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Crime Opportunity theory is a theory that suggests that offenders make rational choices and thus choose targets that offer a high reward with little effort and risk. The occurrence of a crime depends on two things: the presence of at least one motivated offender who is ready or willing to engage in a crime, and the conditions of the environment in which that offender is situated, to wit, opportunities for crime. All crimes require opportunity but not every opportunity is followed by crime. Similarly a motivated offender is necessary for the commission of a crime but not sufficient. A large part of this theory focuses on how variations in life-style or routine activities affect the opportunities for crime (Hindelang, Gottfredson, and Garofalo 1978; Cohen and Felson 1979; Cohen, Felson, and Land 1980).

Opportunity thus becomes the limiting factor that determines the outcome in environments prone to crime because the offender generally has little or no control over the conditions of the environment, and the conditions that permit particular crimes are often rare, unlikely or preventable.

Key conceptsEdit

Routine activitiesEdit

Main article: Routine activity theory

The idea that daily activities create the convergence in time and space of the three elements necessary for a crime to occur: motivated offenders, suitable targets, and the absence of capable guardians. The theory argues that available opportunities are an important component in the crime calculus. Choices in lifestyle on the part of potential victims may create or curtail crime opportunities for the motivated offender (Cohen and Felson 1979).[1]

Rational choiceEdit

The rational choice perspective tries to understand crime from the perspective of the offender. It is directly concerned with the thinking processes of offenders, how they evaluate criminal opportunities, why they decide to do one thing rather than another, and why they choose to obtain their ends by criminal and not legal means. This perspective has helped to explain why displacement does not always occur and has helped develop different ways to reduce opportunities for crime[2] (Cornish and Clarke, 1986).

Crime prevention through environmental designEdit

According to criminologist C. Ray Jeffery, crime results partly from the opportunities presented by physical environment therefor it is possible to alter the physical environment so that crime is less likely to occur. He argues that sociologists overstated the social causes of crime, and neglected both biological and environmental determinants (Jeffery 1977).

Situational crime preventionEdit

Situational Crime Prevention introduces discrete managerial and environmental changes to reduce the opportunity for crimes to occur. It is focused on the settings for crime and seeks to predict the occurrence of crime. It suggests that much offending can appropriately be viewed not simply as the product of deep social, economic, and psycho-logical causes but also as the result of deliberate choices by individuals. Therefore by making criminal action less attractive to offenders, criminal behavior can be curved (Clarke 1997).[3]

Critical developmentsEdit

Since its conception, the opportunity theory has received much analysis, criticism, and reform. Through research and experimentation the theory has been improved by several different scholars each emphasizing their own ideas. Some of those ideas are stated below:

  • A criminal act does not, however, result simply and inevitably from the presence of a criminally disposed individual. The conditions for crime must be right in terms of such situational factors as the availability of a vulnerable target and an appropriate opportunity (Clarke 229).
  • The life-style or routine activities of people alter the opportunity structure of crime, thereby explicitly influencing crime. High victimization rates of certain social categories can be explained by their choice of routine activities. Changes in routine activities in recent years (e.g., away-from-home travel, single-person households, and labor-force participation of both spouses) leave a high percentage of homes unattended during the day and night and place people in relatively unguarded environments (Cohen and Felson 1979).
  • A critical development of the crime opportunity theory is that crime itself breeds crime. One way this happens is that one person victimizes another who then victimizes a third person, and so on. This is called a Van Dijk chain, named after the Dutch criminologist who has studied victimization and helped formulate the crime opportunity theory (Dijk 1994).

Empirical supportEdit

There have been several studies conducted both inside and outside of the United States that illustrate the importance of opportunity in crime:

Suicide trendsEdit

In England and Wales during the 1960s and 1970s opportunity proved to be a strong and surprising component in suicide trends. In 1958 almost 50 percent of the nearly 5,300 people who killed themselves in England and Wales did so by domestic gas. During the 1960s, domestic gas began to be manufactured from oil rather than from coal making it less poisonous. Consequently the number of people killing themselves with gas began to decline. By the mid-1970s when natural gas had been introduced throughout most of the country, less than one percent of suicides were by domestic gas, compared with about 50 percent at the beginning of the period. Suicides did not displace wholesale to other methods. Between 1968 and 1975, total suicides dropped by about one third from nearly 5, 300 to nearly 3, 700. This was during a time of much economic uncertainty when one might have expected suicides to increase and, indeed, was generally increasing in other European countries. The reason people not turn to other methods of suicide is that all other methods have disadvantages not possessed by gas. It is dramatically more difficult to kill oneself with guns, pills overdose, or jumping out of a tall building because all these methods require courage and resolution. Lethal domestic gas, on the other hand, required little preparation and involved no pain. It is easy to understand why it was the favored method of suicide in Britain for so long. Nor is it so surprising that when the opportunity to use it was removed, the overall suicide rate declined (Clarke and Mayhew, 1988).

