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The Dynamics of Change: Criminogenic Interactions and Life-Course Patterns in Crime

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter develops and refines the key suppositions of the development ecological action (DEA) model of individual stability and change in crime involvement. First, the chapter discusses some limitations of key developmental theories of crime, arguing that there is a neglect of, and therefore a need for, a stronger focus on the crime event and the criminogenic person–environment interactions that cause acts of, and drives pathways in, crime. The chapter then introduces the basic propositions of situational action theory (SAT) as well as the DEA model. It also explores the DEA model in more depth, explicating the role of psychosocial and socioecological processes in stability and change in people’s crime propensities and criminogenic exposure. Finally, this chapter sums up the key arguments and their implications for the study of criminal careers.

Keywords: criminogenic interactions, development ecological action model, DEA model, individual stability, crime involvement, crime, criminogenic person–environment interactions, situational action theory, SAT, criminal career

Traditional explanations of stability and changes in crime involvement tend to limit our recognition of the more fluid nature of this phenomenon and the fact that people’s movement in and out of crime involvement can be understood through a single theoretical framework. Onset, persistence, and desistance, for example, are often studied as separate and distinct processes with different etiologies and therefore implications for policy and practice, but we argue they can be much more effectively analyzed as the result of changes in key causal factors and, crucially, their interaction. We posit that a robust general explanatory model of change in crime involvement—focusing on key personal and environmental explanatory factors and the process that links them to action—will provide a better foundation for studying and ultimately understanding why people’s crime involvement changes, for better or for worse. We suggest that situational action theory (SAT) may be particularly useful due to its integration of individual and environmental levels of explanation, its focus on action and action mechanisms, and the fact that it has developed situational and developmental models to explain short- and long-term patterns of crime involvement.

SAT argues that people are the source of their actions—people perceive, choose, and execute actions—but that the causes of those actions are situational—people’s perception, choice, and execution of action alternatives is initiated and guided by relevant input from their interaction with the immediate environment (the person–environment interaction). Moreover, SAT insists that without a proper understanding of which situational factors and processes are causally relevant (as causes) it is difficult to identify with any certainty which developmental and life-course factors and processes are (p. 273) causally relevant (as causes of the causes) in the explanation of development, stability, and change in people’s crime involvement.

SAT insists that acts of crime are always an outcome of the interaction between people’s crime propensities and settings’ criminogenic features (a setting being the part of the environment a person can access with his or her senses at a given point in time). People’s crime propensities are triggered by specific environmental inducements, and environmental inducements are made relevant by people’s particular propensities (although the relative importance of propensities and inducements may vary by circumstance).

SAT suggests that a person’s crime propensity (the tendency to see and choose crime as an action alternative in response to particular opportunities and frictions) essentially depends on his or her law-relevant personal morals (rules of conduct and supporting moral emotions such as shame and guilt) and ability to exercise self-control (to withstand external inducements to act against his or her personal morals)1 and that the criminogenic features of a setting (environmental features which may induce people to see and choose crime as an action alternative in response to particular opportunities and frictions) depend on its law-relevant moral norms (shared rules of conduct) and their strength and level of enforcement.

Against this backdrop, the basic argument of SAT is that stability and change in people’s crime involvement is an outcome of stability and changes in their crime propensities and criminogenic exposure (encounters with criminogenic settings). The theory specifically maintains that (1) development, stability, and change in crime propensity depends on psychosocial processes of moral education and cognitive nurturing and (2) stability and change in exposure to criminogenic settings depends on socioecological processes of social and self-selection. These core arguments are captured in SAT’s development ecological action (DEA) model of individual stability and change in crime involvement. This chapter develops and refines the key suppositions of this model, which was originally described in Wikström (2005). Section I discusses some limitations of key developmental theories of crime, arguing that there is a neglect of, and therefore a need for, a stronger focus on the crime event and the criminogenic person–environment interactions that cause acts of, and drives pathways in, crime. Section II introduces the basic propositions of situational action theory, arguing that to understand what drives stability and change in people’s crime involvement, we need to first explicate the situational factors and processes involved in crime causation. Section III introduces the DEA model, arguing that changes in people’s crime involvement, its nature and frequency, are mainly an outcome of changes in people’s crime propensities and exposure to criminogenic settings (because these change the nature and frequency of the criminogenic interactions people experience). Section IV explores the DEA model in more depth, explicating the role of psychosocial and socioecological processes in stability and change in people’s crime propensities and criminogenic exposure. Finally, Section V sums up the key arguments and their implications for the study of criminal careers.

(p. 274) I. Key Developmental Theories and Their Main Limitations

Developmental theories of crime involvement have historically neglected the influence of the wider social context. This is because most theories have focused on crime propensities, which is perhaps not surprising as most developmental criminologists are psychologists by training. In doing so, they have tended to overlook the role of the wider social environment in how people acquire different propensities (via processes of socialization and habituation) and express those propensities (in response to external inducements and constraints). Many of these theories are essentially theories of criminality (propensity) rather than theories of criminal behavior, the difference being that a theory of criminality addresses the characteristics of the actor while a theory of criminal behavior needs to also address the context in which the behavior takes place and the role of agency. The few theories that have taken the role of social environments into account have tended to focus their attention on the family context and underexplored the role of other contexts in development and action (Brooks-Gunn et al. 1993).

Developmental theories of crime have also generally failed to specify the processes by which individual or any considered environmental factors exert their effects on crime involvement. The dominant risk-factor paradigm has not encouraged interest in processes and mechanisms, and the lack of integration between individual and environmental levels of explanation has meant that simultaneous (interactive) effects remain particularly neglected (Farrington, Sampson, and Wikström 1993).

Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) self-control theory, Moffitt’s (1993) dual developmental taxonomy, and Sampson and Laub’s (2003) age-graded theory of informal social control represent three of the most prominent developmental theories of crime from the past 25 years and often provide the theoretical groundwork for research on change and stability in crime involvement. While each of these theories has made unique and important contributions to the field of criminology, they all suffer from a number of shared limitations (Wikström and Treiber 2009):

  1. 1. They ultimately suggest (implicitly or explicitly) that offending is driven by individual-level factors (be it self-control, antisocial personality traits, or weak internalized social bonds).

  2. 2. They posit a similar causal mechanism—the consideration of consequences—which relies on questionable assumptions about motivation and decision processes.

  3. 3. They say little about the interaction between people and environments at the point of action.

  4. 4. They fail to adequately address the role of agency.

(p. 275) Self-control theory ultimately disregards the role of the social environment in the expression of propensity (in this case low self-control; Gottfredson and Hirschi, 2003) but gives almost complete credit to external input for its development (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990, pp. 96–98); in doing so this theory fails to address the interactive nature of both developmental and situational processes. Once low self-control is established, its expression in acts of crime is relatively stable, although Gottfredson and Hirschi have qualified this with an age effect to keep the implications of the theory in line with the age–crime curve (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990; see also Hirschi and Gottfredson 1983). As a control theory, self-control theory ignores differential motivation and engages with agency only so far as to use the language of probability and discuss tendencies and likelihoods.

Unlike self-control theory, Moffitt’s dual developmental taxonomy emphasizes the interaction between individual and environmental factors in the development of crime propensities (here antisocial personality traits; Moffitt 1993, 1997, 2003). In this theory, certain social environments reinforce emerging crime propensities. In early childhood, neurocognitive and related behavioral deficits are reinforced by negative or inadequate social responses. During subsequent developmental stages, emerging antisocial personality traits are reinforced in evocative, proactive, and reactive person–environment interactions which facilitate expression of crime propensities. The theory is less clear about the interactive nature of situational processes and, like self-control theory, ultimately disregards the role of the social environment in the expression of crime propensity; once antisocial personality traits are established, they determine the outcome of person–environment interactions. As in self-control theory, the role of agency remains unexplored.

On the surface, Sampson and Laub’s age-graded theory of informal social control appears quite different from the two previous theories (Laub and Sampson 2003; Sampson and Laub 1993, 2003, 2005). It takes a more life-course rather than typological perspective. However, the main determining factor in crime causation, while more variable over time, is internalized constraints, or social bonds. As in both previous theories, contextual factors (in this case weak social controls) lead to the developmental of an antisocial personality; however, unlike those theories, the expression of this crime propensity depends on more malleable social bonds and routine activities, which determine a person’s exposure to informal social controls. While this framework appears to be heading in the right direction in incorporating the role of social environments, this role is not fully developed. Sampson and Laub focus on differences in lifestyle (e.g., marriage) and their impact on social bonds and routines, but they fail to engage with key features of social environments, such as collective efficacy, and how lifestyle factors such as marriage may only serve as general proxies for exposure to these features. As a control theory, the age-graded theory does not explore differential motivation in terms of inducements to offend, but it does pay attention to the concept of agency and its influence on established patterns of behavior (Laub and Sampson 2003); however, it does not fully address how agency exerts its influence at the point of action.

(p. 276) There remains a need for developmental theories of crime to explicitly address the role of social environments in crime causation, and the processes through which social environmental factors, in interaction with personal characteristics, may lead people to commit acts of crime. This includes better specification of their role in differential motivation, perception, and choice, taking agency into account. The DEA model of SAT aims to advance this enterprise.

II. Situational Action Theory—The Basics

Situational action theory (SAT) is a dynamic, general, and mechanism-based theory of crime causation (e.g., Wikström 2006, 2010b, 2014, 2017) that analyzes crime as acts of rule-breaking (focusing on but not being limited to the rules of law) and underscores the fact that to explain why acts of crime occur requires specification of the person–environment interaction and the action mechanism that links people and their immediate environments to action.

Most mainstream criminological theories, such as control theories (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990; Hirschi 1969) and opportunity theories (Cohen and Felson 1979; Cornish and Clarke 2008) rely (explicitly or implicitly) on the assumption that people’s acts of crime revolve mainly around serving their own self-interests (Agnew 2014). Situational action theory, on the other hand, suggests that humans are essentially rule-guided creatures and that society (social order) is based on shared rules of conduct (Wikström 2010a, 2017). People express their desires and respond to frictions within the context of rule-guided choice. Therefore, rules of conduct (moral rules) and how people respond to them play a central role in guiding people’s action in decision-making (whether they agree with those rules or not).

SAT defines moral rules as “value-based rules of conduct specifying what is the right or wrong thing to do, or not do, in response to particular motivations in particular circumstances”2 (Wikström 2014). Importantly, crimes are moral actions, i.e., actions guided by moral rules. Specifically, crimes are moral actions that break a specific set of moral rules—those of the law. In fact, all acts of crime, in all places, at all times, share the common characteristic of breaking legal rules of conduct specifying what it is right or wrong to do. Although SAT was initially developed to explain acts that break legal rules of conduct, it is also applicable to other types of moral rule-breaking, including why people break informal rules of conduct.

