Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/General strain theory, crime, and delinquency

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General strain theory, crime, and delinquency
How does GST explain crime and delinquency?

Overview[edit | edit source]

  1. Describe general strain theory (GST)
  2. Explain how strain leads to criminal and delinquent behaviour
  3. Applications

Focus questions:

  • What is GST?
  • How does GST explain crime and delinquency?

What is general strain theory?[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Criminal conviction can be one result of strain

General strain theory was primarily developed to explain why individuals differ in levels of crime and delinquency, expanding on previous strain literature. (Agnew, 1992).

In 1938 Robert Merton proposed the first modern version of strain theory which explained differences in offending due to social class. Original focus on societal differences in offending was the main scope of earlier strain theories. This explored societal pressures and failures to meet expectations, which left negative impacts on individuals or groups. These earlier ideas were criticised for their narrow range of possible strains, and focus on lower class which inspired Robert Agnew to develop general strain theory (Berzina, 2017).

In 1992 Robert Agnew proposed general strain theory (GST), to explain why failure to meet individual or group goals and needs would motivate one to correct failures through illegal means. Current general strain theory focus on strains [grammar?] cause of negative affect particularly anger, which motivates an individual to cope with such strains through criminal and delinquent behaviours.  (Agnew, 1992).

Anger is the most passionate core human emotion. Anger can be used in a prosocial manner, motivating change for the better, however, it can also lead to aggression depending on how one channels this emotion (Reeve, 2018). Gst explains strain is ‘most likely to trigger criminal responses in the company of negative affect, especially anger and absent legitimate coping strategies’ (Broidy, 2001). Individuals vary in cognitive, behavioural, and emotional coping strategies and social control, which differentiates what path one will go down when facing strain. A person who is going through a breakup may look to exercise or talking to a friend to alleviate unpleasant feelings, however, a person experiencing similar circumstances may take illicit drugs or aggressive behaviour to alleviate the same feelings. Gst explains not everyone has the same resources and social skills to deal with strain through legitimate means (Agnew, 1992).

General strain theory can be used to identify individuals who are at risk and provide society with the skills to overcome and deal with strain in a legal manner.

Characteristics of those strain most likely to result in crime are[grammar?][factual?]:

  • Seen as unjust
  • Seen high in magnitude
  • Are associated with low social control
  • Create some pressure or incentive to engage in criminal coping

Major types of strain[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Inability of individuals to achieve their goals[edit | edit source]

GST's first major type of strain is the inability of individuals to achieve their goals, or "goal blockage". When one fails to achieve an expected outcome or the failure to achieve a fair and just outcome results in strain (Agnew, 2001).

Failure to achieve positively valued goals is separated into three different categories:

  • The disjunction between expectations and actual achievements
  • Disjunction between just or fair outcomes
  • Disjunction between aspirations and expectations

The strain of goal blockage can be applied from such things as inability to achieve occupational goals, financial goals, or being treated with injustice. Such failure to achieve expectations may result in aversive feelings of disappointment, and dissatisfaction. Individuals may have few alternative goals which they seek refuge, placing emphasis and importance to achieve specific goals especially such goals or values receive strong social and cultural support.  Can be both moral or materialistic[grammar?]. Adolescents who are in strained environments or lack resources to achieve these goals , may acquire illegal strategies (Agnew, 1992).

The presentation of noxious or negatively valued stimuli[edit | edit source]

The presentation of noxious or negatively valued stimuli is one of the most powerful sources of strain[factual?]. This can be produced through negative relations with peers or through undesirable circumstances such as being raised in a household of domestic violence, criminal victimisation, or bullying victimisation. . Negative stimuli can also include things such as unpleasant odours, heat, air pollution and disgusting scenes (Agnew, 2001).

According to gst, noxious stimuli is suggested to lead to delinquency as an individual may try to escape from or avoid the negative stimuli, terminate or alleviate the negative stimuli, or seek revenge against the source of negative stimuli or related targets”. It is these negatively valued stimuli that produce aversive emotions and motivate desire to escape or terminate such things (Agnew, 1992).

