November 19, 2008

Gottfredson and Hirschi's Low Self-Control Theory; or why kids feed lizards to crocodiles


By Bradley Wright

One of the better known criminological theories of recent decades is Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) low self-control theory. This theory holds that children develop levels of self-control by about ages seven or eight, and these levels remain relatively stable the rest of their lives. Children with low levels of self-control end up being more prone to crime, and their criminal propensity continues into later life.

Low self-control manifests in a variety of ways. People with low self-control are unable to delay gratification, for they are focused on the present. They want it now! As a result, low self-control people act impulsively—without much thought and based on what they are feeling at the moment. This makes them risk takers; if we don’t consider the consequences of our actions, we’re willing to try lots more behaviors—even if they are potentially damaging to us. Finally, low self-control people are focused on themselves rather than others, making them insensitive to other people. Empathy isn’t a big deal for them.

It’s easy to see how low self-control would lead to criminal behavior. Crime usually involves a desire for immediate gratification, like taking what you want. It can also be impulsive, happening on the spur of the moment without any planning. Given the possible negative consequences of crime, it involves taking risks. It also often creates victims, so criminal behavior can require indifference toward other peoples’ well-being.

Where does low self-control come from? According to Gottfredson and Hirschi, it’s the product of ineffective parenting. This happens in families where there is weak attachment between parent and child and in families where parents fail to recognize and correct their children’s wrong behavior.

Recently, a story came out of Australia about a seven-year-old boy that we could probably crown the king (or maybe prince) of low self-control. This boy, and his family, lives near the Alice Springs Reptile Center, located in the outback of Australia. Early one morning, this boy snuck into the Reptile Center and started killing animals. He bludgeoned some of the smaller lizards to death, and climbed over fence to feed others to an eleven-foot-long salt water crocodile. By the time he finished, the boy had killed thirteen animals worth $5,500.

Here’s a video of the event from the zoo’s security cameras:

This behavior fits perfectly with low self-control theory. The kid was only seven-years-old, suggesting that this type of behavior starts very early. He acted without any sense of consequence for his behavior; in fact, security cameras showed him smiling as he killed the animals. He clearly showed no sense of empathy for the animals or the zoo keepers, and he took a lot of risks. Not only did he sneak past the security system, but he also climbed a fence to get a closer look at the crocodile, in the process endangering himself.

The boy’s behavior also suggests that his parents are particularly ineffective. Most parents would not enable their child disappear for such an extended period without realizing it. Also, it turns out that several years earlier, this boy’s brother had vandalized the zoo as well (though somewhat less dramatically). This suggests that his parents were not able to appropriately deter this behavior. In suggesting a more appropriate parenting style, the center director said that “In my day he'd [the boy] get a big boot up the arse.”


According to low self-control theory, this boy would be expected to continue such low self-control behavior into adolescence then into adulthood, and he would move on from harming animals to harming people. Hopefully he won’t be feeding people to crocodiles, but self-control theory would predict a lengthy criminal record for him eventually.

As a side note, while Gottfredson and Hirschi, both sociologists, popularized this approach to criminal behavior, psychologists have been studying developing similar theories for many years before self-control theory. Impulsivity, immediate gratification, risk-taking are well-established concepts in psychological accounts of crime and deviance. 

Surprisingly, Gottfredson and Hirschi did not review this literature. As such, their “discovery” of low self-control is a lot like Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. Certainly he was the first European to find the Americas (except for maybe the Vikings), but there was already plenty of people here when he arrived. Likewise, Gottfredson and Hirschi didn’t invent a self-control explanation for crime, but they certainly introduced it to a broader audience. Because of them, we have a better understanding of why boys feed lizards to crocodiles in Australia.


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Thanks so much for the way you explain theories and what not in your articles. I have a much better understanding of them because of these articles in comparison to the scientific writing I can't understand in my class's books! Thank you for your help!

Thank you for the information, it was great to read, because I know someone who has this problem. Thanks again

Could it be that despite good parenting perhaps the 7 yr old has some physiological factors that have not been looked at and not an issue of self control. This too perhaps leads to the argument that parenting in this case cited is improper because a good parent would seek all avenues to explain behavior (I am sure this kid has acted out before leading to this tragic event). Given that about 45% of kids in California detention have some sort of frontal lobe problems and this leads to deviant behavior (shows up at ADHS, etc) perhaps this kid too many have this issue. The theory you explained (and did a great job at that) cannot explain away all deviant behavior. Criminologist know that we need to take a pyscho-social-even physiological look at deviance before explaining away behavior. And, this is the problem with this theory- it fails to recognize more closely other factors that influence negative behavior.

Thats crazy! I had no idea about this. It makes me want to have a stronger relationship with my parents. I had no idea that a low self esteem could because of the way you are raised.

We are discussing the theories of Hirschi and Gottfredson in our Criminology class. I find them interesting, but incomplete. They do not really define their theory, but give broad generalizations.
You posted a brilliant article, and thank you so much.

Reading about this really helps me understand control theory better. It's actually sad to read this, that lacking attachment with your parents can actually lead to doing things impulsively and ending with such bad consequences! I see how the emotion stimulates taking risks and not caring. Thanks for the article!

Wow, that is astonishing. I can't believe a seven year old would do such a horrible thing! Recently in my city, two kids that were nine years old skipped school and went shoplifting, and stole hundreds of dollars worth of merchandise! I agree that this has to do with poor parenting and parents that use ineffective methods. However, I feel like these kids may have some sort of mental issue that might lead them to make these sorts of decisions

yes most crimes are as a result of poor parenting

This is interesting
I truly like it

Nice piece

This is appalling. Based upon what we now know, we can identify sociopaths in early childhood -- and many parents of sociopaths do just that. Furthermore, low impulse control is one of the listed aspects of ADHD. There can be many causes of ADHD.

So no, a child behaving like this demonstrates that there is something seriously wrong with the child. Furthermore, some of these children are incredibly difficult to handle.

Please incorporate more current data into this description, if only to give contexttual information.

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