Criminology typically lacks an integrative approach to the study of crime and its causes (Wikström and Sampson 2006). Most leading explanations of crime, and hence changes in crime involvement, focus on either personal or environmental factors, and even the few that acknowledge that both are important largely fail to address how such factors interact in the explanation of crime,3 whereas SAT argues that crimes are always an outcome of a person–environment (propensity–exposure) interaction and cannot be (p. 277) fully understood by focusing on either in isolation. To explain why crime happens we need to know what makes people crime prone and environments criminogenic and, crucially, how person–environment interactions generate acts of crime (it is, for instance, not enough to make general claims that crimes occur as an outcome of the convergence of “likely offenders” and “suitable targets in the absence of capable guardians”; e.g., Cohen and Felson 1979; Felson and Boba 2010). We can then begin to piece apart what leads to changes in personal propensities, the criminogeneity of settings, and people’s exposure to criminogenic settings, and how this leads to changes in crime involvement.

We would argue that, as a result of their preoccupation with either personal or environmental factors, and their reliance on assumptions about action decision-making, which are increasingly undermined by behavioral research (both social and biological, e.g., the debatable ubiquity of self-interest; see Treiber 2017a), criminologists have not been very successful in identifying factors that convincingly predict, let alone explain, people’s crime involvement.

At the core of SAT’s explanation of acts of crime is the PEA model (P × E → A), suggesting that people’s acts of crime (A) are an outcome of a perception–choice process (→) initiated and guided by the interaction of a person’s crime propensities (P) and criminogenic exposure (E).

SAT suggests that people and settings are linked to acts of crime via a perception–choice process. This process begins with motivation (goal-directed attention): settings present opportunities and frictions to which people are more or less susceptible (e.g., a hungry person might find a hamburger tempting, but a person who is not hungry, or a vegetarian, might not) and which may act as sources of temptation or provocation. Once a person is motivated, key personal and environmental factors then interact, creating a filter that determines what action alternatives he or she perceives as potential responses (the perception process) and which alternative he or she ultimately chooses to pursue (the choice process). Rule-breaking, including law-breaking, may be one of those alternatives; understanding more about how people’s actions are rule-guided can help us better understand when they may consider breaking rules and how they may be encouraged to follow them (given that more traditional approaches, such as deterrence, which are based on assumptions of rational self-interest, have proven insufficient; see, e.g., Hirtenlehner and Wikström 2017; Wikström, Tseloni, and Karlis 2011). The perception–choice process (action mechanism) is described in detail elsewhere (e.g., Wikström 2006, 2010b, 2014, 2017), but it is an important starting point for identifying which personal and environmental factors may be most relevant to crime involvement and its changes over time.

Building upon this perception–choice framework and the assertions that people are fundamentally rule-guided and crime is an act of rule-breaking, SAT forwards that people’s crime propensities depend largely on (1) their law-relevant personal morals (internalized rules of conduct and supporting moral emotions, such as shame and guilt) and (2) their ability to exercise self-control (to withstand external inducements to act against their personal morals). The greater the correspondence between a person’s personal morals and the rules of conduct stated in law, the less prone he or she will be to considering breaking those rules; the stronger a person’s ability to exercise self-control, the less prone he or she will be to breaking a personal moral rule when he or she is externally pressured to do so. Hence, people with strong law-relevant personal morals and a (p. 278) strong ability to exercise self-control (low crime propensity) will be largely resistant to immediate criminogenic environmental influences, whereas those who have weak law-relevant personal morals and a poor ability to exercise self-control (high crime propensity) may be vulnerable.4

SAT argues that people acquire their crime propensities in the main through psychosocial processes of moral education and cognitive nurturing (“causes of the causes”5), and therefore these processes are the key to understanding why people develop different (and change) crime propensities.

Criminogenic features of a setting (those that promote the perception and choice of crime as an action alternative) depend largely on its perceived6 law-relevant moral context (the moral norms that apply and their enforcement relevant to the motivations—temptations and provocations—people may experience). Settings are criminogenic to the extent that their perceived moral norms and enforcement encourage (or do not discourage) acts of crime in response to the opportunities they present and/or the frictions they create.

SAT suggests that settings acquire their criminogenic features through historic socioecological processes, which determine the presence of particular populations and activities in particular places at particular times. These processes are consequently key to understanding why settings vary in their moral contexts (spatially and temporally), and thus in their criminogeneity.

Beyond the questions of how people acquire propensities and settings acquire criminogenic features is the question of how certain people come to take part in (be exposed to) certain kinds of settings—in other words, how certain situations, or person–environment interactions, come about. SAT posits that this may be explained by contemporaneous processes of social and self-selection that place certain people, or groups of people, in certain kinds of settings (Wikström 2014, p. 84). The constellation of settings to which a particular person is exposed as a consequence of selection forms his or her activity field. Change in a person’s activity field may be one source of change in his or her crime involvement.

