I argue that a person-situation complex of delinquent rationalizations can be conceptualized by relating rationalizations to item response theory (IRT), where approval of delinquency is predominately a function of the individual willingness to rationalize ( θ j) and situational difficulty of applying a rationalization ( bi). This framework offers testable predictions and addresses extant criticisms.
Adolescents from a public high school ( N = 223) and subjects from the National Youth Survey ( N = 1,436) were asked their degree of approval for delinquency under various circumstances. Graded response models assessed the joint effects of individual and situational characteristics on approval of delinquency. I test whether differences in self-reported offending (SRO) and willingness to offend (WTO) are consistent with predictions derived from IRT models.
Approval of delinquency is a joint function of individual and situational characteristics. Some situations are so “easy” to rationalize that most everyone is predicted to approve of delinquency, and others are so “difficult” that only those very high in θ are predicted to express approval. SRO and WTO differences between individuals and situations are consistent with the IRT predictions.
The findings demonstrate the utility of IRT for understanding delinquent rationalizations. The implications of the findings for theory and person-situation explanations are discussed.