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Can Rational Choice Be Considered A General Theory Of Crime? Evidence From Individual‐Level Panel Data

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In the last few decades, rational choice theory has emerged as a bedrock theory in the fields of economics, sociology, psychology, and political science. Although rational choice theory has been available to criminologists for many years now, the field has not embraced it as other disciplines have. Moreover, rational choice scholars have fueled this skepticism of the theory's generality by modeling offender decision making that is one‐sided—large on the costs of crime (sanction threats), short on the benefits of crime. In this article, we directly assess the generality of rational choice theory by examining a fully specified model in a population that is often presumed to be less rational—adolescents from lower socioeconomic families who commit both instrumental (property) and expressive crimes (violence/drugs). By using a panel of N = 1,354 individuals, we find that offending behavior is consistent with rational responses to changes in the perceived costs and benefits of crime even after eliminating fixed unobserved heterogeneity and other time‐varying confounders, and these results are robust across different subgroups. The findings support our argument that rational choice theory is a general theory of crime.