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Uncertainty and heuristics in offender decision-making: Deviations from rational choice

NCJ Number
Journal of Criminal Justice Volume: 81 Dated: July–August 2022
Date Published
July 2022

This paper explores offender decision-making and concludes that rational choice and expected utility theories do not adequately explain offender decision-making.


This study finds that rational choice and expected utility theories do not adequately explain offender decision-making, particularly when drug addiction is involved. Effective crime prevention and control strategies require a more comprehensive understanding of how offenders evaluate costs and benefits, and make situational offending decisions. Using perspectives from prospect theory and behavioral economics, the authors explore examples of offender decision-making that appear inconsistent with rational choice and expected utility theories. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 200 adult offenders with three or more convictions for predatory property or street crime (theft, burglary, and/or robbery). Subjects were asked to describe situations in which they had encountered crime prevention or control measures, and their relevant responses. Specific questions focused on how offenders assessed the effort, risk, and reward involved. Thematic analysis was employed to identify deviations from rational choice perspectives. Offenders, particularly abusers of drugs and/or alcohol, often held distorted perceptions of effort, risk, and reward. Cognitive biases and heuristics influenced logic and many offenders were guided by their intuition, even to the point of superstition. Some had dual motivations (“needs” and “wants”) that resulted in a nonlinear relationship between value and utility. (Published Abstract Provided)

Date Published: July 1, 2022