The loss of positively valued stimuli[edit | edit source]

The loss of positively valued stimuli involves the loss of something valuable to an individual, causing strain and stress to the individual. Valued stimuli may be materialistic such as theft of valued property, or interpersonal such as the loss of a loved one (Agnew, 2001).

These types of strain provoke negative affect and individuals may cope to such strain through  delinquent behaviour as the individual tries to prevent the loss of the positive stimuli, retrieve the lost stimuli through theft or obtain substitute stimuli, seek revenge against those responsible for the loss with aggression/violence ,or manage negative affect caused by the loss by taking illicit drugs Agnew, 1992).

Figure 2. Basic model of general strain theory

What motivates strained individuals to cope illegitimately?[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Individual differences[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Drugs are a common strain coping mechanism

Typically, individuals will cope with negative affect in a legal manner. However, individuals differ in coping mechanisms. Social support, treatment, intelligence, values, self-esteem, deviant peer association, prior crime and deviance and moral beliefs are seen to be factors for individuals in selecting either legal or criminal and deviant behaviour to cope with strain (Agnew 2001).

Studies have revealed self-efficacy and self-esteem as important traits that lead to ability of selecting cognitive, behavioural and emotional coping mechanisms using legitimate means to overcome and address strain.  Individuals attribute anger differently, those with strong emotional coping mechanisms such as exercise, meditation and social support are less likely to engage in delinquent behaviour, with the ability to self-regulate (Broidy, 2001).

A need to escape[edit | edit source]

In certain circumstances individuals may be strained due to their environment, which motivates them to do whatever it takes to escape (eg. running away from home, skipping school to fleeing one's country) (Brezina, 2017).

Illegal immigration is one of the most common issues faced by countries around the world. Asylum seekers are faced with strains such as poverty and war, where they need to leave in order for any chance of survival.

What would you do if you were Ms My-Yen Tran's position?

I was born in Saigon 1971 and was only six years old when the Vietnamese Communist regime sent five officials to live in our house in Saigon. Their job was to monitor, intimidate and threaten us in order to get my parents to disclose and to hand over their wealth to the communists. During this time, Mum went into deep depression and Dad felt helpless and was unable to do anything.

After 28 days of having the communist officials living under our roof, we were forced out of our house and were left homeless in Saigon, a family of six with four children all under the age 10

(Address by Ms My-Yen Tran, former refugee from Vietnam, at the University of New South Wales Conference, 2011)

Retaliation[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Bullying is a major risk factor to delinquency

Revenge acts as a motivator for a strained individuals to correct feelings of anger and injustice. Individuals may view striking back at the source of strain as a better option then coping legally. This is one of the strongest motives to intimate partner homicide (IPT) and rioting (Eriksson & Mazerolle, 2013).

According to Agnew (1991), data indicates that when adversity is blamed on others it creates a desire for revenge that is distinct from the desire to end the adversity. This leads to behavioural consequences of striking with revenge at the source of strain. This can be from one end of the scale of a bullied victim striking back at the bully, to intimate partner homicide of a victim of domestic abuse, or cheating.

Revenge Porn

During the time of their intimate relationship "Jane" let her partner take naked photographs of her, where he assured her the pictures were for their enjoyment only. After Jane broke up with her partner he published her naked photographs on popular "revenge porn" sites along with her personal and contact information where she was bombarded and humiliated with messages from strangers.

With the rise in technology, alleviating anger at a directed source can be done at a touch of a button to punish one for ending a relationship, to blackmail or to silence an ex-lover to retaliate from strained relationships (Citron & Franks, 2014).

This year the Guardian Newspaper published a report revealing 1 in 3 people aged 16 to 64 years have been victims of image-based abuse (Boseley, 2020).

Generating revenue[edit | edit source]

Individuals who are strained by low income or pressured to achieve work goals may look to illegal means to create revenue. This can include property theft and white-collar crime (Higgins et al., 2010).

An advantage of GST compared to earlier theories of strain, GST explains middle class crime whereas original strain theories focused on structural lower-class explanations of crime[factual?].

