The Interaction Between Self-Control and Perceived Sanction Risk: An Analysis From the Viewpoint of Different Theories

DOI10.1177/0734016819876347
Published date01 March 2020
Date01 March 2020
Subject MatterArticles
CJR876347 104..128 Article
Criminal Justice Review
2020, Vol. 45(1) 104-128
The Interaction Between
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DOI: 10.1177/0734016819876347
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Sanction Risk: An Analysis
From the Viewpoint
of Different Theories
Helmut Hirtenlehner1
Abstract
The present article studies the interplay of self-control and perceived sanction risk in crime
causation. Several hypotheses are formulated. The General Theory of Crime suggests that sanction
certainty effects are greater for individuals of high self-control. Their inability to devote thought to
the negative long-term consequences of their behavior renders persons characterized by low self-
control immune to the risk of formal punishment. From Situational Action Theory (SAT), it follows that
sanction certainty effects are larger for persons with low self-control ability. Individuals with a poor
capacity for self-control will more often feel tempted to engage in criminal behavior, which brings
perceived sanction risk into play as a potential deterrent. The theory’s emphasis on the moral filter
as a determinant of the nature of the perceived action alternatives implies additionally that the self-
control/deterrence interaction may be stronger for those holding weak law-consistent moral beliefs.
The various hypotheses are tested using longitudinal data from the British Peterborough Adolescent
and Young Adult Development Study. Results provide more support for the propositions derived
from SAT. An individual’s level of self-control conditions the impact of perceived sanction risk, with
sanction certainty estimates being most influential among adolescents of low self-control. There is
also some indication of a three-way interaction according to which the observed interplay of self-
control and deterrence is most pronounced among persons characterized by weak morality.
Keywords
deterrence, self-control, morality, Situational Action Theory, General Theory of Crime, differential
deterrability
1 Center for Criminology, Johannes Kepler University Linz, Austria
Corresponding Author:
Helmut Hirtenlehner, Center for Criminology, Johannes Kepler University Linz, Altenberger Strasse 69, A-4040 Linz, Austria.
Email: helmut.hirtenlehner@jku.at

Hirtenlehner
105
Introduction: Self-Control and Deterrence
Since the emergence of criminology as a scientific discipline, theorizing and research on criminal
deterrence have ranked prominently within the field. Deterrence theory represents a product of the
classical school of criminology (Beccaria, 1764/1987; Bentham, 1789/1970). It posits that actual or
threatened legal sanctions prevent crime by creating fear of punishment. This fear is thought to
depend on the certainty, severity, and celerity of formal sanctions. If penalties are too uncertain, too
lenient, or too late, fear of sanctions does not evolve and individuals are free to exploit the pleasures
of criminal conduct. Underlying is the assumption of an at least somewhat rational actor: All people
calculate the costs and gains of the action alternatives they perceive, all people dislike being
punished, and all people choose behaviors whose benefits outweigh the costs (as they see them).
Among several considered action alternatives, the one with the subjectively best cost-benefit ratio
will be selected. So, deterrence works when a would-be offender (someone who contemplates
committing an act of crime) refrains from carrying out the crime because he or she fears apprehen-
sion or punishment (Loughran, Paternoster, & Weiss, 2016).
The proposition that all kinds of people will be deterred by legal sanction threats has obtained
only mixed support. Perceptual deterrence research has provided less evidence in favor of sanction
threat effects than originally expected (Apel & Nagin, 2011, 2017; Do¨lling, Entorf, Hermann, &
Rupp, 2009; Loughran et al., 2016; Nagin, 1998, 2013; Paternoster, 2010, 2018; Paternoster &
Bachman, 2013; Pratt, Cullen, Blevins, Daigle, & Madensen, 2006; Wikstro¨m, 2008).1 It is mean-
while well established that anticipated sanctioning severity hardly affects behavior. Severity esti-
mates have solely a negligible effect on criminal involvement. However, the perceived certainty of
detection or punishment is indeed weakly related to offending. Most reviews of the literature suggest
the existence of a modest crime-reducing impact of perceived sanction risk. In the words of Nagin
(2013, p. 199), “it is the certainty of apprehension not the severity of the ensuing consequences that
is the more effective deterrent.” In sum, however, the main effect sizes for deterrence variables tend
to be weaker than those for many predictors associated with other theories of crime causation (Pratt
et al., 2006).
Many scholars have acknowledged the slightly disappointing empirical foundation of deterrence
theory. In his comprehensive review of relevant research, Paternoster (2010, p. 819) noticed, “A
puzzling question is why deterrent effects reported in the literature are not stronger.” Gottfredson
(2011) noted explicitly that control theories expect more from deterrence and the risk of criminal
punishment than has been discovered in previous research. The difficulty in establishing nonnegli-
gible independent deterrent effects in the investigated populations may be the reason why the idea of
differential deterrability (Hirtenlehner, 2019; Loughran, Paternoster, & Piquero, 2018; Piquero,
Paternoster, Pogarsky, & Loughran, 2011) has become prominent in recent years. According to this
notion, the effect of sanction threats is not uniform across individuals and situations. Persons are
assumed to differ in their susceptibility to sanction risk. The extent to which an individual responds
to the risk of legal punishment will depend on a variety of other factors, be it characteristics of the
person or properties of the setting. This conceptual turn propelled analyses of potential moderators
of the deterrence–crime relationship. In a methodological sense, the new perspective shifts the focus
of perceptual deterrence research from the study of main effects to the study of interaction effects.
The insight that sanction risk effects may be heterogeneous across both situations and individuals
leads scholars to ask when and for whom deterrence is most effective, a crucial step in overcoming
the boundaries of traditional deterrence studies (Loughran et al., 2018).
In the present work, the focus is on the kinds-of-people dimension of differential deterrability.
Theorizing on the significance of enduring individual differences for the impact potential of external
disincentives traces back to the influential writings of Nagin and Paternoster (1993, 1994). Accord-
ing to this tradition, one personality factor that can be expected to condition the reaction to formal

