Self-Control Theory: Examples, Weaknesses & View of Crime

self control theory examples definition strengths and weaknesses

The self-control theory of crime proposes that criminal behavior is influenced by an individual’s self-control.

According to the theory, people are not inherently criminally-minded, and that how they were parented before the age of ten has a critical effect on their ability to control how they conduct themselves in society.

It suggests that a person’s level of self-control is directly correlated to whether or not they will be prone to criminality.

Self-Control Theory of Crime Definition

The self-control theory dictates that:

“…people with low self-control remain rational and hedonistic, but are myopic; their criminal and analogous actions reflect nothing more than a lack of foresight or consideration of delayed consequences.”

(Burt, 2020, p. 45)

Popularized by Social Criminologist Travis Hirschi and Michael Gottfredson, self-control theory states that people with higher self-control typically consider the full consequences of their actions.

These people therefore recognize that committing a crime comes with extreme risk and are deterred from committing the crime because they understand the consequences.

On the other hand:

“…people with low self-control are people inclined to follow momentary impulse without consideration of the long-term costs of such behavior.”

(Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990, p.191)

Self-control is the key variable for individuals that decides whether or not they will commit a crime. Gottfredson & Hirschi (1990) conclude that:

“…people who lack self-control will tend to be impulsive, insensitive, physical (as opposed to mental), risk-taking, shortsighted, and nonverbal, and they will tend therefore to engage in criminal and analogous acts.”

(p. 90)

Self-Control Theory Strengths and Weaknesses

Provides a comprehensive explanation of criminal behaviorAssumes a relatively stable and unchanging level of self-control throughout life (Burt, 2020)
Emphasizes the importance of childhood experiences and socialization in the development of self-control (Pratt & Cullen, 2000)Limited empirical evidence supporting the theory (Burt, Simons & Simons, 2006)
Offers practical implications for crime prevention and intervention (Nagin & Pogarsky, 2001)Overemphasizes individual responsibility and downplays the influence of structural and societal factors (Blomberg et al., 2016)
Consistent with other criminological theories that emphasize the importance of early childhood experiences and socialization (Tittle, Ward & Grasmick, 2003)Fails to explain the individual and group variation in criminal behavior (Piquero, Jennings & Farrington, 2010)
Explains both minor and serious forms of criminal behavior (Longshore, Rand & Stein, 1996)Does not address the potential for situational factors to override individual self-control (Monahan et al., 2009)

A Feminist Critique of Self-Control Theory

A specific criticism of self-control theory regards gender: “a false gender-neutrality when gender specificity is appropriate, and implicitly blames woman-dominated child-care for contemporary criminal behavior” (Miller & Burack, 1993, p.115).

Miller & Burack (1993) emphasize that:

“Often, general social theories are developed in the absence of a consideration of differences among individuals. The elimination of social, psycho- logical, political, economic, and historical difference serves to reinforce dominant cultural values and ideological beliefs, erasing the divergent experiences of women and members of minority groups.

(p. 116)

They attempt to dismantle the self-control theory by showing that the role of gender in criminality is often ignored, or not properly address in many social theories.

By addressing the roles (perceived roles) of men and women in society through a feminist analysis, Miller & Burack (1993) point out that both Gottfredson and Hirschi “manipulated or ignored” gender roles in the formulation of their theory.

They accuse Gottfredson and Hirschi of intentional “linguistic gender neutrality”, andscrupulous avoidance of gender specific terms in discussing, for example, parenting and victimization” (pp. 117-118).

Self-Control Examples

  1. During early childhood, parents can alter discipline methods and education strategies to enhance self-control in their child.
  2. Parents or guardians teach the child better patterns of eating so that they are physically and mentally healthier.
  3. Being taught to resist the urge to steal something if you can’t afford to buy it, even if you really want it.
  4. Learning to resist the urge for instant gratification, to have patience, and wait.
  5. Being taught what is right and wrong in order to act accordingly in society.
  6. Learning not to do something in excess, whether it be eating too much chocolate cake, watching television, etc.
  7. Receiving lessons on basic financial responsibility, learning to be more conscious of the money that you spend and where you spend it.
  8. The ability to cut down on social media uses due to the expansive cons of social media, such as its addictiveness.
  9. Children learning self-esteem from their parent or guardian.
  10. Children learning interpersonal communication skills and how to be respectful to others.

Self-Control in Academic Research

1. Raising Children with Self-Control

Case Study: During early childhood, parents can alter discipline methods education strategies to enhance self-control in their child.

While “spanking” or hitting a child as a means of discipline is certainly not an uncommon method for different parents from different cultures in the world, it could have negative ramifications for when a child gets older.

Some researchers liken it to trauma, while other social scientists have concluded that it does not adequately reinforce good behavior; in fact, more often than not, the opposite is a probable outcome.

As Wiggers & Paas (2022) explain,

Children observe and imitate the behaviors of those around them, especially those they consider to be role models.”

(p. 2)

For adults and small children, delaying gratification for something you want can be a major psychological challenge.

For example, if given the choice to eat something delicious now, or wait until tomorrow, a majority of people would succumb to temptation and probably choose to eat as soon as possible.

This could also be the case for financial profits, a new item a person wants to purchase with a credit card, or any other urge that can be immediately satisfied in that specific moment.