Economic pressure is one of the main sources of strain and desired goals. A study by Felson et al. (2012) found that financial strain is most strongly associated with income generating crime. This can go from the scale of the unemployed, to corporate officials emerged in white-collar crime. Crime and delinquency allow for a quick money making profit in alternative to legitimate financial gain. Although lower class individuals are more likely to commit crime GST states that higher class individuals and corporations also experience selected strains conducive to crime (Agnew, Piquero & Cullen, 2009) . Crime is a great way to gain a lot of money quickly no matter what class you fit into! For youths, property theft is one of the most prevalent crimes they encounter (Moon et al., 2009). People who live in poverty lack the resources and opportunity for economic stability, and may adopt community standard of crime and delinquency to obtain necessities[grammar?].

Unemployment and homelessness induce strain of loss and negative stimuli as well as inability to achieve desired goals. These may increase motivation to commit crime as this may be the only opportunity to overcome economic problems (Allan & Steffensmeier, 1989). Agnew suggests that being unemployed individuals may pass time together learning and undertaking crime in such strained environments (Agnew, 2001).

Figure 5. Robbery rates per 100000 population around the world 2010-2012

Societal pressure[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Gender differences in offence[edit | edit source]

Males and females [grammar?] process of offending can both be explained by GST, however there is a gender discrepancy with how male and females interpret strains in different ways and react to different emotions (Broidy, 2001).

Male and female interpret and process events differently between genders[awkward expression?], therefore there levels of motivation to engage in criminal and delinquent behaviour are varied[factual?]. Males are predominantly more aggressive and have higher criminal offences[factual?]. Society has placed emphasis on gender roles that associate males with masculinity with aggression throughout most cultures over hundred[grammar?] of years. that Multiple factors lead to discrepancy of crime rates between genders. In 1997 Broidy and Agnew created the gender/GST hypothesis which suggests:

  • Males are subjected to more strains than females  
  • Males are subjected to different kinds of strains than females with male strain being more conducive to crime
  • Males have different emotional responses to strain, such emotional responses are more conducive to crime for males.
  • Males are more likely than females to respond to strain and anger with crime
  • Females are less likely than males to have a sense of mastery and self-esteem

Research has shown that women in fact use more legitimate coping mechanisms which may be due to the fact that they receive more social support than men when facing emotional difficulties (Jennings, et al., 2009).

Community differences in offence[edit | edit source]

Figure 6. Black Lives Matter protest caused by years of strain

Studies reveal high-crime communities are more likely to select and retain strained individuals, produce strain and foster criminal responses to strain in comparison to low-crime communities (Agnew, 1999).

Economic strain is one of the highest in magnitude[factual?]. GST acquires[say what?] relative deprivation[explain?] to explain disadvantaged communities that compare themselves do advantages others, which motivates the desire to achieve what advantaged individuals have which may be only possible through illegitimate behaviour. Communities that are strained by poverty encounter the inability to achieve multiple goals such as employment, access to healthcare, and other facilities. High crime rate communities are more likely to be exposed to noxious stimuli which often has a cyclical effect. Such strained individuals may not have the economic stability to flee the community and are constantly surrounded by strained emotionally distressed neighbours. High crime communities are more likely to select and retain strained individuals, produce strain and foster criminal responses to strain (Agnew, 1999).

GST can also explain different community crime levels though racial and ethnic discrimination[factual?]. Stereotypes may produce negative views of certain communities and produce strain for minorities through acts of injustice, preventing goals for being treated fairly. These sorts of strains leave minorities angered and frustrated from oppression, motivating seek equality and demand justice even if it is through delinquent and criminal means (Agnew, 1999).

Agnew’s writings on community differences mentioned such strains are evident in African American communities relationship with police (Agnew, 1999). Although such work was written years ago , it is still distressingly an issue evident in the present day. An issue of long duration and high magnitude where such strain has lead to the Black Lives Matter movement, which this year erupted into riots in the US after the murder of George Floyd.

