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Are criminals rational?

In the previous lesson, we saw how economists use the rational choice framework to explain and analyze criminal behaviors.

Criminals choose to offend because they find that committing crime is a better choice than not committing.

Certainly, this framework cannot be applied to all crimes. (Consider crimes committed by mentally ill persons and small children.) But that does not mean that the rational choice framework would be useless in studying crime and developing successful crime-control policies. As long as some criminals are rational, crime-control policy interventions based on the rational choice framework can still reduce crime by influencing their criminal decisions.

Let’s consider a few examples where criminals seem to be making rational choices and how appropriate policy interventions may influence their choices.

1. Road Rage and Highway Patrol

We all have seen drivers who drive very aggressive and reckless. But are their “road rage” really rage? Angry drivers hardly fit the description of a rational individual who carefully compares the gains and costs from speeding, but many of them still seem rationally respond to changes in the probability of punishment. How often do you see overly aggressive and reckless driving near a police patrol car or a police station?

Recent research by economists Gregory DeAngelo and Benjamin Hansen shows that the level of police presence on the road (and the associated risk of punishment) significantly influences drivers’ behaviors. About a third of highway troopers in Oregon were laid off due to the state budget crisis in 2003. Following this mass lay-off, fatal car accidents in Oregon increased by 19 percent and non-fatal crashes increased by 14 percent.

2. Car Thieves and Vehicle Tracking System

Motor vehicle theft is one of the major crimes in the United States. (The reported number of motor vehicle thefts was more than 1.2 million in 2004.) However, it seems that recent advances in anti-car-theft technology have made it a lot more difficult to steal a car. For example, the Lojack Stolen Vehicle Recovery System places a small, hidden radio transmitter in a car, allowing police to easily track the locations of stolen vehicles. General Motors offers a subscription-based security system called OnStar, which not only tracks the location of stolen vehicles but also can slow them down and prevent the engine from re-starting. In 1998, the European Union required all new cars to be equipped with an engine immobilizer, which prevents the engine from starting unless the correct key is present.

We would expect that these advances deterred many would-be car thieves by increasing the probability of arrest and punishment. This prediction is well-supported by data. The number of motor vehicle thefts in the U.S. fell from 1,237,851 in 2004 to 795,652 in 2009 to 689,527 in 2014.

3. Project HOPE

How rational do you think illegal drug users are? A drug junkie hardly looks like a rational decision maker, but recent research from Hawaii suggests that he may be a lot more rational than we think. An experimental probation program in Hawaii aimed to reduce probation violations by making sure all probationers tested positive for illicit drug use were promptly sent to jail. The evaluation of this program shows that a sharp increase in the probability of punishment for drug use was followed by a substantial decrease in drug use and other probation violations. In other words, they seem to have rationally responded to the new probation system on average.

Can you think of other examples in which criminals rationally respond to changes in criminal gains and costs? Are there cases in which such factors just do not seem relevant to criminals’ decisions to offend or not? Please share your examples and thoughts with your classmates.


  • DeAngelo, Gregory, and Benjamin Hansen. “Life and death in the fast lane: Police enforcement and traffic fatalities.” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 6.2 (2014): 231-257.
  • Angela Hawken and Mark Kleiman. 2009. “Managing Drug-Involved Probationers with Swift and Certain Sanctions: Evaluating Hawaii’s HOPE.” NCJ 229023. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice

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Economics of Crime

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