Assessing Similarities and Differences in Self-Control between Police Officers and Offenders

  • Ryan C. MeldrumEmail author
  • Christopher M. Donner
  • Shawna Cleary
  • Andy Hochstetler
  • Matt DeLisi


Research provides consistent evidence that non-offenders have greater self-control than offenders. While such differences exist across a range of samples, the ability of measures of self-control to discriminate between different groups merits additional attention. We advance research on this topic by comparing the self-control of police officers to offenders. Results indicate police officers score higher than offenders do on global self-control. Results also indicate that, when analyzing differences across the six dimensions of self-control conceptualized by Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990), police officers consistently score lower in impulsivity, self-centeredness, and anger than offenders. At the same time, police officers have a greater preference for physical activities than offenders do, and the risk-seeking and simple tasks dimensions are inconsistently associated with being a police officer relative to an offender across the different models estimated. Discussion centers on the implications of these findings for theory and for the screening of potential police recruits.


Self-control Police officers Prisoners Grasmick et al. (1993) Scale 



The authors would like to express their appreciation to the anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this manuscript.


  1. Anderson, G. S., Plecas, D., & Segger, T. (2001). Police officer physical ability testing–re-validating a selection criterion. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 24(1), 8–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Arrigo, B. A., & Claussen, N. (2003). Police corruption and psychological testing: A strategy for pre-employment screening. International Journal of Offender Therapy & Comparative Criminology, 47(3), 272–290.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bainbridge Island Police Department. (2012). Key traits and characteristics sought in police officers. Bainbridge Island, WA: City of Bainbridge Island.Google Scholar
  4. Baumeister, R. F., & Alquist, J. L. (2009). Is there a downside to good self-control? Self and Identity, 8, 115–130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Beaver, K. M., DeLisi, M., Mears, D. P., & Stewart, E. (2009). Low self-control and contact with the criminal justice system in a nationally representative sample of males. Justice Quarterly, 26(4), 695–715.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bishopp, S. A., & Boots, D. P. (2014). General strain theory, exposure to violence, and suicide ideation among police officers: A gendered approach. Journal of Criminal Justice, 42, 538–548.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bissett, D., Bissett, J., & Snell, C. (2012). Physical agility tests and fitness standards: Perceptions of law enforcement officers. Police Practice and Research, 13(3), 208–223.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bittner, E. (1970). The functions of the police in modern society: A review of background factors, current practices, and possible role models. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Mental Health.Google Scholar
  9. Brooks, L. (1993). Police discretionary behavior. In R. G. Dunham & G. P. Alpert (Eds.), Critical issues in policing (pp. 140–164). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.Google Scholar
  10. Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2016). State and local law enforcement training academies, 2013. Washington, DC: Department of Justice.Google Scholar
  11. California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training. (2014). Behavioral traits evaluated in the selection process. Sacramento, CA: State of California.Google Scholar
  12. Capps, L. E. (2014). Characteristics of an ideal police officer. FBI law enforcement. Retrieved from
  13. Carroll, A., Hemingway, F., Bower, J., Ashman, A., Houghton, S., & Durkin, K. (2006). Impulsivity in juvenile delinquency: Differences among early-onset, late-onset, and non-offenders. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 35(4), 517–527.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Caspi, A., Houts, R. M., Belsky, D. W., Harrington, H., Hogan, S., Ramrakha, S., et al. (2016). Childhood forecasting of a small segment of the population with large economic burden. Nature Human Behaviour, 1(1), 1–10.Google Scholar
  15. Cleary, S. (2004). Sex Offenders and Self-Control Explaining Sexual Violence. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC.Google Scholar
  16. Cochrane, R. E., Tett, R. P., & Vandercreek, L. (2003). Psychological testing and the selection of police officers. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 30(5), 511–537.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. de Ridder, D. T., Lensvelt-Mulders, G., Finkenauer, C., Stok, F. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (2012). Taking stock of self-control: A meta-analysis of how trait self-control relates to a wide range of behaviors. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 16(1), 76–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. De Vries, R. E., & Van Gelder, J. L. (2013). Tales of two self-control scales: Relations with five-factor and HEXACO traits. Personality and Individual Differences, 54(6), 756–760.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. DeLisi, M. (2011). Self-control theory: The Tyrannosaurus rex of criminology is poised to devour criminal justice. Journal of Criminal Justice, 2(39), 103–105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. DeLisi, M. (2013). Pandora’s box: The consequences of low self-control into adulthood. In C. L. Gibson & M. D. Krohn (Eds.), Handbook of life-course criminology: Emerging trends and directions for future research (pp. 261–273). New York, NY: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. DeLisi, M., Hochstetler, A., & Murphy, D. S. (2003). Self-control behind bars: A validation study of the Grasmick et al. scale. Justice Quarterly, 20(2), 241–263.