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Interplay of Moral Norms and Instrumental Incentives in Crime Causation

NCJ Number
Criminology Volume: 48 Issue: 1 Dated: February 2010 Pages: 259-294
Clemens Kroneberg; Isolde Heintze; Guido Mehlkop
Date Published
February 2010
36 pages
This study analyzed the willingness of 2,130 adults residing in Dresden, Germany, to engage in shoplifting and tax fraud, in order to assess the interplay of moral norms and instrumental incentives in testing the dynamics of weighing the costs and benefits of criminal acts under the assumption that criminal behavior is a rational choice.
The study found that only respondents who did not feel bound by internalized moral norms engaged in the instrumental cost-benefits reasoning assumed under rational choice theories (RCTs) of criminal behavior. Thus, for people who have strongly internalized norms against the behaviors posed to them (shoplifting and tax fraud), and in the absence of powerful neutralizations (justifications for waiving these moral norms), instrumental incentives (possible cost and probably benefits for the self) are irrelevant to whether or not they would commit shoplifting and tax fraud. The main methodological implication of these study findings is that straightforward applications of RCT can lead to erroneous conclusions. The authors of the current study argue that internalized moral norms are not just additional incentives traded against instrumental, tangible incentives; rather, these normative moral attitudes act as a moral filter that precludes even weighing the costs and benefits of the action. Survey data were collected between November 2005 and January 2006 in Dresden, Germany. The sample was randomly chosen from the city's Bureau of Statistics to receive the questionnaire. Recipients were required to be 18 years old or older. The questionnaire contained 74 questions regarding respondents' victimization as well as their own willingness to engage in particular offenses. As dependent variables, the study used self-reports of whether respondents would be willing in the future to shoplift or commit tax fraud, respectively. All responses were anonymous. 5 tables, 2 figures, 100 references, and appendix