106
Criminal Justice Review 45(1)
sanction threats is self-control. In the psychological literature, somewhat different definitions of the
self-control trait can be found, but their common denominator seems to be that self-control describes
the ability to resist short-term hedonistic impulses in favor of long-term goals or higher-ranking
standards (Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994; Duckworth & Steinberg, 2015; Fujita, 2011). In
the words of Fujita (2011, p. 353), self-control captures the “process of advancing abstract, distal
motives over concrete, proximal motives when the two motives directly conflict.” Consequently, the
notation “self-controlled behavior” refers to actions aligned with valued, long-range goals in the face
of opposing impulses to seek immediate gratification of desires (Duckworth & Steinberg, 2015).
Substantively, self-control focuses on the practice of overriding or suppressing a natural spontaneous
response to a tempting impulse or urge and replacing it with a response that is more in line with
higher order standards, such as abstract ideals, social norms, long-range goals, or future well-being
(Hay & Meldrum, 2016). This process requires “having some standards, monitoring oneself in
relation to these standards, and altering the self’s responses so as to make them conform better to
the standards” (Baumeister et al., 1994, p. 14). Response modification emerges as the decisive issue,
whereby the literature lacks unanimity with respect to the underlying mechanism. A weak ability to
defer gratification, an excessive discounting of temporally remote consequences and deficits in the
capacity to consider behavioral implications that are delayed in time has been identified as catalysts
of self-regulatory failure (Fujita, 2011; Mamayek, Paternoster, & Loughran, 2017; Schulz, 2016).
More congruency exists regarding the conceptualization of self-control as a somewhat stable aspect
of personality or character trait. According to Baumeister and colleagues (1994, p. 19), it is “almost
certainly true that some people have more self-discipline than others, are better able to control their
actions and ( . . . ) are more capable of resisting temptation.” This is not meant to rule out temporary
fluctuations in self-regulatory strength (ego depletion in the aftermath of previous exertions of self-
control is a frequent phenomenon), but enduring individual differences in the tendency to indulge in
instant gratification at the expense of higher order standards cannot be dismissed easily (Muraven,
Pogarsky, & Shmueli, 2006).
With respect to a deterrence-moderating role of self-control, the evidence is decidedly mixed.
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