Limitations of General Strain Theory[edit | edit source]

Throughout the years [vague] Agnew has had to constantly retaliated {{gr} to criticism of GST through bodies of literature defending his theory. The main limitation to GST is a lack of empirical evidence directly testing the theory. This is evident as it would involve various control measures in directly testing strains [grammar?] impact on individuals. As most studies supporting general strain theory are cross sectional, longitudinal studies are required to investigate impacts on individuals throughout duration of different strains.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Crime and delinquency can be explained according to General Strain Theory by assessing the outcome of the negative emotions that motivate individuals to cope with illegal means. There are various factors which may deprive an individual to cope with strain by legal matters including being raised in a criminal environment and lack of social support. Not being able to obtain ones[grammar?] goals, being exposed to negative stimuli and loss of positive stimuli are the main causes of strain that can cause an individual extreme negative affect motivating the need for homeostasis. GST has received support by academics [factual?] but has been largely criticised for its lack of empirical evidence, highlighting the need for further studies to support this theory. In conclusion this theory can help people understand the importance of effectively coping with emotions, and steer individuals motivation to legitimately cope with strain.

See also[edit | edit source]

Violent crime motivation (Book chapter, 2010)

White collar crime motivation (Book chapter, 2017)

Robert Agnew (Wikipedia)

Relative deprivation (Wikipedia)

References[edit | edit source]

Agnew, R. (1992). Foundation for a general strain theory of crime and delinquency. Criminology, 30(1), 47-88.

Agnew, R. (2001). Building on the Foundation of General Strain Theory: Specifying the Types of Strain Most Likely to Lead to Crime and Delinquency. Journal Of Research In Crime And Delinquency, 38(4), 319-361.

Agnew, R. (1999). A General Strain Theory of Community Differences in Crime Rates. Journal Of Research In Crime And Delinquency, 36(2), 123-155.

Agnew, R., Piquero, N. L., & Cullen, F. T. (2009). General strain theory and white-collar crime. In The criminology of white-collar crime (pp. 35-60). Springer, New York, NY.

Allan, E. A., & Steffensmeier, D. J. (1989). Youth, underemployment, and property crime: Differential effects of job availability and job quality on juvenile and young adult arrest rates. American sociological review, 107-123.

Boseley, M. (2020). Revenge porn in Australia: the law is only as effective as the law enforcement. The Guardian. Retrieved 18 October 2020, from

Brezina, T. (2017). General Strain Theory. Oxford Research Encyclopedia Of Criminology And Criminal Justice.

Broidy, L. (2001). A Test of General Strain Theory. Criminology, 39(1), 9-36.

Citron, D. K., & Franks, M. A. (2014). Criminalizing revenge porn. Wake Forest L. Rev., 49, 345.

Eriksson, L., & Mazerolle, P. (2013). A general strain theory of intimate partner homicide. Aggression And Violent Behavior, 18(5), 462-470.

Felson, R. B., Osgood, D. W., Horney, J., & Wiernik, C. (2012). Having a bad month: General versus specific effects of stress on crime. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 28(2), 347-363.

Higgins, G., Piquero, N., & Piquero, A. (2010). General Strain Theory, Peer Rejection, and Delinquency/Crime. Youth & Society, 43(4), 1272-1297.

Jennings, W., Piquero, N., Gover, A., & Pérez, D. (2009). Gender and general strain theory: A replication and exploration of Broidy and Agnew's gender/strain hypothesis among a sample of southwestern Mexican American adolescents. Journal Of Criminal Justice, 37(4), 404-417.

Moon, B., Morash, M., McCluskey, C. P., & Hwang, H. W. (2009). A comprehensive test of general strain theory: Key strains, situational-and trait-based negative emotions, conditioning factors, and delinquency. Journal of research in Crime and Delinquency, 46(2), 182-212.

My-Yen Tran's story - Refugee Council of Australia. Refugee Council of Australia. (2019). Retrieved 18 October 2020, from

Reeve, J. (2018). Understanding Motivation and Emotion (7th ed.). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

External links[edit | edit source]

A General Strain Theory Approach to Families and Delinquency

The Development of Offending

Maximizing children's resilience

Criminal careers and life success; Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development

Negative emotion and GST