Concepts and Principles Behind the Social Learning Theory
Social learning theory is amongst the leading criminological theories. It is a general theory that offers an explanation of the acquisition, maintenance, and change in criminal and deviant behavior that embraces social, nonsocial, and cultural factors operating both to motivate and control criminal behavior and both to promote and undermine conformity. The basic proposition is that the same learning process in a context of social structure, interaction, and situation, produces both conforming and deviant behavior. The theory incorporates crime facilitating as well as protective and preventive factors (Akers, 1998). This paper will analysis the concepts and principles behind the social learning theory and will explain as to explain its link to why people engage in criminal and deviant behaviors.
There are four major concepts or dimensions of the social learning theory. These are differential association, definitions (and other discriminative stimuli), differential reinforcement, and imitation. Differential association refers to direct association and interaction with others who
engage in certain kinds of behavior or express norms, values, and attitudes supportive of such
behavior, as well as the indirect association and identification with more distant reference groups. The groups with which one is in differential association provide the major immediate and intermediate social contexts in which all the mechanisms of social learning operate. The most important of these groups are the primary ones of family and friends, but the concept of
differential association also includes both direct and indirect interaction and exposure to
secondary and reference groups (Warr, 2002). The theory hypothesizes that the more one’s patterns of differential association are balanced in the direction of greater exposure to deviant behavior and attitudes, the greater the probability of that person engaging in deviant or criminal behavior.
Definitions are one’s own orientations, rationalizations, justifications, excuses, and other
attitudes that define the commission of an act as relatively more right or wrong, good or bad, desirable or undesirable, justified or unjustified, appropriate or inappropriate. Cognitively,
these definitions provide a mind-set that makes one more willing to commit the act when the
opportunity is perceived. Behaviorally, they affect the commission of deviant or criminal behavior by acting as internal discriminative stimuli (Akers and Silverman, 2004).
Differential reinforcement refers to the balance of anticipated or actual rewards and punishments that follow or are consequences of behavior. Whether individuals will refrain from or commit a crime at any given time depends on the balance of past, present, and anticipated future rewards and punishments for their actions. The balance of reinforcement may motivate individuals to commit law violations or deviant acts even in the face of their own definitions unfavorable to those acts, but the acts are most probable when both the reinforcement balance and the balance of one’s own definitions are in the same deviant direction (Simons et al., 2004).
Imitation refers to the engagement in behavior after the direct or indirect (e.g. in media
depictions) observation of similar behavior by others. Whether or not the behavior modeled by
others will be imitated is affected by the characteristics of the models, the behavior observed, and the observed consequences of the behavior. The observation of salient models in primary groups and in the media affects both pro-social and deviant behavior (Bandura, 1977).
In nutshell, these concepts of the social learning theory define sets of variables that are all part of the same underlying process that is operative in each individual’s learning history, in the immediate situation in which an opportunity for a crime occurs, and in the larger social structural context.
Akers, Ronald L. (1998). Social Learning and Social Structure: A General Theory of Crime and Deviance. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.
Akers, Ronald L. and Adam Silverman. (2004). Toward a Social Learning Model of Violence and Terrorism. Cincinnati, OH: LexisNexis – Anderson Publishing.
Bandura, Albert. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Simons, Ronald L., Simons, Leslie Gordon and Wallace, Lora Ebert. (2004). Families, Delinquency and Crime. Los Angeles, California: Roxbury Publishing Company.
Warr, Mark. (2002). Companions in Crime: The Social Aspects of Criminal Conduct. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.