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Detrick, P., & Chibnall, J. T. (2006). NEO PI-R personality characteristics of high-performing entry-level police officers. Psychological Services, 3(4), 274.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Donner, C. M., Fridell, L. A., & Jennings, W. G. (2016). The relationship between self-control and police misconduct: A multi-agency study of first-line police supervisors. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 43(7), 841–862.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Donner, C. M., & Jennings, W. G. (2014). Low self-control and police deviance: Applying Gottfredson and Hirschi’s general theory to officer misconduct. Police Quarterly, 17(3), 203–225.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Donner, C. M., Maskaly, J., & Thompson, K. N. (2018). Self-control and the police code of silence: Examining the unwillingness to report fellow officers' misbehavior among a multi-agency sample of police recruits. Journal of Criminal Justice, 56, 11–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Girodo, M. (1991). Drug corruption in undercover agents: Measuring the risk. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 9(3), 361–370.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Goldstein, H. (1975). Police corruption: A perspective on its nature and control. Washington, DC: The Police Foundation.Google Scholar
  28. Gottfredson, M. R., & Hirschi, T. (1990). A general theory of crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Gottfredson, M. R., & Hirschi, T. (2019). Modern control theory and the limits of criminal justice. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Gould, L. A. (2000). A longitudinal approach to the study of the police personality: Race/gender differences. Journal of Police & Criminal Psychology, 15, 41–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Grasmick, H. G., Tittle, C. R., Bursik, R. J., & Arneklev, B. J. (1993). Testing the core empirical implications of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s general theory of crime. Journal of Research in Crime & Delinquency, 30(1), 5–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hargrave, G. E., & Berner, J. G. (1984). POST psychological screening manual. Sacramento, CA: State of California, Department of Justice.Google Scholar
  33. Hargrave, G. E., & Hiatt, D. (1989). Use of the California psychological inventory in law enforcement officer selection. Journal of Personality Assessment, 53(2), 267–277.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Hay, C., & Meldrum, R. (2015). Self-control and crime over the life course. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  35. Herbert, S. (1998). Police subculture reconsidered. Criminology, 36(2), 343–370.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Hiatt, D., & Hargrave, G. E. (1988). MMPI profiles of problem peace officers. Journal of Personality Assessment, 52(4), 722–731.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Hirschi, T. (2004). Self-control and crime. In R. Baumeister & K. Vohs (Eds.), Handbook of self- regulation: Research, theory, and applications (pp. 537–552). New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  38. Hirschi, T., & Gottfredson, M. (1993). Commentary: Testing the general theory of crime. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 30(1), 47–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Hogue, M. C., Black, T., & Sigler, R. T. (1994). The differential use of screening techniques in the recruitment of police officers. American Journal of Police, 13(2), 113–124.Google Scholar
  40. Hunter, G. R., Bamman, M. M., Wetzstein, C. J., & Hilyer, J. C. (1999). Validation of fitness/ physical abilities tests for evaluating the ability to do job-related tasks. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 21(2), 33–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Ireland, J. L. (2011). The importance of coping, threat appraisal, and beliefs in understanding and responding to fear of victimization: Applications to a male prisoner sample. Law and Human Behavior, 35(4), 306–315.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Ivkovic, S. K. (2005). Fallen blue knights: Controlling police corruption. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Jones, S. (2017). Does choice of measure matter? Assessing the similarities and differences among self-control scales. Journal of Criminal Justice, 50, 78–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Kane, R. J., & White, M. D. (2012). Jammed up: Bad cops, police misconduct, and the New York City police department. New York: New York University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Krueger, R. F., Caspi, A., Moffitt, T. E., White, J., & Stouthamer-Loeber, M. (1996). Delay of gratification, psychopathology, and personality: Is low self-control specific to externalizing problems? Journal of Personality, 64(1), 107–129.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Maskaly, J., & Donner, C. M. (2015). A theoretical integration of social learning theory with terror management theory: Towards an explanation of police shootings of unarmed suspects. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 40(2), 205–224.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Metchik, E. (1999). An analysis of the" screening out" model of police officer selection. Police Quarterly, 2(1), 79–95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Mitchell, O., & MacKenzie, D. L. (2006). The stability and resiliency of self-control in a sample of incarcerated offenders. Crime & Delinquency, 52(3), 432–449.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Moffitt, T. E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R. J., Harrington, H., Houts, R., Poulton, R., Roberts, B. W., Ross, S., Sears, M. R., Thomson, W. M., & Caspi, A. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(7), 2693–2698.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Moffitt, T. E., Poulton, R., & Caspi, A. (2013). Lifelong impact of early self-control. American Scientist, 101(5), 352–359.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Morison, K. P. (2017). Hiring for the 21st century law enforcement officer: Challenges, opportunities, and strategies for success. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.Google Scholar