All in all, people’s crime involvement (and its nature) is seen in SAT to result from their criminogenic interactions (through the effects of those interactions on the perception–choice process), depending on their crime propensities, which in turn depend on past relevant psychosocial processes (primarily moral education and cognitive nurturing) and their criminogenic exposure, which in turn depends on contemporaneous relevant socioecological processes (primarily processes of social and self-selection; Figure 15.1).7

The Dynamics of ChangeCriminogenic Interactions and Life-Course Patterns in CrimeClick to view larger

Figure 15.1 Key Basic Processes in Crime Causation According to SAT

(p. 279) III. Introducing the DEA Model

Situational action theory’s DEA model explicates the dynamics of change in people’s crime involvement and criminal careers. Understanding processes of change is crucial for understanding how to prevent or promote relevant changes in crime propensity, criminogeneity, and criminogenic exposure. We have already posited that few criminological theories address the person–environment interaction, so it will not come as a surprise that even fewer do so from a developmental perspective; those that do fall particularly short in explicating the role of social environments (see Wikström and Treiber 2009 for a critical discussion of key theories). We have also argued that few criminological theories posit a compelling situational model of crime involvement. This means they cannot adopt a truly life-course approach, as SAT does, and study sequences of person–environment interactions, each influencing the next, which create specific patterns of stability and change in crime involvement over time. Only once we understand what personal and environmental characteristics are relevant to crime involvement at any given point in time can we begin to assess how they influence relevant characteristics and therefore crime involvement at each subsequent point. SAT attempts to address this dynamic through its DEA model (Wikström 2005; see also Wikström and Treiber 2009; Treiber 2017b).

The drivers of change in the DEA model (Figure 15.2) can be summarized in seven propositions stated below and briefly elaborated in subsequent sections.

The Dynamics of ChangeCriminogenic Interactions and Life-Course Patterns in CrimeClick to view larger

Figure 15.2 The Developmental Ecological Action (DEA) Model: Key Basic Processes of Stability and Change in People’s Crime Involvement (and Its Nature)

(p. 280)

Changes in Crime Involvement and Its Nature

  1. 1. Changes in people’s crime involvement, its nature and frequency, are mainly driven by changes in people’s crime propensities and their exposure to criminogenic settings (because these change the nature and frequency of the criminogenic interactions people experience).

Personal Changes (Influencing Crime Propensities)

  1. 2. Organismic changes occur as a result of general processes of biological maturation and decline or instances of illness and injury, which may lead to changes in basic personal capacities (to understand and apply rules and exercise agency and self-control) or the ability for those capacities to be changed.

  2. 3. Changes in people’s crime propensities are mainly driven by relevant aspects of their moral education and cognitive nurturing (facilitated or impeded by relevant aspects of organismic change) because people’s crime propensities are largely based on their law-relevant personal morals and ability to exercise self-control.

  3. 4. Changes in people’s moral education and cognitive nurturing are mainly driven by changes in their activity field (exposure to particular configurations of settings) because people develop and change their propensities in response to the settings in which they take part.

Activity Field Changes (Influencing Criminogenic Exposure)

  1. 5. Changes in people’s exposure to criminogenic settings (its nature and frequency) are mainly driven by changes in their activity fields as a result of changes in processes of self-selection (based on agency and activity preferences) and social selection (based on rules and resources).

  2. 6. Changes in people’s agency are driven by organismic changes and changes in their human, financial, and social capital, while people’s development of and changes in activity preferences are driven by their positive and negative experiences of particular activities.

  3. 7. External changes (e.g., as a result of political, economical and technological changes) may impact the nature and frequency of available settings (in a jurisdiction) or the rules regulating and access to resources relevant to a particular person taking part in particular settings.

IV. Explaining People’s Trajectories in Crime

SAT’s situational model, which argues that the causes of crime arise through the person–environment interaction, is the cornerstone of the theory and has been (p. 281) well tested (see Wikström et al. 2012; Wikstrom, Mann, and Hardie 2018). Because situations (person–environment interactions) are central to the explanation of crime, they are also central to the explanation of stability and change in crime involvement: if crime results from people’s intersections with different settings (their action contexts), stability or change in crime involvement must result from stability and change in people’s intersections with different settings (their action contexts) (Wikström 2005, p. 212). Action contexts may be affected by changes in a person’s characteristics and/or changes in the settings to which he or she is exposed, i.e., his or her activity field. Sources of personal and activity field change are subsequently detailed.

When crime-relevant personal characteristics (personal morality and the ability to exercise self-control) and features of settings (motivators and moral contexts) change, whether people see and choose crime as an action alternative may change. However, it is important to stress the fact that because crime results from the interaction of people and settings, changes in crime-relevant characteristics will not always lead to changes in people’s perception and choice of crime as an option. Low crime propensity confers situational resistance; hence people with a low crime propensity may remain unlikely to see crime as an option even if their activity fields change to encompass more criminogenic settings (although exposure to criminogenic settings may over time lead to changes in their propensity). Similarly, people whose activity fields do not encompass any criminogenic settings may not be any more likely to see and choose crime as an alternative even if their crime propensity increases.

Hence it is important to consider not just changes in propensity or changes in exposure, but changes in situations (how propensity and exposure interact) and initial levels. While more complex than person or environment centered frameworks, this framework may help us better understand what kinds of changes, and hence interventions, are most relevant for particular individuals.

A. Personal Changes

SAT posits that moral education and cognitive nurturing are key psychosocial processes that lead to change in crime propensity (Wikström 2005; see further Wikström et al. 2012, pp. 31–32). These processes play a direct role in the acquisition of personal morality and the ability to exercise self-control, respectively. More indirectly, organismic changes (e.g., resulting from biological maturation) may influence the efficacy of moral education and cognitive nurturing, while changes in activity fields (contexts of development) may lead to changes in exposure to moral education and cognitive nurturing.

Moral education and cognitive nurturing can typically be expected to lead to changes in propensity gradually and when people are regularly exposed to relevant influences over an extended period of time. This means propensity generally demonstrates stability, and therefore changes in propensity may have an enduring impact on behaviors such as crime involvement.

