9. Learning Theories

9.4 Social Learning Theory

Dr. Zachary Rowan and Michaela McGuire, M.A.

While Sutherland (1947) developed one of the most well-known theories, one limitation was his description of precisely how learning occurred. In Proposition #8 of differential association theory, Sutherland (1947) states that all the mechanisms of learning play a role in the learning of criminal behaviour. This suggests that the acquisition of criminal behaviour involves more than the simple imitation of observable criminal behaviour, but Sutherland does not fully explain how exactly definitions from associates facilitate criminal behaviour. Building off the recommendations of C.R. Jeffery (1965) to integrate concepts of into differential association theory, Robert Burgess and Ronald Akers (1966) reformulated the propositions developed by Sutherland into what was initially called differential-reinforcement theory. Akers (1998) eventually modified differential reinforcement theory into its final form, social learning theory (SLT).

SLT is composed of four main components: 1) differential associations, 2) definitions, 3) differential reinforcement, and 4) imitation. The first two components are nearly identical to those observed in differential association theory. Differential association was expanded to be inclusive of both direct interactions with others who engage in criminal acts, and more indirect associations that expose individuals to various norms or values. For example, friends of friends who may not directly interact with an individual still exert indirect influence through reinforcing behaviours and definitions of a directly tied friend. Definitions were similarly described as attitudes or the meanings attributed to behaviours and can be both general and specific. General definitions reflect broad moral, religious, or other conventional values related to the favourability of committing a crime, whereas specific definitions contextualize or provide additional details surrounding one’s view of acts of crime. For example, a general definition of crime may reflect an individual’s belief that they should never hurt someone else, but the use of substances is acceptable because it does not harm anyone else. Recent efforts have also underscored that attitudes towards crime can be even more specific and depend on situational characteristics of the act (e.g., Thomas, 2018, 2019). For instance, an individual may hold the general definition that they should never fight someone; however, they may adopt a specific definition that suggests that if someone insulted your family or started the conflict first, then perhaps fighting is acceptable.

Borrowing from principles of operant conditioning, Burgess and Akers (1966) argued that are the driver of whether individuals engage in crime. This concept refers to the idea that an individual’s past, present, and anticipated future rewards and punishments for actions explain crime. If an individual experiences or anticipates that certain behaviours will result in positive benefits or occur without consequences, this will increase the likelihood that the behaviour will occur.  This process is comprised of four types of reinforcements or punishments:

  1. Positive reinforcement: reinforcements that reward behaviour, such as money, status from friends, and good feelings, that will increase the likelihood that an action is taken.
  2. Positive punishment: the presentation of a negative or aversive consequence, such as getting arrested, injured, or caught, after a behaviour is exhibited to decrease the likelihood it will happen again.
  3. Negative reinforcement: reinforcements that help a person avoid the negative consequences of a behaviour, such as avoiding getting caught, arrested, or facing disappointment from others, that will increase the likelihood that an action is taken.
  4. Negative punishment: the removal of a positive reinforcement or stimulus after an undesired behaviour occurs to decrease the likelihood a person will engage in the behaviour again. For instance, if a child gets into a fight with a friend their parent may take away their cell phone, cut off their Netflix access, or remove other privileges.

Lastly, is the mimicking of a behaviour after observing others participate in the behaviour. Within intimate personal groups, individuals will observe criminal acts or substance use that are often are used to facilitate the initiation of the behaviour. Once the behaviour has been engaged in, imitation plays less of a role in the maintenance of or desistance from that behaviour.


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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Zachary Rowan and Michaela McGuire, M.A. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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