Social Learning Theory is a Theory in Criminology

Social learning theory is a theory in criminology that tries to explain why crime occurs based on what we learn from those around us. Although everyone around us impacts what we learn, the groups we are closest to have the most influence. The idea of our peers teaching behaviors to us is not a new topic. Before social learning theory was established, many topics that are used in the theory were researched and discovered by other theorists. In the 1940s, B.F. Skinner touched on some fundamentals that are found in the social learning theories, such as operant conditioning. Those who are credited with forming the theory were Neal Miller and John Dollard. They published their book, Social Learning Theory, in 1941. Their work was conducted under the leadership of Clark Lewis Hall at Yale University. Miller and Dollard created the foundation which became the social learning theory we have today.

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There are many other criminologists that helped shape and form social learning theory into its modern form. Unlike other criminology theories, such as social disorganization and strain, social learning addresses why individuals develop criminal behavior at all levels of social classes, not just the poor. Sutherland stated (1995), “an explanation of crime and criminality can be reached by logically abstracting the conditions and processes which are common to the rich and the poor” (Sutherland, Cressey, & Luckenbill, 1995, p.64). Social learning goes further into explaining crime in an attempt to describe what factors exist when criminal behavior occurs and which factors are not present when criminal behavior does not occur.

The premise behind social learning is that we are all blank slates and generally good. Due to individuals being blank slates, the social learning theory allows for individuals to be shaped and molded based on their social groups. Each person is filled with definitions that they learn as they interact with others throughout their life, particularly at a young age. Criminal behavior is learned from the groups we interact with. Those who are closest to us, such as family and friends, have the greatest impact. Social learning theory emphasizes that we are all simply the sum of our individual learning experiences.

The theories that make up social learning have distinct differences on how individuals learn and what they learn. The ways in which we learn in social learning theory is explained in three methods. These three are: modeling and imitation, interaction with others, and operant conditioning. Each of these theories express different ways we go about learning while still being consistent with the core value of learning from our social groups.

Modeling and imitation was discussed by Gabriel Tarde in the 19th century. He claimed that criminals do not learn their behavior on their own, rather through imitating other criminals. He further explained in his book (1903), The Laws of Imitation, that everything is an imitation of something else and can even explain how life propagated on the earth (Tarde, 1903, p.43). Since nothing is new but rather just an imitation of another, individuals observe other criminals in order to learn their ways. Criminals learn both the behaviors of other criminals and the consequences associated with them.

Sutherland, in Vold’s Theoretical Criminology (2010), greatly contributed to the social learning theory also. His differential association theory focused on how we learn crime from social interactions with our peers. The theory consists of two basic elements. The first being “the content of what is learned includes specific techniques for committing crime” (Bernard, Snipes, & Gerould, 2010, p.181). The second being that we learn “appropriate motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes” (Bernard, et al., 1958, p.181). Having both elements–to commit crime by learning the techniques, along with the motives–allows for criminal definitions to be instantiated that are favorable to violating the law. These two elements give individuals all they need to be criminal.

Although learning can occur from all different connection levels of peers, Sutherland believes that almost all that a person learns will come from those who are closest to the individual. When individuals learn more definitions that are criminal instead of law abiding, they will begin to express those definitions. Because we learn from others, there are no fundamental differences between those who are criminals and those who are not.

Operant conditioning is another important aspect in explaining how we learn in social learning theory. Akers (Burgess and Akers, 1966), who did a lot of research in the area of operant conditioning, focused much of his work on the idea of reinforcement. Reinforcement has three important parts that pertain to social learning.

According to Akers (Burgess and Akers, 1966), theses parts are:

“(1) the amount of reinforcement: the greater the amount of reinforcement, the higher the response rate; (2) the frequency of reinforcement which refers to the number of reinforcements per given time period between reinforcements, the higher the response rate; and (3) the probability of reinforcement which is the reciprocal of responses per reinforcement: the lower the ratio of responses per reinforcement, the higher the rate of response.” (p.144)

Operant conditioning allows either lawful or unlawful behaviors to be instilled in an individual by constant reinforcement. Once these behaviors have been reinforced enough, they will become the norm for how the individual will behave. Deviating from those behaviors which are reinforced can be challenging if not impossible.

Social learning also differentiates on what individuals learn. What we learn is more about the substance a person learns through social interactions, as opposed to how we learn which is by techniques. These are behaviors that are rewarding, definitions that permit individuals to commit crimes, and justification for their acts through neutralizations.