(p. 282) When analyzing psychosocial processes it is important to differentiate between content and machinery. Psychosocial content refers to any information, external or internal, which plays a role in cognition; psychosocial machinery refers to the neurocognitive substrates that process (e.g., interpret, evaluate, encode, store, retrieve, and integrate) that information. Psychosocial content is gleaned from the external environment through the senses and from the internal environment through memory and self-monitoring. Faulty machinery may distort psychosocial content by affecting how it is perceived, interpreted, evaluated, and integrated with prior content. Prior content, of course, may likewise influence the activation of psychosocial machinery, e.g., as a result of acquired expectations and associations.

1. Personal Changes: Organismic Change. The role of organismic change in crime causation is mainly foundational. Organismic change refers to changes in a person’s biological make-up and functioning; typical sources are (1) the general physiological processes associated with growth and maturation and subsequent decline and (2) illnesses and injuries. When these changes affect personal morality and the ability to exercise self-control, they may do so indirectly by moderating a person’s receptivity to moral education and cognitive nurturing or directly by moderating a person’s ability to apply moral rules and exercise self-control.

Maturation represents a sequence of biological events associated with aging that generally unfold in a predictable pattern so long as any biological and environmental constraints (e.g., gene expression, nutrition) fall within a prescribed range (Goldman 2012; Gottlieb, Wahlsten, and Lickliter 2006; Johnson and de Haan 2011; Westermann et al. 2007). However, variations in the timing of maturation events may lead to significant, and cumulative, differences in people’s personal characteristics and capacities across the life span (Elder and Shanahan 2006).

The typical sequence of maturation involves the incremental development of capacities to perceive and interact with one’s environment, increasing one’s behavioral autonomy and agency (Blakemore and Choudhury 2006; Johnson, Sudhinaraset, and Blum 2010; Wahlstrom et al. 2010). This sequence is characterized by the development of capacities that support the ability to learn and act under the guidance of rules of conduct and to exercise self-control (Blakemore and Robbins 2012; Crone and Dahl 2012; Luna, Padmanabhan, and O’Hearn 2010; Nelson et al. 2005; Tremblay 2006).

Childhood may be an important time window for moral education as it is characterized by organismic changes that promote the rapid acquisition of knowledge and skill, especially in the social domain (Johnson and de Haan 2011; Shonkoff and Phillips 2000). Circumstances that interfere with typical development may impede early moral education, with long-term implications for social behaviors (Anderson et al. 1999, 2000; Eslinger, Flaherty-Craig, and Benton 2004; Eslinger, Gratten, and Damasio 1992). Childhood is also an important time window for the development of the executive capabilities that underlie the ability to exercise self-control (Bunge et al. 2002; Case 1992; Fuster 1997; Hofmann, Schmeichel, and Baddeley 2012; Tranel, Anderson, and Benton 1994). However, more advanced executive capabilities (e.g., integrative and extrapolative functions) may not be fully developed until (p. 283) adolescence (Casey, Giedd, and Thomas 2000; Chelune and Baer 1986; Luciana et al. 2005; Spear 2000).

During adolescence, young people assert their independence in social and behavioral spheres. It is now understood that this transition from dependence to independence is supported by the “rewiring” of cognitive machinery with particular implications for the coordination of motivation and executive control and, therefore, self-control (Blakemore 2012; Blakemore and Choudhury 2006; Casey, Getz, and Galvan 2008; Crone and Dahl 2012; Heatherton and Wagner 2011; Luna, Padmanabhan, and O’Hearn 2010; Steinberg 2008; Sturman and Moghaddam 2011; Wahlstrom et al. 2010).

Adulthood has received little attention in relation to developmental change, and it is often assumed that people enter a developmental “holding pattern,” although some evidence suggests that executive processes continue to increasingly dominate action guidance (Christakou et al. 2013; Eppinger et al. 2013a, 2013b; Samanez-Larkin et al. 2012; Worthy et al. 2011; Worthy and Maddox 2012). Late adulthood is characterized by neurodegeneration, the timing and speed of which varies depending on both biological and environmental constraints (Rossini et al. 2007). This may have implications for the ability to exercise self-control but can be offset by internalized moral content (Anderson et al. 1999).

This is how maturational processes unfold under typical circumstances (i.e., normal constraints), but some people are subject to abnormal circumstances and life events that may push their development off the normal track (e.g., developmental disorders or illnesses and injuries). Early deviations from the typical developmental trajectory can have a knock-on, cumulative effect as subsequent development remains out of sync with age-related life experiences (Elder and Shanahan 2006). By contrast, events and circumstances that impact on development later in life may have more “localized” effects and be cushioned by previously acquired knowledge and capacities (Anderson et al. 2000; Eslinger, Flaherty-Craig, and Benton 2004).

In conclusion, organismic change can have an impact on crime propensity by affecting the underlying machinery that processes moral content and supports the exercise of self-control. Organismic changes also influence agency—the power to make things happen intentionally. Key outcomes of biological maturation are increasing autonomy, which requires the ability to act independently, and increasing abilities to perceive and interact with different action contexts, both of which increase agency (Blakemore and Choudhury 2006). On the other hand, illness and injury can reduce agency and people’s ability to act upon their environments.

