Gottfredson and Hirschi's Low Self-Control Theory; or why kids feed lizards to crocodiles
By Bradley Wright
One of the better known criminological theories of recent decades is Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) low self-control theory. This theory holds that children develop levels of self-control by about ages seven or eight, and these levels remain relatively stable the rest of their lives. Children with low levels of self-control end up being more prone to crime, and their criminal propensity continues into later life.
Low self-control manifests in a variety of ways. People with low self-control are unable to delay gratification, for they are focused on the present. They want it now! As a result, low self-control people act impulsively—without much thought and based on what they are feeling at the moment. This makes them risk takers; if we don’t consider the consequences of our actions, we’re willing to try lots more behaviors—even if they are potentially damaging to us. Finally, low self-control people are focused on themselves rather than others, making them insensitive to other people. Empathy isn’t a big deal for them.
It’s easy to see how low self-control would lead to criminal behavior. Crime usually involves a desire for immediate gratification, like taking what you want. It can also be impulsive, happening on the spur of the moment without any planning. Given the possible negative consequences of crime, it involves taking risks. It also often creates victims, so criminal behavior can require indifference toward other peoples’ well-being.
Where does low self-control come from? According to Gottfredson and Hirschi, it’s the product of ineffective parenting. This happens in families where there is weak attachment between parent and child and in families where parents fail to recognize and correct their children’s wrong behavior.
Recently, a story came out of Australia about a seven-year-old boy that we could probably crown the king (or maybe prince) of low self-control. This boy, and his family, lives near the Alice Springs Reptile Center, located in the outback of Australia. Early one morning, this boy snuck into the Reptile Center and started killing animals. He bludgeoned some of the smaller lizards to death, and climbed over fence to feed others to an eleven-foot-long salt water crocodile. By the time he finished, the boy had killed thirteen animals worth $5,500.
Here’s a video of the event from the zoo’s security cameras:
This behavior fits perfectly with low self-control theory. The kid was only seven-years-old, suggesting that this type of behavior starts very early. He acted without any sense of consequence for his behavior; in fact, security cameras showed him smiling as he killed the animals. He clearly showed no sense of empathy for the animals or the zoo keepers, and he took a lot of risks. Not only did he sneak past the security system, but he also climbed a fence to get a closer look at the crocodile, in the process endangering himself.
The boy’s behavior also suggests that his parents are particularly ineffective. Most parents would not enable their child disappear for such an extended period without realizing it. Also, it turns out that several years earlier, this boy’s brother had vandalized the zoo as well (though somewhat less dramatically). This suggests that his parents were not able to appropriately deter this behavior. In suggesting a more appropriate parenting style, the center director said that “In my day he'd [the boy] get a big boot up the arse.”
According to low self-control theory, this boy would be expected to continue such low self-control behavior into adolescence then into adulthood, and he would move on from harming animals to harming people. Hopefully he won’t be feeding people to crocodiles, but self-control theory would predict a lengthy criminal record for him eventually.
As a side note, while Gottfredson and Hirschi, both sociologists, popularized this approach to criminal behavior, psychologists have been studying developing similar theories for many years before self-control theory. Impulsivity, immediate gratification, risk-taking are well-established concepts in psychological accounts of crime and deviance.
Surprisingly, Gottfredson and Hirschi did not review this literature. As such, their “discovery” of low self-control is a lot like Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. Certainly he was the first European to find the Americas (except for maybe the Vikings), but there was already plenty of people here when he arrived. Likewise, Gottfredson and Hirschi didn’t invent a self-control explanation for crime, but they certainly introduced it to a broader audience. Because of them, we have a better understanding of why boys feed lizards to crocodiles in Australia.