Devils in Disguise: The Contribution of Positive Labeling to 'Sneaky Thrills' Delinquency

Timothy Brezina, Tulane University

Delinquency theorists have traditionally focused on the criminogenic effects of negative labels and, in general, have argued that the negative labeling of delinquent youth may invoke a self-fulfilling prophecy and thereby encourage further (secondary) delinquency. In this paper, I argue that labeling theorists have largely overlooked the criminogenic effects of positive labeling. Drawing on the relevant delinquency literature, it is argued that positive labels may also promote delinquent behavior (indirectly) under certain conditions. In particular, youths who are viewed in a positive light by authority figures (e.g., "good kid," "responsible," "trustworthy") are often granted more opportunities to escape adult supervision than those who are labeled in more neutral or negative terms. Consequently, such youths also enjoy more freedom to pursue delinquent activities. Moreover, recognizing the benefits of positive labeling, some youths actively campaign for positive reputations in order to gain the trust of adults and to secure increased autonomy and delinquent opportunity. Indirect evidence_demonstrating both the contribution of positive labeling to delinquency and the devious campaigning of youths_is drawn from the existing literature and from selected quotes from offenders. Finally, a number of novel hypotheses are offered to guide future research in this area.

(Return to Program Resources)

Updated 05/20/2006