Are criminals rational decision-makers or driven by uncontrolled emotional and psychological drives

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Some individuals commit crimes because they experience intense emotions and believe that committing a crime would assist ease their suffering or make them joyous. Some individuals commit heinous crimes due to psychological disorders that motivate them to do so. Their reasoning may be distorted when they decide to do the crime, but when they decide to commit the same crime, they feel they are acting rationally. Sometimes, criminals are reasonable decision-makers because they anticipate their actions with tact. They choose how they must conduct a crime, when they must commit a crime, and why they must do a crime.

There are several theories that strive to explain whether criminal actions are intentional or the result of circumstances beyond the control of the offender; these ideas explain the elements that lead to the criminal act.

Theories in Practice

Classicist criminology is based upon the idea that individuals commit crimes because they are unaware of the repercussions of their acts. Jeremy Bentham was a key influential figure in classicist criminology, and he believed that knowing the consequences of committing a crime would act as a deterrent to ensure that rational members of society would not commit it – he stated that criminality resulted from a person’s upbringing rather than being congenital, that people are rational beings who seek pleasure while avoiding pain, and that criminals lack the self-control to refrain from committing crimes. This is predicated on the assumption that humans are reasonable and consider the repercussions of their actions prior to taking action. When applied to committing a crime, a person must compare the advantages of the crime, such as monetary gain, against the possible penalty; if the latter outweighs the former, a reasonable choice is made not to engage in criminal activity.

Rational choice is, however, based upon numerous assumptions – The first is that the perpetrator identifies as a person, which is known as “individualism.” The second argument is that criminals must maximise their aims, and the last argument is that they are self-motivated. Emotion plays a significant part in the rational choice theory; the emotional state of an individual is a crucial determinant of rational behaviour. In the process of logical decision-making, the predicted emotional repercussions of illegal behaviour were one of the factors considered. The possible emotional costs connected with criminal actions might reduce the probability of criminal behaviour. Emotions play a crucial role in the psychological process that motivates people to pursue their aspirations. Positivist criminology challenges the assumption that crime is a logical act based on an individual’s assessment of gain, which is a key obstacle for classicist criminology.

Positivist criminology contends that a criminal’s acts are not driven by rational choice but rather by uncontrollable forces; hence, therapy rather than punishment is the appropriate reaction to crime. Positive criminology is based on the results of scientific studies, such as biology, sociology, and psychology. Lombroso proposed that the ‘criminal man’s conduct is a product of their biological makeup. He said that criminals are persons who have not developed at the same pace as non-criminal creatures.

The Rational Choice Theory

In criminology, rational choice theory adheres to the utilitarian concept that people are rational agents who consider means and goals, costs and benefits in order to make logical decisions. This strategy was developed by Cornish and Clarke to facilitate situational crime prevention planning.

The rational choice theory of Derek Cornish and Ronald Clarke differentiates between two sorts of decision making: criminal involvement choices and criminal event decisions. Criminal participation choices entail whether or not to commit a crime, as opposed to choosing noncriminal options to meet needs and wants.

Jeremy Bentham, using the classical school of criminology and the utilitarian theoretical framework, discusses the notion of calculus of pleasure or hedonistic calculus. According to the hedonistic calculus, individuals will measure the potential pleasures of committing the crime against the potential pain of the penalty and behave accordingly. Central points can be described as follows –

  • Individuals (freely) select both conforming and deviant conduct depending on their reasonable calculations.
  • Choice may be regulated by the perception and cognition of the possible pain or punishment that will follow an act perceived to violate the communal good, the social contract.
  • The primary factors in determining a law’s power to govern human conduct are the swiftness, harshness, and certainty of punishment.

As an example, consider Cornish and Clarke’s explanation of burglary in a middle-class neighbourhood. Two burglars conspire to break into a house during the night when the family is away on vacation. The robbers made a choice by planning and committing the burglary after assessing the means and benefits and deciding to break the law despite the potential consequences of being caught.

The rational choice theory implies that criminals are reasonable in their decision-making and that the rewards of committing the crime exceed the penalty, notwithstanding the consequences.


There is scant empirical evidence of purely rational decision making. The rational choice theory fails to explain crime beyond economic considerations in its fundamental form.

A logical cost-benefit analysis is pointless as long as it is unclear what is being calculated or as long as it is assumed that each person calculates different benefit and cost elements.

Individual choices are often made without relevant knowledge, without thorough evaluation of facts, out of habit, or under the influence of others, as observed by critics of rational choice. They determined that the intricacies of organisational life pose a significant challenge to the rational actor model’s basic assumptions. The ‘rational choice’ method must be critiqued for only considering the existence of a rationally motivated criminal. In this method, the possibility to conduct a crime, such as the presence of a victim, is not stated.

Despite this criticism, rational choice theory continues to play an essential role in criminology since it focuses on situational elements that may impact specific criminal occurrences.


Based on the aforementioned beliefs, it may be stated that criminals are rational decision-makers who are driven by uncontrolled psychological and emotional forces. From a policy standpoint, the immediate societal advantages of rational choice theory and scenario crime prevention may seem enticing, but this fundamental criminological approach has yet to be thoroughly examined.

It depends on the offender and the offence. Most crimes seem to be driven by uncontrolled psychological and emotional forces, but a thorough analysis may reveal that, as in the case of serial killers, they are rational.


Kamlesh Vishnoi

Kamlesh is a final year honours student of criminal law at National Law University, Jodhpur. He can be reached at

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