextual factors likely to influence violence. Finally, we introduce the literature on drugs and crime, which can be said to set the “context” for decision making which may result in violent crime.


Criminal motivation is an understudied phenomenon in the field of criminology. While Jacobs and Wright (1999) proffer that “Motivation is the central, yet arguably the most assumed, causal variable in the etiology of criminal behavior” (p. 149), it is also the case that “... there is no general agreement about the meaning of criminal motivation and ... there are no standard measures. .” (Tittle & Botchkovar, 2005, p. 323). Theories which assume that humans are inherently deviant or that deviance has its own allure, are referred to, colloquially, as “pull” theories. “Push” theories, on the other hand, assume that crime is widely seen as a bad thing and that some kind of negative stimulus must cause individuals to behave in such a bad way. Most of these theories, however, do not explicitly connect their proposed reasons for crime to the psychological process of motivation: the “why” The most obvious contender for a “motivational” theory of crime is strain theory. Classical strain theory suggests that society provides a set of accepted goals and a set of accepted means for achieving them (Merton, 1938). Those without means for attaining their goals are put into a state of “strain,” which can result in criminal behavior. In an expansion of strain theory, Agnew (1992) offered other forms of strain such as the introduction of negative stimuli, the removal of positively valued stimuli, and failure to achieve positively valued goals. These theories are the only widely-cited criminological theories that emphasize that offenders have more reasons to commit crime than non-offenders. In keeping with this interpretation, a recent search in Criminal Justice Abstracts for titles of articles that contain the word “motivation” suggests that, when criminologists use the term motivation, which is not often, it is viewed as largely synonymous with factors such as economic adversity and unemployment (Cook & Watson, 2014; Kleck & Chiricos, 2002; Nguyen & McGloin, 2013). For example, Jacobs and Wright (1999) attempted to directly understand motivation for robbery. They concluded that the need for fast cash was the most direct motivational cause.

Strain theories are also appealing to us because they include an implicit emotional component. They recognize that possessing insufficient money to achieve one’s goals is frustrating. Frustration can spark anger, and anger is sometimes a key ingredient in crime (Agnew, 1992).

Vila’s (1994) general paradigm provides a useful way of seeing the role of motivation in the bigger picture of criminal behavior. In Vila’s model, motivation intermediates between criminal propensity (Savage & Vila, 2003) and the commission of the crime. A person who has low criminal propensity might still commit crime because he or she needs money very badly or is very angry (i.e., has “motivation”). Similarly, even those high in criminal propensity do not commit crime all the time; they need a reason. (Vila’s model also includes an opportunity component which stands between motivation and offending; the full model, including paths representing policy intervention, is reprinted in Chapter 13.)

We emphasize that certain features of the motivational system may influence the strength of the “push” toward violent behavior. In an early formulation of human motivation, Maslow (1943) insisted that to understand motivation, we must focus on basic goals rather than superficial ones. The ultimate motivators of human beings are evolutionarily-influenced and have the potential for enormous impact (Heckhausen, 2000; Savage & Kanazawa, 2004). In Forbes’s (2011) review of the literature over the past century, he lists nine factors that motivate human actions, including security; nurturance; achievement; and esteem (in addition to empowerment, belonging, identity, engagement and mastery).

According to Maslow, physiological needs were “prepotent,” but needs for safety, love, and esteem are highly-prized as well. Maslow (1943) argued that “All people in our society (with a few pathological exceptions) have a need or desire for a stable, firmly based, (usually) high evaluation of themselves, for self-respect, or self-esteem, and for the esteem of others” (p. 381). He classified these needs into two subsidiary sets: first, the desire for strength, achievement, adequacy, confidence to face the world, independence and freedom; and second, the desire for reputation, prestige, recognition, attention, importance, or appreciation.

The variety of motivators seen in the interdisciplinary literature on motivation is not found in the empirical literature in criminology. Instead, the quantitative literature is fairly narrowly focused on economic factors, and the qualitative literature emphasizes threats to esteem. Money and “resources” are not listed on a hierarchy of needs but given their necessity in fulfilling basic needs for food, shelter and safety, and their ability in some cultures to garner “esteem" it is no great leap to recognize that a lack of money is a strong potential motivator for violence. It is not hard to see how poverty and living in areas of concentrated disadvantage would create obstacles for fulfilling the fundamental needs outlined by Maslow.

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