Rational choice theories (RCTs) of crime assume actors behave in an instrumental, outcome-oriented way. Accordingly, individuals should weight the costs and benefits of criminal acts with subjective probabilities that these outcomes will occur. Previous studies either do not directly test this central hypothesis or else yield inconsistent results. We show that a meaningful test can be conducted only if a broader view is adopted that takes into account the interplay of moral norms and instrumental incentives. Such a view can be derived from the Model of Frame Selection (Kroneberg, 2005) and the Situational Action Theory of Crime Causation (Wikström, 2004). Based on these theories, we analyze the willingness to engage in shoplifting and tax fraud in a sample of 2,130 adults from Dresden, Germany. In line with our theoretical expectations, we find that only respondents who do not feel bound by moral norms show the kind of instrumental rationality assumed in RCTs of crime. Where norms have been strongly internalized, and in the absence of neutralizations, instrumental incentives are irrelevant.
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