Social Learning Theory: through Others, we Become Ourselves

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Understanding why humans behave in certain ways is a question that many researchers and philosophers have been trying to answer for centuries. How do we come to certain behaviors? Are they passed down biologically, learned through observation, or self-taught? At some point the idea or the motivation to behave a certain way is produced.  The main premise of it all can be related to how we are introduced and are able to process certain behaviors as children. Studies have shown that having both positive and negative role models or peers can determine our behaviors. From the works of Albert Bandura’s, Ronald Akers, and Robert Burgess their studies of behaviors have created a wide range of theories.

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My internship assignment took place at the Madison County Juvenile Detention Center in Edwardsville, IL. During my time there I examined how the day-to-day procedures and programs are executed by the staff, how the children react to them, and the relationships between everyone within the facility. The Madison County Juvenile Detention Center is a temporary holding facility for juveniles awaiting court decisions on their cases. The ages of the juveniles range between 10 to 18 years old. The detention center has a total number of 49 beds, but the maximum capacity number is indefinite. This detention center receives juveniles from Madison county and other counties across the state of Illinois. To maintain order within the facility, there are eight supervisors and about twenty staff members that aid in many different activities throughout the day. The staff members include two Educators from the Edwardsville school District, a kitchen cook, and the rest are college graduates with degrees in: sociology, psychology, criminal justice, social work, etc. The staff members play a major role in the day to day lives of the children. This goes as far as fixing their meals, making sure they receive a quality education, and supplying them with their health needs (Showers, medicine, counseling, etc.). Following a series of rewards and punishment systems, the staff effectively enforce the rules for the juveniles to follow regarding both deviant and non-deviant behavior. 

For my internship assignment I decided to apply my observations of the interactions between the juveniles and the staff to Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory. I chose to this topic because seeing how there are different children within the facility from all over the state of Illinois, I wanted to see how they behave around one another. And how they learn certain behaviors from both the staff and their peers. With everyone having different criminal histories, family background, and education it creates a great opportunity to observe how juveniles, who are so different, connect with one another in terms of behavior.While observing their behaviors and comparing them to Bandura’s theory, I observed these four main points: Attention, Retention, Reproduction, and Motivation. Attention, how the children payed attention to certain behaviors they were exposed to. Retention, how they retained the behaviors enough to imitate them. Reproduction, the imitation of certain behaviors that are observed. Motivation, how the presence of positive or negative reinforcement and punishments motivated them to imitate certain behaviors. These four main points helped me understand the imitation process the juveniles went through when learning either deviant or non-deviant behaviors from their peers, role models, and the environments around them. 

Literature Review            

Social learning theory can be viewed as the essential component to understanding that as humans why we behave the way we do. This theory is based on the idea that we learn from our interactions with others in a socially whether it be verbal or non-verbal, behavior is still learned. By observing the behaviors of others, we develop those exact behaviors and imitate them. Behaviors are imitated especially if what is observed are positive behaviors orinclude rewards related to the observed behavior. According to Bandura, imitation involves the actual reproduction of observed activities. (Bandura 1977). Social Learning Theory has become the most influential theory of learning and development.Considering that this theory covers attention, memory, and motivation, in a sense it forms a connection between cognitive learning theories and behaviorist learning theories. Bandura’s argued that people can learn new information and behaviors by watching other people.             

Amongst the many theories that have been published, the social learning theory is one that touches base across multiple subjects. The social learning theory can be traced back to the early works of Robert Burgess and Ronald Akers in 1966. In the world of criminology and understanding the behaviors of a criminal, Burgess and Akers contributed their work titled, “A differential association-reinforcement theory of criminal behavior”. They came up with the theory that people learn deviant behaviors the same way they view non deviant behaviors through a process of differential reinforcement (Brauer, 2012). In their work, Burgess and Akers were able to portray the importance of the social learning theory and how it applies to deviance within our society. The concept of differential reinforcement used in Burgess and Akers work can be traced back to the nine principles of differential association introduced by Edwin Sutherland. These nine principles introduced four main concepts that explains the reason for crime – normative conflict, differential association, differential reinforcement, and differential group organization. Of the four main concepts, differential reinforcement became the main component of the social learning theory because it underlines how behavior is strengthened. Whether they are deviant or non-deviant, the positive reinforcement (rewards) and negative reinforcements (punishments) that are attached to certain behaviors help shape those behavioral patterns (Akers, 1979). Sometimes learning deviant or non-deviant behaviors may not be based on reinforcement factors but solely on social interactions with peers. also believed that people learned behaviors while in a group of individuals. In his work he stated that “The more individuals that define the behavior as good (positive definition) or at least justified (neutralizing definition) rather than undesirable (negative definition), the more likely they are to engage in it.” (Akers, 1979).

Basically concluding that the more people that view a certain activity, behavior, or Looking at how interactions within groups help shape deviant or non-deviant behavior, another aspect of the social learning theory that Burgess and Akers introduced was the concept of imitation. Imitation refers to a ‘‘separate learning mechanism characterized by modeling one’s own actions on the observed behavior of others and on the consequences of that behavior’’ (Brauer, 2012). Essentially meaning that people create an understanding of the social norms, values, and rules of a society through imitation. Basing their studies on Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, McCormick and Martinko (2004) claimed that people can learn by observing others, learning is an internal process that may or may not result in a behavior change, and learning can be just observation without imitation. 


By effectively aiding these children in performing daily tasks or even giving them some words of encouragement, the staff are fulfilling their duties as temporary caregivers to these children. Nowhere in any procedure or policy book does it underline the fact that the staff have to help turn this traumatic experience into a learning experience worth a lifetime. It takes a very special type of person to want to help these children and the type of person who comes to work every day strictly to help them become better people once they leave the facility. The children in this facility have committed a range of offenses. In fact, during my time at the juvenile detention facility, there were multiple groups of co-defendants. One group included six co-defendants and another contained four co-defendants. These two sets of co-defendants are placed on a rotating schedule that allows one child out, in each group at a time. This is done to keep them from congregating and discussing their cases. The staff do a great job with the rotation schedule by ensuring that each and every one of the co-defendants spend time outside of their rooms.

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Social Learning Theory: Through Others, We Become Ourselves. (2021, Apr 10). Retrieved December 6, 2022 , from

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