What Is Social Control Theory?

Social control theory is the idea that people obey rules and follow laws because that is what is generally accepted by everyone else. People strive to uphold regulations, not because they necessarily agree with them, but because of the principles these decrees represent. Social control theory is commonly used in childhood psychology.

Social control theory postulates that people adhere to certain guidelines out of moral pressure to save face. They are afraid to fall out of sync with the rest of society by breaking laws, so they choose instead to abide by them. Social control theory claims that in the absence of social and cultural norms, people act however they want.

This is a major school of thought in juvenile and adult policing. The theory states that people with strong societal attachments are likely to adhere to public norms and regulations, but those with a less prominent or solid grouping, and those who fall into step with others who are already outside the accepted parameters of society, are likely to commit crime. The more invested individuals fit in with a specific social group, the more likely they are to pursue actions and ideas that fit with the values of that organization, even if the actions are considered illegal.