2. Personal Changes: Moral Education. People’s personal morals are the key determinant of their crime propensity and largely a result of their moral education. Moral education refers to “the learning and evaluation process by which people come to adopt and change value-based rules of conduct about what is the right or wrong thing to do in particular circumstances.” This process has three submechanisms: people learn about the rules of conduct that apply in different circumstances through instruction, observation of others’ actions and their consequences (personal and social), and trial and error (experimenting with actions and experiencing others’ reactions and the consequences). (p. 284) The more consistent this education (e.g., how homogeneous the instructions, observations, and trial and error incidents a person experiences are), the more effective it will be. Of course people are not simply passive recipients of moral experiences but rather actively evaluate (and re-evaluate) those experiences in the context of their previously acquired personal morals and cognitive capabilities. And as they grow older they do so increasingly, allowing them to refine and actively change their existing personal morality, with the potential to directly influence their crime propensity and potentially their crime involvement.

Effective moral education can have substantial crime preventive effects as it can facilitate the acquisition of a strong value basis for making moral judgments and strong moral habits supporting law abidance. Social institutions with a key stake in moral education are the family and schools, with parents and teachers representing the most potent moral educators of children and adolescents as well as possessing the capacity to control young people’s exposure to criminogenic moral contexts, although their influence lessens with age (Wikström 2011).

3. Personal Changes: Cognitive Nurturing. People’s ability to exercise self-control reflects their ability to act in accordance with their personal morals when challenged to act otherwise and depends on a person’s inherent cognitive potential and its nurturing (the extent to which its realization is successfully facilitated). Cognitive nurturing refers to the experiential processes that positively influence neurocognitive abilities (capacities and their expression) (Wikström 2005). It can be argued that two main criteria determine a person’s cognitive abilities at any given time: his or her basic neurological constitution and the extent to which his or her specific capabilities have been exercised.

A person’s neurological constitution will depend on whether he or she receives adequate nutrition and (neural) stimulation; if he or she does not, the fundamental requirements of specific capacities (e.g., energy, information) may not be met, leading to short- or long-term deficits (Johnson and de Haan 2011; Westermann et al. 2007). If these requirements are met, the main mechanism for changing a specific cognitive capacity is exercise.

Cognitive capacities are strengthened when they are exercised; the underlying neural pathways become established (e.g., through synaptogenesis—neurons which fire together wire together) and potentiated (demonstrating stronger synaptic responses) (Constantine-Paton and Cline 1998; Malenka and Nicoll 1999; Zito and Svoboda 2002). Thus a key aspect of cognitive nurturing is the provision of opportunities to exercise the cognitive capacities that underlie the ability to exercise self-control—i.e., the executive capabilities (Wikström and Treiber 2007).

Executive capabilities are higher-order cognitive functions implicated in attention, inhibition, and the activation, evaluation, organization, and integration of (internally and externally derived) action-relevant information (Fuster 1997; Goldberg 2009; Hofmann, Schmeichel, and Baddeley 2012; Tranel, Anderson, and Benton 1994; Wikström and Treiber 2007). Although these functions are often presented as an aggregate of discrete capabilities that support abstract, goal-oriented, prospective thinking, (p. 285) they have also been associated with the unitary function of internalizing action guidance by organizing and integrating relevant internal and external information to create an internal representation of the action context, which can then be used to guide deliberate action choices (Fuster 1997; Treiber 2011, 2013; Wikström 2007).

The ability to exercise self-control draws heavily on executive capabilities that inhibit impulsive or prepotent actions (e.g., habits) by suppressing motivational and emotive responses (exerting cognitive control) and facilitate the management of conflict between personal morals and motivations by organizing action-relevant information (e.g., relating to personal morals and the moral context as well as personal desires and commitments and external motivators) to evaluate which action alternative is preferred and morally acceptable. Consequently, it can be strengthened through tasks that exercise relevant functions, such as directed or selective attention, inhibition, working memory, the use of rules and switching between rules, and problem-solving. These capabilities are naturally exercised, for the most part unintentionally, through everyday activities like social problem-solving, exercising patience, concentration, and restraint. They can also be deliberately strengthened through activities such as cognitive skills training (e.g., “brain training”). If undertaken on a regular basis, these exercises can increase existing executive capacities, the level of self-control one can exhibit, and one’s resistance to “ego-depletion” (reductions in the ability to exercise self-control after repeated use) (Baumeister et al. 2006; Baumeister, Vohs, and Tice 2007; Hagger et al. 2010; Inzlicht and Gutsell 2007; Klingberg 2010; Morrison and Chein 2011; Muraven 2010a, 2010b; Muraven, Baumeister, and Tice 1999; Muraven and Slessareva 2003; Olesen, Westerberg, and Klingberg 2004; Vohs, Baumeister, and Schmeichel 2012). The extent of change that such activities can induce may depend on a person’s initial level of executive functioning and the developmental timing.

The extent to which people encounter opportunities to exercise their executive capabilities may differ depending on the kinds of settings in which they act and develop. As with moral education, the family and schools represent key social institutions which may nurture young people’s cognitive capacities as well as their basic neurological constitution. Healthcare services may also play an important role in identifying and counteracting emerging cognitive deficiencies. As with moral education, then, mobilizing families and schools to support cognitive nurturing may potentially present a very useful goal for crime-prevention practices.

4. Personal Changes: Activity Fields. People grow up and live in different environments. People acquire their personal morals and experience cognitive nurturing through their active engagement with the settings in which they take part (developmental contexts). People’s exposure to particular kinds of moral educational and nurturing influences will depend on their activity fields and the extent to which the settings they take part in encourage (or discourage) law-relevant moral rules and emotions and promote (or restrict) the exercise of executive capabilities. This means that people’s activity fields play an important developmental role in their crime propensity and may therefore provide another important direction for intervention.

