Self-Control and Reckless Behavior

For the past 24 years, due to the emergence of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) theory, self-control has occupied a central role in criminological research on the etiology of individual crime and criminality. This theory has stimulated hundreds of studies from those that see the validity and usefulness of the theory as well as those who find fault in its conceptualization, foundation, and predictions. I fall into the latter camp, and drawing on evidence from life-course theories in sociology as well recent findings from developmental psychology and social neuroscience, my work has pitted the predictions of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s theory with competing ones, such as the strength model of self-control (Baumeister et al. 2007) and the dual systems model of risk taking (e.g., Steinberg 2008). In so doing, I have sought to challenge criminology’s rather narrow view of the role of self-control in crime causation, going beyond Gottfredson and Hirschi to models that are more consistent with extant facts, especially those indicating the continuing relevance of social influences on individual’s lives.

My first test of self-control theory examined Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) predictions about the stability of self-control after early childhood and the irrelevance of social factors, such as parenting, peers, and life events, in crime causation after these formative years. Consistent with a social schematic view of crime and psychological research on self-control, this work indicated that self-control is not stable after early childhood; social factors influence crime in adolescence, and changes in support, bonding, and peer relationship produce changes in self-control in expected ways. This study, which appeared in Criminology, was one of the first to examine the stability of self-control and introduce the “strength model of self-control” (e.g., Baumeister et al. 2007) from psychology into the criminological lexicon (Burt, Simons, Simons 2006).

My work has also focused on unpacking the conceptualization and operationalization of self-control in the general theory of crime, which I believe has hampered research on self-control. In particular, I have concentrated on disentangling two distinct personality constructs often conflated in measures of self-control: impulsivity and sensation seeking. Hundreds of studies in personality psychology as well as the dominant models of personality indicate that these two “elements of self-control” are actually separate traits. Moreover, self-control is proposed to be an inhibiting factor, while sensation seeking is widely agreed to be a motivational factor, propelling people towards novel and especially risky behaviors. With this evidence in hand, in a recent paper, I examined whether self-control, sans motivational factors, and sensation seeking independently predicted offending. In addition, I proposed that for individuals high in sensation seeking, self-control, defined by Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) as the tendency to consider the potential long-term consequences of actions at the point of decision making, may not actually inhibit criminal behaviors because the process of taking risks is itself a source of pleasure. The findings from this study, published in Criminal Justice and Behavior (Burt & Simons, 2013), are consistent with these expectations showing that self-control and sensation seeking independently predict offending and interact, such that among those high in sensation seeking, self-control is not crime inhibiting.

Most recently, my interests in the conceptualization/measurement and stability of self-control are combined in an investigation of the stability of two ‘elements of self-control’: sensation seeking and impulsivity. In this study, my coauthors and I draw upon advances in developmental psychology and neuroscience, especially as instantiated in the dual systems model of risk taking (Steinberg 2008), to examine developmental trajectories of these distinct elements of self-control. Using a variety of longitudinal models, we show that these different traits develop differently and independently predict crime over a sixteen-year period from late childhood to early adulthood (Burt, Sweeten, & Simons 2014, Criminology).

In current and future work, I am expanding on these findings in a number of ways. For example, we are currently exploring the effects of social factors on changes in sensation seeking and impulsivity in emerging adulthood, informed in part by theories of biological susceptibility to environmental influences (Burt, Lei, & Hannula). In addition, we are examining predictors of developmental trajectories of impulsivity and sensation seeking, drawing on insights from the social schematic theory (Burt & Hannula, in progress).