Social learning theory is one of the most frequently looked at theories in the field of criminology. The theory clarifies that criminal and deviant behavior stems from imitation and reinforcement of one’s environment. Its applications attempt to describe why certain people tend to participate in criminal activities and why others abstain from it. Social learning theory specifies the importance of human interactions as well as the effect they have on manipulating the way individuals learn and participate in crime itself. This theory was introduced into the criminological field by Ronald L. Akers, which originated from the differential association theory developed by American criminologist Edwin H. Sutherland (Akers & Sellers, 2009, p. 85). The social learning theory is widely recognized by many criminologists and can be used to explain a wide variety of criminal conduct.
Throughout this paper it will elaborate on the basic premise as well as the main goals that the social learning theory tries to explain. It will also focus on the validity and limitations associated with the social learning theory, through the use of peer reviewed articles. It will be shown what holds true and what the social learning theory is confined to in its explanation for those who choose to engage in deviant and criminal activities. Finally, the paper will speak on the different policy applications that are intertwined with this theory, as well as show how the social learning theory can be observed in a real life context.
The social learning theory was established as an effort to explain the motives and reasoning’s as to why specific individuals partake in crime, as well as why others do not. It is stated that the social learning theory, “as a general perspective on deviance and related criminal behavior, emerged as part of a larger movement toward the integration of modern behaviorism into sociological theory” (Hartinger-Saunders & Rine, 2011, p. 910). Ronald L. Akers was able to progress the social learning theory by expanding off of what Sutherland had suggested in his differential association theory. Sutherland’s theory was fully published in the 1947 edition of his criminology textbook, which commanded the criminological field for over thirty years (Table 1).
Akers objective was to not only look at the modern learning methods, which is what Sutherland looked at, but also to account for the non-traditional ways in which people absorb certain behaviors. “As a general theory of crime, the elements of the theory – differential association, differential reinforcement, pro-criminal definitions, and imitation – are not only purported to explain a wide variety of offending and deviant behaviors but also are applicable to all individuals” (Yarbrough, Jones, Sullivan, Sellers, & Cochran, 2011, p. 191-192). Since the theory is able to be applied to all those taking part in criminal activities, there has been a great deal of support from the criminological community.
Differential association as defined by Yarbrough et al. (2011) states, “An individual who is exposed to peers who are involved in antisocial behavior and/or who define antisocial behavior positively is more likely to engage in similar behaviors” (p. 193). This is typically the first of Akers four elements of the social learning theory to occur, it exposes individuals to specific definitions, values, and norms of delinquent groups in a society. These new definitions and values can cause a person to rationalize the reasons for committing a certain crime, and even consider their actions as legitimate. As Simons (2011) states it, “Offenders usually do not see their behavior as evil or immoral. Instead, they consider their deeds to have been sensible, necessary, inevitable, or compelled by the exigencies of the situation” (p. 554).
Differential reinforcement, on the other hand, reinforces criminal activities either positively or negatively. Houts (1997) states, “Reinforcement values are rewards, positive or negative, anticipated to follow specific behaviors. They, too, vary with the specific situation (i.e., the social context) and, as such, are learned” (p. 123). If an individual witnesses a criminal act by a peer, but never sees any negative consequences from it, one would start to believe that certain activity is acceptable to do. On the other hand, if someone experiences a crime being committed and observes a punishment for that crime as well, it is likely that the individual would not attempt the same crime, knowing what the outcome most likely will be. As described by Barclay (1982), “Reinforcement in the system has several functions.
It provides information concerning executed behaviors, it motivates behavior, and it may regulate behavior. Moreover, through learning and reinforcement, the person develops expectancies about his or her behavior and its outcomes” (p. 587). With more positive rewards for crime rather than negative ones, it is very likely that someone would continue to engage in criminal activity. “The strength of criminal behavior is a direct function of the amount, frequency, and probability of its reinforcement” (Moore, 2011, p. 229).
The definitions one associates to crime and specific activities can also influence deviant behavior. “Social learning theories, in particular, highlight the importance of human interaction and the fact that learning occurs both directly, through socialization agents such as parents or teachers, and indirectly, through the observation of others’ behavior and its consequences” (Rader & Haynes, 2011, p. 291-292). These human interactions one has can largely influence what type of definitions fit with certain deviant behavior. Children that grow up in households with strong family, religious, and educational values are less likely to be pushed into deviant behavior; compared to children that are raised in one parent homes, who tend to put little emphasis on community or normal societal values.