  52. Ohio Law Enforcement Foundation. (2001). The complete guide to hiring law enforcement officers. Dublin, OH: Law Enforcement Foundation.Google Scholar
  53. Palmiotto, M. J. (2001). Can police recruiting control police misconduct? In M. J. Palmiotto (Ed.), Police misconduct: A reader for the 21 stcentury (pp. 344–354). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  54. Pogarsky, G., & Piquero, A. R. (2004). Studying the reach of deterrence: Can deterrence theory help explain police misconduct? Journal of Criminal Justice, 32(4), 371–386.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Pratt, T. C. (2016). A self-control/life-course theory of criminal behavior. European Journal of Criminology, 13(1), 129–146.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Pratt, T. C., & Cullen, F. T. (2000). The empirical status of Gottfredson and Hirschi's general theory of crime: A meta-analysis. Criminology, 38(3), 931–964.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Reisig, M. D., & Mesko, G. (2009). Procedural justice, legitimacy, and prisoner misconduct. Psychology, Crime & Law, 15(1), 41–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Reiss, A. J. (1971). The police and the public. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  59. Sanders, B. A. (2003). Maybe there’s no such thing as a “good cop”: Organizational challenges in selecting quality officers. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 26(2), 313–328.Google Scholar
  60. Sarchione, C. D., Cuttler, M. J., Muchinsky, P. M., & Nelson-Gray, R. O. (1998). Prediction of dysfunctional job behaviors among law enforcement officers. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83(6), 904–912.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Sechrest, D. K., & Burns, P. (1992). Police corruption: The Miami case. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 19(3), 294–313.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Shephard, R. J., & Bonneau, J. (2003). Assuring gender equity in recruitment standards for police officers. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology, 27, 263–295.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Sherman, L. W. (1978). Scandal and reform: Controlling police corruption. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  64. Skogan, W., & Frydl, K. (2004). Fairness and effectiveness in policing: The evidence. Washington, D.C.: National Academic Press.Google Scholar
  65. Skolnick, J. H., & Fyfe, J. J. (1993). Above the law: Police and the excessive use of force. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  66. Smith, H. P. (2015). The meaning of the cut: A phenomenological inquiry into prisoner self- injury. Justice Quarterly, 32(3), 500–531.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Staller, M. S., Müller, M., Christiansen, P., Zaiser, B., Körner, S., & Cole, J. C. (2019). Ego depletion and the use of force: Investigating the effects of ego depletion on police officers’ intention to use force. Aggressive Behavior, 45(2), 161–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Tangney, J. P., Baumeister, R. F., & Boone, A. L. (2004). High self-control predicts good adjustment, less pathology, better grades, and interpersonal success. Journal of Personality, 72, 271–324.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Turner, M. G., & Piquero, A. R. (2002). The stability of self-control. Journal of Criminal Justice, 30(6), 457–471.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Van Maanen, J. (1975). Police socialization: A longitudinal examination of job attitudes in an urban police department. Administrative Science Quarterly, 20(2), 207–228.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Vazsonyi, A. T., Mikuška, J., & Kelley, E. L. (2017). It's time: A meta-analysis on the self- control-deviance link. Journal of Criminal Justice, 48, 48–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Walker, S. (1993). Taming the system: The control of discretion in criminal justice, 1950–1990. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. White, M. D. (2008). Identifying good cops early: Predicting recruit performance in the academy. Police Quarterly, 11(1), 27–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Whetstone, T. S., Reed, J. C., & Turner, P. C. (2006). Recruiting: A comparative study of the recruiting practices of state police agencies. International Journal of Police Science and Management, 8(1), 52–66.Google Scholar
  75. Winfree Jr., L. T., Taylor, T. J., He, N., & Esbensen, F. A. (2006). Self-control and variability over time: Multivariate results using a 5-year, multisite panel of youths. Crime & Delinquency, 52(2), 253–286.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Southern Criminal Justice Association 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ryan C. Meldrum
    • 1
    Email author
  • Christopher M. Donner
    • 2
  • Shawna Cleary
    • 3
  • Andy Hochstetler
    • 4
  • Matt DeLisi
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of Criminology and Criminal JusticeFlorida International UniversityMiamiUSA
  2. 2.Department of Criminal Justice and CriminologyLoyola University ChicagoChicagoUSA
  3. 3.School of Criminal JusticeUniversity of Central OklahomaEdmondUSA
  4. 4.Department of SociologyIowa State UniversityAmesUSA

Personalised recommendations