Containment Theory: An Expanded Consideration of the Model of Delinquent Behavior

Dr. Donna L. Roberts
Diagram created by Donna L. Roberts (author) adapted from Reckless, !961

In the 1960s, sociologist Walter C. Reckless proposed the Containment Theory, which posited that human behavior is the product of interplay between various forms of stressors, known as pushes or pulls, and internal and external controls, known as containments. While originally formulated as a sociological premise for delinquent and criminal behavior, Containment Theory has been extrapolated to a representation of both intra- and inter-personal functioning, encompassing the unconscious motivation structure of both adaptive and maladaptive responses. It assumes that for every individual there exists, in varying levels of strength and functionality, containing external structures as well as protective internal structures.

According to the model, Inner Containments represent "self" components which comprise the inner strength of one's personality, including a good self-concept, strong ego, well developed conscience, high sense of responsibility, and high frustration tolerance. Outer containments refer to one's social environment and the normative constraints in which society and groups use to control members. Outer containments include belonging (identification with the group), effective supervision, cohesion among group members (togetherness), opportunities for achievement, reasonable limits and responsibilities, alternative ways and means of satisfaction, reinforcement of goals, norms values, and discipline (Reckless et al., 1956; Reckless, 1961, 1967).

The pushes and pressures are generally viewed as the negative aspects of influence. Internal pushes are personal factors which include characteristics such as restlessness, discontent, rebellion, anxiety, and hostility. External pulls include deviant peers or leadership, membership in a particular group or gang, and other relevant social factors. Finally, external pressures refer to the adverse living conditions which influence behavior. These can include relative deprivation, poverty, unemployment, insecurity, and inequality. The relative integrity and stability of these entities determines one’s predisposition toward specific characteristic patterns of reacting and behaviors (Reckless et al., 1956; Reckless, 1961, 1967).
Photo by Jon Meza on Unsplash

This model offers a comprehensive analysis of individuals within their environments and the resulting multiple factors influencing their behavior. Without considering these multiple factors which continually shape human experience, only a small slice of the larger picture is seen and thus, true understanding is impossible. Any attempt to effectively lead, manage, persuade, inspire, motivate or even overpower individuals must begin with an understanding of those factors which make them who they are. Of course, practically speaking, one can never fully comprehend all the nuances suggested by this model with regard to another human being and his/her internal and external influences. Nor would one necessarily have the time or even the inclination to pursue such an endeavor. However, an understanding of the presence and potential effects of the various components can offer insight and help to frame various issues for mangers and all of us that regularly deal with other people (i.e., understand the importance of nurturing or facilitating containment factors under a particularly stressful time in a person’s life).


Reckless, W. C. (1961). A new theory of dysfunction. Federal Probation, 25, 42-46.

Reckless, W. C. (1967). The crime problem. New York, NY: Appleton-Century Crofts.

Reckless, W. C., Dintz, S. & Murry, E. (1956). Self-concept as an insulator against dysfunction.

American Sociological Review, 21, pp. 744-56.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.


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