The final of Akers four elements of social learning theory is imitation. “Imitation is another facet of social learning theory and indicates that the mere witnessing of antisocial behaviors increases the likelihood an individual will behave similarly” (Yarbrough et al., 2011, p. 193). If the peer group that an individual associates with is constantly engaged in delinquent activities, then those activities will be seen as normal within that group context. This will then cause the individual to assume nothing bad will happen, or rationalize a reason why it is alright, and then they will go along with the group, copying whatever they do. “Although there is still debate on the exact definition of imitation, most researchers agree that imitation is similar or analogous to modeling but distinctly different from copying and mimicking” (Prather W. & Golden J. A., 2009, p. 90). This implies that since imitation is not merely copying, there has to be some kind of conscience understanding of what one is doing. As Moore (2011) puts it, “over time, a pattern of behavior develops, and the learned behavioral reactions are internalized” (p. 229).
Imitation is likely what initiates a specific delinquent behavior, and from there, one starts to define the behavior differently as well as being reinforced by this behavior. While describing Akers four elements of social learning theory, Yarbrough (2011) says, “These factors can be used in the explanation of a wide variety of criminal and deviant behaviors. Furthermore, all four elements denoted in social learning theory are ostensibly applicable to all individuals” (p. 193). Even though the social learning theory is able to predict most delinquent crime, there are a few limitations when applying it to a real world model. One of the first limitations, mentioned by Hartinger-Saunders (2011), says, “Individual differences and social context are not comprehensively addressed within this model” (p. 911).
This is saying that there could be many different factors that could affect interactions and learning within different social groups. These could include psychological, biological, or environmental differences. Another limitation could include the different legal opportunities available within a certain environment. Those who grow up with different opportunities to advance themselves within society are less likely to participate in delinquent acts, mainly due to the fact that the potential consequences are outweighed by the potential risk.
Hartinger-Saunders (2011) mentions another limitation as, “It is unclear how criminal behavior is learned by those who have not come in contact with others who display this behavior” (p. 911). This is suggesting that the theory does not explain how or why non criminals would come into contact with criminals, and also what would cause them to stay within the delinquent peer group. Finally the theory assumes that all individuals will accept the same definitions for punishment and rewards, although in the real world context of things, one person’s punishment could be considered another’s reward.
Since social learning theory has been in the spot light of the criminological field for multiple decades, there have been many studies that found this theory to be accurate. Akers (2009) finds, “Many studies using direct measures of one or more of the social learning variables of differential association, imitation, definitions, and differential reinforcement find that the theory’s hypotheses are upheld” (p. 98). A study that looked at different strain and non-strain variables compared to the elements of social learning variables for predicting delinquent behavior found that, “Social learning variables tend to fare better than others” (Jang, S. J. & Rhodes, J. R., 2011, p. 179).
Even with these new theories coming out attempting to explain the underlying causes of criminal behavior, social learning theory still continues to prove its effectiveness and solidify its validity in its field. Another study that looked at social learning theory as an explanation for stalking behaviors concluded that the study offered strong empirical support for the social learning theory as a general theory of crime, as well as support for the theory’s ability in predicting crime (Fox, Nobles, & Akers, 2011). All in all, there is more evidence supporting the social learning theory than there is to disprove it. As Akers (2009) states it in his book, “The relationships between the social learning variables and delinquent, criminal, and deviant behavior found in the research are typically strong to moderate and there has been very little negative evidence reported in the literature” (p. 98).
If the social learning theory is accurately able to predict which individuals are likely to participate in criminal behavior or what environmental factors will influence their decision to partake in crime, then it should be possible to affect these outcomes. If an individual was able to control the potential variables within the social learning theory, and thus modify the environment one learns from, then theoretically one could help prevent a person from learning criminal or deviant behavior. Criminologists have been applying aspects of this theory to juvenile and adult offenders for years. “The application of behavior modification programs in correctional facilities, residential treatments centers, and mental health facilities are primarily based on social learning principles” (Hartinger-Saunders & Rine, 2011, p. 918).
On the other hand, placing delinquent offenders in environments with other criminals, will more than likely increase the strength of the values that are associated with criminal behavior, as well as reinforcing the norms of the criminal lifestyle. Hartinger-Saunders (2011) says, “Social learning principles can also be seen in alternative programs such as boot camps and shock incarceration facilities that function on the premise of breaking down inmates and building them back up with more pro-social attitudes, values, and beliefs” (p. 919). The only negative links with these alternative programs are that they have been said to be dysfunctional, as well as juveniles have often been re-victimized throughout the process (Hartinger-Saunders & Rine, 2011).
Robert L. Akers’ social learning theory was extensively endorsed throughout the criminological field. With expanding on Sutherland’s differential association theory and the addition of reinforcement principles, Akers theory was able to describe why persons adapt into the criminal regime. The theory incorporated four different elements: differential association, differential reinforcement, definitions, and imitation. From these elements, this theory most likely can be applied to practically any individual and, in return, accurately predict impending crime and delinquency.
There have been numerous studies conducted on the social learning theory, which give evidence of its empirical validity, but also gives evidence of what limitations it may possess. The social learning theory has assisted in determining potential deviant behavior arguably more than any other theory, and hopefully using applications related with this theory we will be able to steer juveniles and others away from deviant and criminal conduct.
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