Explaining Chinese Delinquency: Self-Control, Morality, and Criminogenic Exposure

Published date01 April 2022
Date01 April 2022
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2022, Vol. 49, No. 4, April 2022, 570 –592.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/00938548211034840
Article reuse guidelines: sagepub.com/journals-permissions
© 2021 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
Self-Control, Morality, and Criminogenic Exposure
Wayne State University
Tulane University
Guizhou University of Finance and Economics
This study extends the testing of situational action theory (SAT) to a Chinese population, and sheds new light on the direc-
tions of the moderation relationships between self-control and morality, and between crime propensity and criminogenic
exposure on delinquency. Relying on a large, representative sample of middle school students from two areas of Guizhou,
China (N = 2,498), we find that both self-control and morality have significant inhibiting effects on delinquency. Moreover,
self-control has a more profound curbing effect on delinquency among adolescents with higher levels of morality. Meanwhile,
the promoting effect of crime propensity on delinquency decreases when levels of risky exposure increase. When adolescents
have more unsupervised activities and delinquent peers, their crime propensity affects delinquency to a lesser extent. Our
study confirms that individual and situational factors interlock in determining delinquency, and reiterates the value of
empirical testing across cultures to validate and possibly improve general theories of crime.
Keywords: situational action theory; self-control; morality; China; delinquent peers; unsupervised socializing
Generations of criminologists have pinpointed the centrality of an individual–environ-
ment interplay in shaping crime and delinquency (Bernard et al., 2010). Arguably, one
of the most tested and supported individual explanations of crime is Gottfredson and
Hirschi’s (1990) General Theory of Crime, positing that the ability to exercise self-control
is a critical trait of a person’s crime propensity. A recent stream of research based on situa-
tional action theory (SAT, Wikström, 2004) has meaningfully expanded the understanding
of crime propensity by including the dimension of morality, and brought the interaction
between crime inclination and environmental risks back to a full discussion. As a promising
general theory, SAT has gained research momentum in the United Kingdom, and across
AUTHORS’ NOTE: The project was supported by a theoretical innovation grant awarded by the Guizhou
Social Sciences Association (GZLCLH-2019-011). Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed
to Jia Qu, College of Public Administration, Guizhou University of Finance and Economics, Huaxi District,
Guiyang, Guizhou 550025, China; e-mail: 201801070@mail.gufe.edu.cn.
1034840CJBXXX10.1177/00938548211034840Criminal Justice and BehaviorWu et al. / Explaining Delinquency in China
North American and European countries, generating insights into how self-control, moral-
ity, and criminogenic exposure interact in shaping crime (Pauwels et al., 2018). Missing
from this literature, however, is East Asia, an area that has deep-seated cultural and social
differences from Western countries. With strong emphases on individual capacity to self-
discipline, morality, and interdependence between individual and context, China represents
a critical geographic area for testing the generalizability of SAT.
Drawing upon a large, probability sample of middle school students from two areas of
Guizhou, China, this study adds to the SAT literature in important ways. Unlike previous
SAT studies, we distinguish between violent and property delinquencies, as the two differ
in nature and may be associated with varying explanatory factors and mechanisms. We also
take the initiative to simultaneously examine the interaction effects between self-control
and morality, and between crime propensity and risky exposure in a single study. Although
we did not test the third proposition of SAT regarding the interactional effect between deter-
rence and crime propensity in shaping crime, our study has advantageously captured two
key propositions of SAT.
This study also contributes to the literature on the delinquency of Chinese adolescents.
Whereas a number of studies have assessed the role of self-control on delinquency in the
Chinese context (N. W. Cheung & Cheung, 2008; Chui & Chan, 2016; Jiang et al., 2020; Li
et al., 2014; Lu et al., 2013; Pyrooz & Decker, 2013), little attention has been paid to the
matter of morality or the interplay between self-control and morality in determining delin-
quency. Also missing is an evaluation of the potential interaction effects between individual
traits and environmental factors. External factors such as peer delinquency and risky life-
styles may not only influence juvenile delinquency independently from crime propensity
traits such as low self-control (e.g., N. W. Cheung & Cheung, 2008; Jiang et al., 2020), but
also, importantly, condition the effects of crime propensity on delinquency. To fill these
gaps, this study incorporates morality as an indispensable dimension of crime propensity,
and examines the nexus between propensity toward crime, criminogenic exposure, and
delinquency by uncovering potential moderating relationships.
People commit crime often out of a synergy of how well they can control themselves,
how strong their prosocial values are, and how many criminogenic situations they are sub-
ject to (Wikström, 2004). Self-control has been a popular concept in criminological theoriz-
ing and empirical testing (Pratt & Cullen, 2000; Vazsonyi et al., 2017), with low self-control
including such characteristics as being impulsive, insensitive, physical, risk-taking, short-
sighted, and nonverbal (Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990). Morality, different from self-control,
refers to normative values and rules that are socially desirable and culturally transmissible
(Hofmann et al., 2018). Morality regards what is right or wrong, and serves as another
major constraint on delinquent impulsivity. Relatively understudied in criminology, moral-
ity is highlighted in a recent line of research that explores its interaction with self-control in
shaping criminality (e.g., Antonaccio & Tittle, 2008; Wikström & Svensson, 2010).
Dominating this nascent body of research is SAT, positing that morality not only indepen-
dently affects delinquency but also moderates the influence of self-control on delinquency
(Wikström, 2004). Specifically, self-control matters more for individuals who have lower

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