(p. 286) B. Activity Field Changes

SAT proposes that social and self-selection are key socioecological processes that may lead to changes in criminogenic exposure (e.g., Wikström 2014). These processes play a direct role in shaping people’s activity fields and consequently the kinds of settings they take part in. People are likely to have widely divergent activity fields; even those who live in the same house (e.g., partners or siblings) may display significant differences in the configuration of settings they are exposed to, and hence the environmental influences they are subjected to, with implications for differences in their development and actions. Particular types of settings (e.g., family, school, work, and leisure settings), which exhibit different environmental features, may have a different impact on people’s subsequent development and actions depending on their previous life histories and current personal characteristics. Different environmental influences may also be stronger during different stages of development, often referred to as time windows (Bloom 1964).

Changes in people’s activity fields lead to changes in their contexts of action, which may lead to changes in their exposure to criminogenic settings, and their contexts of development, which may lead to changes in their exposure to moral education and cognitive nurturing. The effects of these changes on people’s actions and development depend on their baseline characteristics and experiences.

Changes in activity fields typically result from changes in the social and self-selective forces people are subject to or can exert, respectively. Social selection refers to social forces, exerted through a jurisdiction’s rules and distribution of resources, which constrain or compel the participation of certain kinds of people in particular time and place-based activities. Changes in social selection typically occur as a result of external changes in wider social conditions (e.g., political, economical, or technological changes). Self-selection refers to people’s preference-based choices to participate in particular time and place-based activities within the constraints of social selective forces. Changes in self-selection occur as a result of changes in people’s agency and preferences. Unlike changes in crime propensity (which are typically gradual), changes in activity fields can be immediate (e.g., as a result of moving house or leaving school) and therefore lead to immediate changes in behavior. However, because those changes in behavior can just as immediately be reversed, changing people’s activity fields often leads to less enduring changes in crime involvement than changing their crime propensities.

The life course may be thought of as a sequence of activity fields (configuration of settings) that a person has taken part in and that have formed and shaped his or her development and actions. A person’s particular life-course trajectories may therefore be seen as an outcome of processes of social and self-selection.

1. Activity Field Changes: Social Selection (External Changes). People’s lives are embedded in a wider social, political, and economic context that determines the nature and distribution of the settings to which they may be exposed. This wider context encompasses a certain distribution of social and economic resources and enforces certain rules and regulations which, through the process of social selection, influence (p. 287) people’s routines (activity patterns) and consequently their intersections with different kinds of settings (e.g., Wikström, 2017; Wikström and Sampson 2003).

Changes in processes of social selection (e.g., following changes in the law or distribution of resources) create changes in people’s activity fields. The wider distribution of resources influences what personal resources (e.g., in terms of human, financial, and social capital) particular people can obtain (at particular stages of their lives) and what resources are required to take part in particular time and place-based activities, which may lead to certain kinds of people being placed in certain kinds of contexts and excluded from others. The rules and regulations stipulated and enforced by a jurisdiction also characterize the settings within that jurisdiction, and in particular the nature and distribution of different moral contexts. These contexts will influence people’s action and development.

Thus, together rules and resources influence personal routines and subsequently the extent to which different kinds of people are selected into, and therefore exposed to, different moral contexts. Changes to the wider context (e.g., political, economic, and technological changes) may affect rules, resources, and routines and consequently people’s access to different kinds of settings, with implications for the kinds of situations created by social selection.

Social selection is what links human development and action to cultural (rule-based) and structural (resource-based) features of the jurisdiction in which a person operates. It is the main mechanism through which culture and structure (through social rules and the distribution of resources) influence the configuration of settings people take part in, thereby affecting their development and actions. In other words, social selection may be regarded as the main mechanism that connects macro and micro levels in the explanation of human development and action (including the development of crime propensities and exposure to criminogenic settings).

2. Activity Field Changes: Self-Selection (Changes in Activity Preferences and Agency). Within the constraints of social selective processes, people are able to exert some control over the settings in which they take part, though some can exert more control than others. This self-selection is facilitated by a person’s agency and guided by his or her activity preferences. Agency may be defined as “the power to make things happen intentionally” and depends on factors such as human, financial, and social capital.8 Greater capital may confer greater access to different settings and ease constraints. Preferences help direct the expression of agency in determining into which time and place-based activities people self-select. Preferences are acquired through experience and may be influenced by moral considerations. People gain increasing agency and form more definitive preferences as they age and their activity fields expand. However, agency tends to be context-dependent, and people will have greater agency in some domains of life than others.

Early in the life course, people (e.g., infants and young children) have very little say in their own activity fields, as these are determined for the most part by the circumstances of their birth (their parents’ culture and social class, the historical time period, etc.) and how their caregivers manage the settings to which they are exposed. As people age, however, their activity fields broaden and they acquire preferences along with increasing agency (p. 288) (within existing social constraints). The stronger a person’s agency, the more he or she can overcome the pressures of social selection and act upon his or her preferences to shape his or her activity field, lessening the influence of the environment, and increasing the influence of the person–environment interaction. This process is, of course, sequential; preferences, agency, and activity fields at any given time enable or constrain subsequent change.

