How the Rational Choice Theory Can Be Applied


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Criminology is such a broad field of study. It’s important to note that the study of criminology stands based on understanding the justice system and crime, why individuals commit crimes, and how it relates to human behaviors. Criminologists are sociologist that places their efforts on researching, studies (individual and social), and analyze the behaviors to fully examine differences between normal and deviant behaviors. Many criminologists have experimented with theories for what they think can explain criminal behavior and why it occurs. According to Cesare Beccaria in 1794, theories such as biological determinism was used to explain types of criminal behaviors.

Now, advanced framework has exploded with updated concepts proving that the prior theories were not so much correct. Criminologist have come up with theories, including rational choice, biological, strain, social disorganization, etc., in an attempt to further comprehend these theories.

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Typically, anyone can apply one (or more) types of theories to real-life events, movies, or what’s shown on TV. I have applied rational choice theory to the movie ‘Win It All’, starring Jake Johnson, a gambler who agrees to help stash a duffel bag for an acquaintance who is being sent to prison. Criminologists now maintain that individuals’ decisions is based on rational calculations that will result in outcomes in their own best interests. I will explain different examples and scenarios where rational choice theory is applied in the film, but first let’s analyze what rational choice theory really is.

Positivist believed in the theory of biological determinism, which meant that people do not freely pick their own behaviors rather their behaviors are a reflection of there physical traits, biological attributes, genetics, and brain size .Turns out, throughout the years the theory has evolved, and now rational choices are the study of social interactions and human life. Social interactions are considered to be a type of exchange, where people speak to one another if the attempted gain outweighs the costs. Individuals will make choices upon their individual preferences where they seek to maximize gain and minimize loss. When people tend to socially interact with certain individuals, they later may be influenced in the next set of decisions that they make.

Jeremy Bentham applied the concept that if a certain pleasure outweighs the pain of a certain circumstance, normally the individual will engage in the act. In this case the individuals would have painted a chart in their own mind with a list of the pros and the cons and then execute according to what is most beneficial .Beccaria on the other hand, believed that in order for the severity of punishment to be worth it. The individual would have to really consider that the punishment outweighs the crime they plan to engage in. Although these acts are still being practiced in modern times, it does not mean that each crime is for certain the same. There are plenty of factors that fall into place when a judge and jury review crime cases.

An individual typically has different preferences, which is why the thought process needs to occur so the outcome can be established. Depending on the individual there are specific preferences, the individual may have enough information to assume and ensure that their rational choice will be a gain versus a loss, there’s no preference; at a restaurant individual asks for a Coke, but they only offer Pepsi so the individual will settle. These are examples of how preferences play a role in how individuals will make decisions in an instant and how important or unimportant it may be for them.

In addition, informal and formal deterrence is the concept discussed by both Beccaria and Bentham. Formal deterrence is that whatever the individual decides to do the punishment is reasonable and certain, while informal deterrence is individuals do not want to risk the disapproval of friends, family, or both . This symptom in itself helps with how an individual also makes a rational choice, some individuals care about how they are perceived and talked about which will cause them to make a better choice even if it were not their initial choice. Individuals who care about being frowned upon by friends or family feel embarrassment or shame if they make irrational decisions which is why we need family and friends to shape perspectives and place us on the right track. This also means that the people these individuals are afraid to let down have very good influences. Others who do not care will just consider what the outcome or punishments will be in their decision and go based off that. This brings up the topic of general and specific deterrence.

According to Beccaria’s method, general deterrence focuses more on preventing and making the public at large rethink about breaking the law. For example, if a robbery was occurring more frequent than normal its most likely law policies will charge to be stricter to try and prevent individuals from robbing as their sentences might not be beneficial. Specific deterrence focuses on correcting and discipline the individual who committed the crime, in particular those who refunds because they would know that any future crimes committed the harsher the sentences imposed. In other words, it’s like disciplining a child, when disciplining an offender; “You did this again, so this time your punishment will be harsher or different in an attempt to convince you that you can’t keep doing this”, with the implicit threat that a further offence will result in harsher punishments. Although the film did not have much punishment, it did have stressful and frustrating tensions that if convicted could have led to certain charges.

In the film, there are a few scenes where rational choice theory can be applied. Eddie Garrett (Jake Johnson) is the perfect example of a motivated individual that calculates the costs and benefits of temptation, economical/financial need, social and romantic intent, and personal profit when deciding what to do. His ultimate goal is to maximize his gains and minimizing his losses. Eddie Garrett, young mid late 30’s individual is startled when arriving at his home to find an old acquaintance who is seeking for a favor. The acquaintance is being sent to prison for about 8 months. He asked Eddie if he would take care of his duffel bag and not to worry about the contents within it. The acquaintance indicated that if everything in the bag was left in the same condition, he would reward Eddie with $10,000 dollars as soon as he was released. In motion, there are scenes where difficult and rational decisions are made on Eddies behalf.

Eddie takes on the task, and finds he is unable to resist his urges about not knowing what is inside this black duffel bag. Rational choice: Eddie is tempted to know what is in the bag. Thought process: Put the bag away in a secure spot, not look at it for the full 8 months, and easily secure $10,000 or look inside and risk not getting the lump sum of money at the end. Decision: Curiosity killed the cat as they say, Eddie looked in the bag. To his surprise, he found hundreds of thousands of dollars. Benefit: Eddies is currently facing economical/financial struggles, in turn seeing huge sums of money that would be able to help financially stabilize himself, but decided it would be best to see his addiction recovery courses to try and hold off. To make it simple, the presence of this duffel bag in Eddy’s home without knowing what was in it was tempting enough to make him want to look regardless of the consequences.

Eddie is advised by his sponsor Gene, to not touch the money, to put it in a secure spot, and wait until the prisoner picks it up. Eddies rational choice is to take $500 from the bag and gamble it, he wins more money. He then pays back the $500. Eddies thought process after the win is that he feels great, with the money he has doubled he invites his friends out to a local bar and gambles again where he loses all his profit. Eddie’s decision leads to temptation, where he keeps gambling because he hopes he will hit a proper gain that will still put him above the amount he’s already taken. Eddie now owes the bag over -$25,000.

Eddies receives a phone call from the acquaintance indicating he will be getting out of prison sooner than expected. Eddie now has a short time span to win all the money he has used back. Eddie considers fleeing from home to move to a different state with the rest of the money because he is afraid of what the prisoner will do when he finds out the money has been touched. Eddie is outweighing the pros and cons of his situation because he knows he is in the wrong. Eddie decides to gamble whatever was left in the bag instead to try for another shot to win all the money back and more. Eddie has accomplished just that, winning the whole game, putting all the money back into the duffel bag and closing out that stressful chapter of his life. In this Eddie has taken a risk regardless of the really bad consequences he could have faced.

Overall, the scenes I mentioned above are not the only examples to consider, there are many different theory’s that can be used throughout the film. These particular scenes were great interpretations of how the rational choice theory was and can be applied. The scenes show how just one individual can be rational, calculated, even a potential criminal, who would engage in crime or gamble certain situations if they could get away with it. Rational choice theory is ultimately a sense of free will and how individuals will weigh the pros and cons before a crime is committed. Garrett had quick spurs of internal decision, making it all comes down to different elements that actually play out in most people’s minds. What can be taken away from this theory is that every single individual has the potential of being a criminal, that will consider how to calculate a decision, how judgments can be uncertain, decisions based on quick benefits, and the intentions of how a scenario might play out is already thought of.

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