Thursday, August 20, 2009

Preventing crime with self interest?

Rational Choice and CPTED

Practitioners of CPTED rarely talk about the theories beneath their prevention method. Yet theories matter, especially Rational Choice Theory which some describe as the foundation for CPTED. I recently read a New York Times article about how self-interest isn't everything. It reminded me of Rational Choice Theory.

I like the idea that self-interest and personal choice matter when it comes to crime. Yet I do not believe rational choice is the primary way to sustain safer communities. It might help us prevent opportunity crimes like joyriding and burglary with CPTED and situational prevention. After all, better lighting can deter burglars. Locked garages can deter car thieves.

But it takes Herculean effort to stretch rational choice to explain wife battering, racially motivated assaults, or heat-of-the-moment violence. For those crimes we must look elsewhere for answers. Rational choice, and 1st Generation CPTED, has limits.

Why should we care? Why can't we prevent crime with rational choice and self-interest and leave it at that?

In the NY Times Robert Frank says "traditional economic models assume that people are self-interested in the narrow sense." We reap rewards in order to motivate actions. The choices we make are rational in the sense that there is something to gain and we weigh the benefits. Everyone has the right to choose their own future, so the idea goes.

But, Frank points out, there are a few snags.

First, the "right" to a free choice is quite a different matter than self-interest. Rights are legal creations. Self-interest is slave to a much deeper, psychological master. We may all have the right to choose but whether we do so is a matter of everyday real life.

Then there is the sticky problem of actual versus expected consequences. All actions end up in some consequence and people will find self-interest in the most innocuous ways. Consider the panhandler. Choice 1: Give the panhandler coin to stop pestering. But that has a short lifespan and it will not solve root problems like substance abuse and mental illness. Choice 2: Withhold coin believing the panhandler will seek alternatives for more reputable income. But that might involve getting robbed by one of those alternatives – that’s clearly not in your self-interest.

Self-interest believers claim weighing the benefits between #1 and #2 is how we make rational choices. Unfortunately, as with panhandling, we can never know all the facts to make an informed choice. We must select within limits. When that happens, self-interest can get “bounded” by so many limits it becomes irrelevant. (Indeed bounded rationality is in vogue with game theorists),

The fact is, people do things for motives beyond self-interest. Some volunteer in community affairs for little reward. Are altruistic feelings their reward? To make sense of rational choice in crime you must look outside criminology.

Shifting self interest

A good place to look is the work of Gary Becker, who won the 1992 Nobel Prize for upgrading rational choice theory and Albert Hirschman's 1982 book Shifting Involvements. Both claim self-interest is important, but it waxes and wanes. As people get what they want - such as higher standards of consumption - they discover they must work harder to maintain those standards. This creates a cycle of more stuff with higher standards. The cycle continues, increasing stress and decreasing satisfaction. At some point, says Hirschman, there is a tipping point when people become disenchanted with their self-interest motives.

These tipping points create periods of altruistic behavior, volunteerism and social involvement. Some people shift away from self-interest behavior, even if for a short time. Self-interest, it turns out, is perishable with the right conditions.

When do social tipping points occur? Remember the political chaos of the Cold War and President Kennedy's maxim "think not what your country can do for you"? It happened then! Today we face economic chaos - a world-wide recession, millions of layoffs, declining stocks, and failed businesses!

What we need today in troubled neighborhoods isn’t an understanding of how we reduce self-interest, as helpful that might be in the short haul. What we need is an understanding of how to renew interest in civic affairs to get troubled neighborhoods activated over the long haul.