Motorcycle theftEdit

In Germany during the 1980s a study of motorcycle theft identified opportunity as its crucial element. The thefts of motorbikes had drastically declined from about 150,000 in 1980 to about 50,000 in 1986. This tremendous decline was the result of a new law passed in 1980 making it illegal to ride a motorbike in Germany without a helmet. The law was gradually enforced more strictly during the period and resulted in the large decline in motorcycle thefts. There is some limited evidence of displacement because between 1980 and 1983 thefts of cars went up from about 64,000 to 70,000 and the theft of bicycles also saw a noticeable increase. Altogether, it was clear that at best only a small proportion of the 100,000 motorbike thefts saved by the helmet laws were displaced to thefts of other vehicles (Mayhew et al., 1989).

Residential burglaryEdit

In the United States, a study was completed to investigate the dramatic increase in residential burglary during the 1960s and 1970s. A careful analysis by Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson (1979) showed that this increase was to a combination of two changes; temptation and opportunity. Temptation had been increased by the vast increase in light-weight electronic goods such as TV’s and VCR’s in people’s homes that could readily be sold. The opportunity to commit burglary was greatly increased as a result of far more women going out to work (Cohen and Felson 1979).

Van Dijk's chainsEdit

The criminologist Van Dijk noticed a typical pattern in the theft of bicycles that also emphasizes the role of opportunity. He observed that the victim of a bike theft would steal a bike from someone else to replace it. That victim would in turn steal a bike from another owner, and so on. Thus a single bicycle theft would have a multiplier effect, leading to several additional bicycle thefts. The chains could apply to the theft of any items with these four attributes: widely owned, necessary for daily use, easily taken, and sufficiently expensive (Dijk 1994).

Criticisms and theoretical questionsEdit

Although the crime opportunity is a useful tool for evaluating criminal environments, like any other theory there are numerous criticisms:

  • The protection given to targets by using practical measures like locks and alarms simply displace crime to some other time or place
  • No real improvements in levels of crime can be achieved without tackling root psychological and social causes
  • If opportunities for certain kinds of crime are blocked, offenders simply resort to more violence or shift their energies to completely different and perhaps more intractable kinds of crime

Crime prevention implicationsEdit

The opportunity theory has direct application to crime prevention. Concepts like problem-oriented policing, defensible space architecture, crime prevention through environmental design, and situational crime prevention seek to reduce opportunities for crime for particular kinds of targets, places, and classes of victims. Each is concerned with preventing very specific kinds of crime and none of the four attempts to improve human character. Most important, all four seek to block crime in practical, natural, and simple ways, at low social and economic costs (Cohen and Felson 1998).

Sixteen opportunity-reducing techniques have also been identified, falling under four objectives derived from rational choice theory: increasing the perceived effort of crime, increasing the perceived risks, reducing the anticipated rewards, and removing excuse for crime. Criminologist Ronald V. Clarke discusses twenty three studies that have documented the success of the use of these opportunity-reducing in his book, “Situational crime prevention: Successful case studies” (Clarke, 1997).

See alsoEdit


Further readingEdit

  • Clarke, Ronald V. (1983). “Situation Crime Prevention: It’s Theoretical Basis and Practical Scope.” Crime and Justice 4: 225-256. Web. 2 December 2012.
  • Clarke, Ronald V. and Pat Mayhew. (1988). “The British Gas Suicide Story and its Implications for Prevention”. In Michael Tonry and Norval Morris (eds.), 1988. Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, Vol.10. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
  • Clarke, Ronald V. (ed.). (1997). Situational Crime Prevention: Successful Case Studies (Second Edition). Albany, NY: Harrow and Heston. from
  • Cohen, Lawrence E. and Marcus Felson. (1979). “Social Change and Crime Rate Trends: A Routine Activity Approach. American Sociological Review 44: 588-608 from
  • Cohen, Lawrence, Felson, Marcus & Land, Kenneth. (1980). Property crime rates in the united states: A macrodynamic analysis, 1947-1977; with ex ante forecasts for the mid-1980's." American Journal of Sociology 86, 90-118.
  • Cornish, Derek. B. and Ronald V. Clarke. (1986). The Reasoning Criminal. New York: Springer-Verlag. from
  • Dijk, Jan van. (1994). Understanding crime rates: On interactions between rational choices of victims and offenders. British Journal of Criminology Vol 34, Pages 105-121.
  • Felson, M. (2006). Crime and nature. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
  • Hindelang, Michael, Gottfredson, Michael & Garofalo, James. (1978). Victims of personal crime: An empirical foundation for a theory of personal victimization. Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger.
  • Jeffery, C. Ray. (1977). Crime Prevention through Environmental Design. (Second Edition). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
  • Mayhew, Pat, Ronald V. Clarke and David Elliott. (1989). “Motorcycle theft, helmet legislation and displacement”. Howard Journal of Criminal Justice 28: 1-8.
  • Warr, M. (2002). Companions in crime: The social aspects of criminal conduct. Cambridge University Press.

External linksEdit

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