V. Conclusions

We have argued that changes in crime involvement are more dynamic than is often presented in the criminological literature. That dynamic centers on the interplay between the crime-relevant characteristics of people and settings in both developmental and action contexts. We have forwarded situational action theory (SAT) as a constructive framework for analyzing that dynamic. SAT’s development ecological action (DEA) model suggests that changes in crime involvement arise through changes in criminogenic action contexts—interactions between people with certain crime propensities and settings with certain criminogenic features. Changes in action contexts arise from change in people’s crime propensities and exposure to criminogenic settings. Changes in people’s crime propensities arise through moral education and cognitive nurturing, which depend on people’s activity fields and may be moderated by organismic changes; changes in criminogenic action contexts arise from changes in self and social selection, which depend on people’s agency and activity preferences, and the wider context, respectively. Analyses of the PADS+ data over the ages 13 to 24 supports the basic propositions of the DEA model (Wikström, Treiber, and Roman 2019).

The DEA model of change has interesting implications for understanding key features of criminal careers. For example, the early-onset behavioral problems often observed in persistent offenders may reflect the criminogenic developmental contexts to which these young people are exposed and generally constrained at a time when they have little agency and are rapidly acquiring information from their environments. The peak in offender prevalence during adolescence may reflect young people’s exposure and particular vulnerability to an expanding range of criminogenic action contexts. On the other hand, increasing rates of desistence in early adulthood may reflect significant changes in young adults’ activity fields and propensities as they reach full physical and mental maturity, become more self-sufficient, and acquire work and family responsibilities. Each of these effects, of course, will reflect the cumulative nature of each person’s life experiences, hence the timing and the outcomes may vary significantly.


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                                                                                                                                                                              Wikström, Per-Olof H., Richard P. Mann, and Beth Hardie. 2018. “Young People’s Differential Vulnerability to Criminogenic Exposure: Briding the Gap Between People- and Place-Oriented Approaches in the Study of Crime Causation.” European Journal of Criminology 15(1): 10–31.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                Wikström, Per-Olof H., and Robert J. Sampson. 2003. “Social Mechanisms of Community: Influences on Crime and Pathways in Criminality.” In Causes of Conduct Disorder and Juvenile Delinquency, edited by Benjamin B. Lahey, Terrie E. Moffitt, and Avshalom Caspi, 118–148. New York: Guilford.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                  Wikström, Per-Olof H., and Robert J. Sampson. 2006. “Introduction: Toward a Unified Approach to Crime and Its Explanation.” In The Explanation of Crime: Context, Mechanisms and Development, edited by Per-Olof Wikström and Robert J. Sampson, 1–7. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                    Wikström, Per-Olof H., and Kyle Treiber. 2007. “The Role of Self-Control in Crime Causation: Beyond Gottfredson and Hirschi’s General Theory of Crime.” European Journal of Criminology 4(2): 237–264.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                      Wikström, Per-Olof H., and Kyle Treiber. 2009. “What Drives Persistent Offending? The Neglected and Unexplored Role of the Social Environment.” In The Development of Persistent Criminality, edited by Joanna Savage, 389–420. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                        Wikström, Per-Olof H., and Kyle Treiber. 2015. “Situational Theories: The Importance of Interactions and Action Mechanisms in the Explanation of Crime.” In Handbook of Criminological Theory, edited by Alex R. Piquero, 415–444. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                          Wikström, Per-Olof H., Kyle Treiber, and Gabriela Roman. 2019. Character, Circumstances and Criminal Careers: Towards a Dynamic Developmental and Life Course Criminology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                            Wikström, Per-Olof., Andromachi Tseloni, and Dimitris Karlis. 2011. “Do People Comply with the Law Because They Fear Getting Caught?” European Journal of Criminology 8(5): 401–420.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                              Worthy, Darrell A., Marissa A. Gorlick, Jennifer L. Pacheco, David M. Schnyer, and W. Todd Maddox. 2011. “With Age Comes Wisdom: Decision Making in Younger and Older Adults.” Psycholological Science 22(11): 1375–1380.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                                Worthy, Darrell A., and W. Todd Maddox. 2012. “Age-Based Differences in Strategy Use in Choice Tasks.” Frontiers in Neuroscience 5: 145.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                                                  Zito, Karen, and Karel Svoboda. 2002. “Activity-Dependent Synaptogenesis in the Adult Mammalian Cortex.” Neuron 35(6): 1015–1017.Find this resource:


                                                                                                                                                                                                    (1.) SAT’s conceptualization of self-control differs in fundamental ways from Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (Gottfredson 2011; Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990, 2003; Hirschi 2004; for a discussion see Wikström and Treiber 2007).

                                                                                                                                                                                                    (2.) Moral values are defined as “generalised rules of conduct.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                    (3.) See Wikström and Treiber (2007) regarding self-control theory and (2015) regarding opportunity theory (routine activities and rational choice).

                                                                                                                                                                                                    (4.) To study the causes of specific types of crime requires the study of specific propensities and environmental features, as people vary in how acceptable they find breaking different rules of conduct, generally and under different conditions.

                                                                                                                                                                                                    (5.) See Wikström (2011) on the importance of distinguishing between “causes” (proximal or direct) and “causes of the causes” (distal or indirect).

                                                                                                                                                                                                    (6.) While different actors may pay attention to different aspects of a setting (through selective perception) and may wrongly perceive its real characteristics (through distorted or biased perception), environmental features and actors’ perceptions of those features typically do not qualitatively differ.

                                                                                                                                                                                                    (7.) Broader historic socioecological processes determine the layout and content of the environments available in the jurisdiction in which a person operates.

                                                                                                                                                                                                    (8.) Human capital refers to personal skills, such as one’s level of education; financial capital refers to monetary assets; and social capital refers to resourceful relationships upon which one can draw.