Low Self-Control and Environmental Harm: A Theoretical Perspective and Empirical Test


Research finds low self-control is associated with a myriad of delinquent, criminal, and antisocial behaviors. Less attention, however, has been directed at investigating whether low self-control is related to environmental harm. The current study contributes to this area of research in two ways. First, we explicate why low self-control would relate to environmental harms committed by individuals. Second, using data collected on a sample of approximately 500 adults from southeastern Florida, we test whether low self-control is associated with the specific environmental harm of littering. Results indicate low self-control increases the likelihood of both past littering behavior as well as projected littering behavior. Supplementary analyses demonstrate low self-control is associated with higher frequency littering but not lower frequency littering. Discussion centers on the implications of the findings, study limitations, and a call for additional research to investigate the association between low self-control and a broader array of environmental harms.

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  1. 1.

    We recognize that while all environmental crimes would be categorized as environmental harms, not all environmental harms are necessarily criminal (i.e., some are subject to a non-criminal civil proceeding, citation, or fine). Regardless, the presumption is that Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) theory should be able to explain both criminal and non-criminal environmental harms. Given this, we use the phrase environmental harm throughout the paper with the exception of instances in which direct quotes refer to environmental crime.

  2. 2.

    Some environmental harms committed by businesses in the pursuit of financial gain (e.g., allowing run-off of toxic chemicals into waterways to avoid more costly disposal methods) are consistent with white-collar offending. Yet, other environmental harms would not be considered white-collar crimes because they are committed outside of the workplace context. Situ and Emmons (2000) offer a number of examples, including dumping paint and chemicals down drains, improper disposal of items (e.g., tires), and failure to remove waste while camping.

  3. 3.

    Stretesky, Long, & Lynch (2013) directly contend that self-control theory is ill-suited for studying environmental harms committed by organizations and businesses. Our focus, however, is on environmental harms committed at the individual-level. As will be made clear in the following section, we believe self-control theory can be used to understand such behaviors.

  4. 4.

    A burl is a tree growth where the grain has formed in an abnormal shape. Burls are important for the ecology of forests because they can promote the growth of new trees. At the same time, burls have a high monetary value, and they are often sliced into veneers to make furniture, picture frames, and musical instruments because of the uniqueness of the wood grain.

  5. 5.

    In a traditional perspective, the self-centeredness dimension of low self-control pertains to the lack of concern for how one’s actions affect other people, but in the context of the current example, ‘lack of concern’ would apply to flora and fauna and not just people.

  6. 6.

    The study was a master’s thesis that, to our knowledge, was never published in an academic journal.

  7. 7.

    The measure consisted of items relating to unemployment, divorce, number of sexual partners, motor vehicle violations, auto accidents, and drinking habits.

  8. 8.

    This is also true of the study by Ray and Jones (2011) that focused on psychopathic traits as a predictor of intentions to engage in toxic dumping.

  9. 9.

    It can also be noted that low self-control was not the primary focus of the study by Reisig et al. (2014). Low self-control was merely included as a control variable in models that focused on the effect of procedural justice and police legitimacy on littering and other antisocial behaviors.

  10. 10.

    According to the website, approximately two-thirds of residents in Miami-Dade County (i.e., southeastern Florida) identify as Hispanic.

  11. 11.

    The 10% includes those who said “Three to Five Times,” “Six to Ten Times,” and “More than 10 Times.”

  12. 12.

    Supplementary analyses using a three-category measure of past littering behavior, with a value of two representing the 10% of participants who reported littering more than “once or twice,” are discussed following the presentation of the main results.

  13. 13.

    Some readers may question the use of single item measures of self-reported littering behavior. Yet, they commonly appear in the research literature (e.g., de Puiseau et al., 2019; Reisig et al., 2014), and the results will demonstrate that several variables are associated with variation in the singe-item measures of past and projected littering in ways that would be expected of valid indicators of the behavior.

  14. 14.

    To encourage participation in the study by keeping the in-person survey interviews brief, not all 24 items developed by Grasmick et al. (1993) were included. Impulsivity, risk-seeking, and self-centeredness items were chosen given that past research indicates these dimensions are more strongly associated with antisocial behavior than other dimensions (e.g., Piquero & Rosay, 1998).

  15. 15.

    The construct validity of this 8-item measure is demonstrated by the fact that it is positively correlated with being male (r = 0.15), peer littering (r = 0.22), and both past littering (r = 0.19) and projected littering (r = 0.18). Thus, even though the full 24-item Grasmick et al. (1993) scale was not used in this study, the 8-item measure operates in a manner that would be expected of a valid measure of low self-control.

  16. 16.

    This percentage can be compared to the most recent estimates available from the 2017 National Survey of Drug Use and Health, which reported that 22.3% of 18–25 year olds have used cigarettes in the past 30 days, while 18.9% of individuals 26 or older have used cigarettes in the past 30 days (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2018).

  17. 17.

    Illegal disposal in excess of 15 pounds but less than 500 pounds (“dumping”) is punishable as a first degree misdemeanor; a weight exceeding 500 pounds is punishable as a third degree felony. As a point of reference, a typical car tire weighs around 20 pounds.

  18. 18.

    A brant test for Model 2 in Appendix B indicated the parallel regression assumption was not being violated for the model as a whole (p = 0.06).

  19. 19.

    The full results for each of the supplementary models described in the preceding two paragraphs are available on request.


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Table 4 correlation matrix
Table 5 Ordered Logistic Regressions of Past Littering

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Partin, R.D., Stojakovic, N., Alqahtani, M. et al. Low Self-Control and Environmental Harm: A Theoretical Perspective and Empirical Test. Am J Crim Just (2020) doi:10.1007/s12103-019-09514-3

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  • Low self-control
  • General theory of crime
  • Environmental harm
  • Environmental crime
  • Littering