2. The Marshmallow Project

Case Study: Mischel & Grusec (1967) conducted a study in Trinidad with 206 children. They measured how delay of gratification and how that could relate to time perception, achievement, and social responsibility.

They found that children had a preference for immediate aversive stimulation;  similar results were also found with in future studies with students, where participants were offered smaller rewards immediately, versus delayed and larger rewards.

Watts et al. (2018) explains that:

“…self-control—typically understood to be an umbrella construct that includes gratification delay but also impulsivity, conscientiousness, self-regulation, and executive function—averaged across early and middle childhood, predicted outcomes across a host of adult domains”

(para. 2)

Mischel (2014) 1972 benchmark Stanford “marshmallow study” is a perfect example to explain this phenomenon. In this study, delayed gratification experiments were tested with children.

It involved a series of trials that questioned whether a child would eat a marsh mellow now, or wait for a period of time to receive more marshmallows as a reward their patience.

3. Social Media Addiction and Self-Control

Case Study: Parents being aware of internet addiction, and children looking at social media or the phone for many hours each day.

In today’s day and age, internet addiction has been a topic of concern for many parents. Some parents monitor their children’s screen time, make sure they are not playing too many video games, and putting time and content restrictions on the devices that they use.

Li et al. (2021) characterizes internet addiction as an:

“…impulse-control disorder that does not involve an intoxicant, which has been characterized by poorly-controlled preoccupations, urges, or behaviors regarding Internet access that lead to impairment or distress.”

(para. 1)

Using different variables in their study Li et al. (2021) breaks down the variables that may affect addiction; gender, culture, age, and year. His results concluded that:

“…self-control was negatively linked to Internet addiction. Specifically, there was a positive link between impulsivity and Internet addiction, while there was a negative link between restraint and Internet addiction.”

(para 17-18)

He suggests that early preventative measures can be taken (to moderate the frequency that a child accesses the internet) to help decrease the like-hood of addiction in the future.

They also pose questions to what role a parent can play in guiding their children to have more self-control in their use of technology.


Blomberg, T. G., Brancale, J. M., Beaver, K. M., & Bales, W. D. (Eds.). (2016). Advancing criminology and criminal justice policy (pp. 7-9). New York: Routledge.

Burt C. H. (2020). Self-Control and Crime: Beyond Gottfredson and Hirschi’s Theory. Annual review of criminology, 3(1), 43–73.

Burt, C. (2020). Self-Control and crime: Beyond Gottfredson and Hirschi’s theory. Annu Rev Criminol, 3(1), 43–73.

Burt, C. H., Simons, R. L., & Simons, L. G. (2006). A longitudinal test of the effects of parenting and the stability of self‐control: negative evidence for the general theory of crime. Criminology44(2), 353-396.

Gottfredson MR, & Hirschi T. (1990). A General Theory of Crime. Stanford, CA: Stanf. Univ. Press

Li, S., Ren, P., Chiu, M. M., Wang, C., & Lei, H. (2021). The Relationship Between Self-Control and Internet Addiction Among Students: A Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 12.  

Longshore, D., Rand, S. T., & Stein, J. A. (1996). Self‐control in a criminal sample: An examination of construct validityCriminology34(2), 209-228.

Miller, S. L., & Burack, C. (1993). A Critique of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s General Theory of Crime. Women & Criminal Justice, 4(2), 115-134.

Mischel W. (2014). The marshmallow test: Why self-control is the engine of success. New York, NY: Little, Brown.

Mischel, W., & Grusec, J. (1967). Waiting for rewards and punishments: Effects of time and probability on choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 5(1), 24–31

Monahan, K. C., Steinberg, L., Cauffman, E., & Mulvey, E. P. (2009). Trajectories of antisocial behavior and psychosocial maturity from adolescence to young adulthood. Developmental psychology45(6), 1654.

Nagin, D. S., & Pogarsky, G. (2001). Integrating celerity, impulsivity, and extralegal sanction threats into a model of general deterrence: Theory and evidence. Criminology39(4), 865-892.

Piquero, A. R., Jennings, W. G., & Farrington, D. P. (2010). On the malleability of self‐control: Theoretical and policy implications regarding a general theory of crime. Justice Quarterly27(6), 803-834.

Pratt, T. C., & Cullen, F. T. (2000). The empirical status of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s general theory of crime: A meta‐analysis. Criminology38(3), 931-964.

Tittle, C. R., Ward, D. A., & Grasmick, H. G. (2003). Self-control and crime/deviance: Cognitive vs. behavioral measures. Journal of Quantitative Criminology19, 333-365.

Watts, T. W., Duncan, G. J., & Quan, H. (2018). Revisiting the Marshmallow Test: A Conceptual Replication Investigating Links Between Early Delay of Gratification and Later Outcomes. Psychological Science, 29(7), 1159– 1177.

Wiggers, M., & Paas, F. (2022). Harsh Physical Discipline and Externalizing Behaviors in Children: A Systematic Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(21), 14385.


Gregory Paul C. (MA)

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Gregory Paul C. is a licensed social studies educator, and has been teaching the social sciences in some capacity for 13 years. He currently works at university in an international liberal arts department teaching cross-cultural studies in the Chuugoku Region of Japan. Additionally, he manages semester study abroad programs for Japanese students, and prepares them for the challenges they may face living in various countries short term.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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