Akers (Burgess and Akers, 1966) found that people will learn behavior that is rewarding. This is facilitated through operant conditioning. Operant conditioning helps people learn behaviors by giving rewards for good behaviors and punishment for undesirable behavior. When individuals are constantly shown by their peers that criminal behavior is associated with good things, such as money, and rarely associated with negative things, such as incarceration, they will start to behave like their peers. Once they also begin to receive such rewards, they will be conditioned to such behavior.

Definitions are an important aspect that individuals learn in order to commit crime. When individuals learn criminal definitions more frequently than that of lawful definitions, they can begin to show criminal behavior. This can be related to a double pan balance scale with criminal definitions on one side and lawful definitions on the other. When one type of definition is being learned more frequently from the individuals peer, he will begin to exhibit those behaviors.

Sykes and Matza (1957) conducted work on neutralization techniques of individuals which allowed them to justify acts that are considered criminal. These justifications may be learned prior to committing crime, allowing it to be a driving factor for crime to be committed. Sykes and Matza said (Ball, 1966), “while excuses are usually considered to be rationalizations following violation, they might also be viewed as neutralizations which occur prior to deviant behavior” (p.22). There are five major techniques: denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of the victim, the condemnation of the condemners, and appeal to higher loyalties. Denial of responsibility allows the “delinquent [to] define himself as lacking responsibility for his deviant actions, the disapproval of self or others is sharply reduced in effectiveness as a restraining influence” (Sykes and Matza, 1957, p.667). Denial of injury focuses on the concept that the deviant act committed did not cause any harm. This mindset gives the offender the idea that even though they did the deviant act, no one was hurt during the process. Denial of the victim has the mentality that the victim received this criminal action because they deserved it. Even though the individual committed a deviant act, that act is justified because the victim is deserving of it and it is their fault. Condemnation of the condemners is where “the delinquent shifts the focus of attention from his own deviant acts to the motives and behaviors of those who disapprove of his violations” (Sykes and Matza, 1957, p.668). Appeal to higher loyalties states that even though an action is criminal, the individual had reasons that were more important and committed the crime based on importance. All five of these neutralization techniques are important to explain how criminals commit crimes based on learning these justifications from their peers.

Social learning theory as a whole encompasses many theories and ideas that can result in criminal behavior. Although I agree with the ideas this theory is representing, I believe it has gaps that can be filled by other theories when trying to explain criminal behavior. One big area social learning theory does not address is why individuals, who have never learned criminal behaviors from their peers, still turn out to be criminals. I think two important theories that can help completely encompass why individuals become criminals are strain theory and social disorganization theory.

Strain can cause a non-criminal people to turn to criminal behavior, where under normal circumstances, they never would have swayed from their ways. For instance, regardless of whether you learned from your peers that stealing is an acceptable or unacceptable, if you are starving, you will end up stealing food before starving to death. There are certain behaviors which are instilled in human nature at the very core. Survival is one of these behaviors. If individuals are strained where it does not threaten their life, and if they learned proper ways to cope with this strain from their peers, they will likely not commit crime. However, if the individual is in a life threatening situation, regardless of what they have learned through social learning, they will commit crime in order to survive. Thus, I think strain theory has aspects contained in it which social learning could adopt to help explain why people who are not exposed to crime from their peer groups are still capable of criminal behaviors.

Social disorganization is another theory that can help fill in gaps where social learning does not have an answer. This theory shows that even though a person has been taught all their life lawful definitions, as soon as they enter an environment in which there is social disorganization, they will turn to crime. Neighborhoods that are broken down and are neglected allow for criminal behavior to begin and prosper. If a neighborhood contains an environment in which individuals can act with a lack of supervision, such as behind overgrown bushes or abandoned buildings, this may allow those who normally would never commit crime to consider deviant behavior due to opportunities. These behaviors could be selling drugs or prostitution in order to make fast and easy cash.

Social learning theory explains why crime occurs based on what we learn from those around us. The theory explains how individuals learn and what they learn from peers, particularly those they are close to. Although social learning theory tries to explain why crime occurs in every situation, it still fails to explain situations that strain theory and social disorganization theory can answer.?

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Social Learning Theory Is A Theory In Criminology. (2021, Apr 10). Retrieved October 1, 2022 , from
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