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Thursday, May 19, 2022

Social Learning Theory and acquisition of criminal behaviour

Social Learning Theory and acquisition of criminal behaviour


The origins of social learning theory can be traced back to Robert L. Burgess and Ronald L. Akers' work "A differential association-reinforcement theory of criminal behaviour," published in 1966. This work combined the earlier sociological theory of differential association with the developmental psychological theory of reinforcement. With the release of Ronald L. Akers' "Deviant Behaviour: A Social Learning Approach" in 1973, this field of research became part of mainstream criminology. Social learning theory has been an essential aspect of our knowledge of both criminal and non-criminal behaviour throughout the last 30 years, as evidenced by its frequent appearance in deviant and non-deviant behaviour textbooks and edited volumes.

Social learning theories may be roughly defined as a social behavioural approach to human behaviour that stresses the "reciprocal interplay between cognitive, behavioural, and environmental variables". Social learning theory, as developed by Ronald L. Akers in 1973, is widely used and understood in the study of crime and criminality. 

Social learning theory is a broad theory of crime and criminality that has been used to explain a wide range of criminal behaviours in studies. Akers' thesis is based on the premise that "the same learning process creates both conforming and deviant behaviour in a framework of social structure, interaction, and situation." The distinction is in the direction of... [the] balance of effects on conduct."

Ronald L. Akers (1998), a key proponent of social learning theory, summarises it best:

The probability that persons will engage in criminal and deviant behaviour is increased and the probability of their conforming to the norm is decreased when they differentially associate with others who commit criminal behavior and espouse definitions favorable to it, are relatively more exposed in-person or symbolically to salient criminal/deviant models, define it as desirable or justified in a situation discriminative for the behavior, and have received in the past and anticipate in the current or future situation relatively greater reward than punishment for the behavior. Differential association, definitions, differential reinforcement, and imitation are four essential principles in the conceptualization of social learning theory.

Differential association theory may be broken down into two distinct dimensions. The first is behavioural-interactional, which describes deviance as "immediate affiliation and interaction with those who participate in specific forms of behaviour; as well as... indirect association and identification with more distant reference groups". The persons or groups with whom an individual has direct, or indirect social interaction are considered as providing the social environment in which each of social learning theory's four premises operates. Individuals are exposed to a range of definitions of acceptable and undesirable behaviour, as well as a number of behavioral models that may differently encourage criminal and non-criminal behaviour, within this social environment.These models might also be used to learn how to imitate certain behaviours.


Social learning theorists divide the persons or groups with whom an individual associates into primary and secondary sources. Those with intimate relatives and friends are primary associations. Secondary sources of social learning include a much broader spectrum of individuals, such as instructors, neighbours, and church organisations, to name a few. Each of these groups is assumed to have a role in shaping an individual's attitudes and values, as well as how that person acts in various social situations.

The timing, length, frequency, and character of the encounter are all crucial factors of behaviour, according to the theory of differential association. That is, the sooner an association is created, the longer the length of the link, the more frequently the association happens, and the closer the relationship is made, the greater the influence on a person's behaviour. From the standpoint of social learning, early connections with family would undoubtedly have a significant effect in molding one's behaviour.

Definitions are an individual's personal beliefs and attitudes about what is and is not acceptable behaviour, as defined by social learning theory. "They are orientations, rationalisations, situation definitions, and other evaluative and moral attitudes that describe the commission of an act as right or wrong, good or bad, desirable or unwanted, justified or unjustified," according to the definition. Through the process of differential association, these attitudes and values are learnt and reinforced.

The effect of general and specific definitions on attitudes and values is linked in social learning theory. Broad views about conforming behaviour driven primarily by conventional standards, as well as religious and moral ideals, would be included in general definitions. These are often regarded to be beliefs that oppose the performance of criminal or deviant behaviours. Specific definitions "orient a person to certain acts or a set of activities," according to the authors. The basic principle underlying this concept of definitions is that the more meanings that are favourable to deviant or illegal behaviour, the more likely an individual is to engage in such behaviour.

Conforming behaviour is also explained by social learning theory, which states that the more definitions favourable to conventional norms, the less likely that individual is to participate in deviant or illegal behaviour. Within this framework of social learning, it is possible for an individual to develop conforming attitudes and values toward particular behaviours while also developing attitudes and values that explain or excuse non-conforming behaviours. 

Definitions are seen as either condoning or negating illegal behaviour when used to explain it. Approving definitions often portray criminal behaviour in a good light, whereas neutralising meanings justify and/or excuse some or all types of illegal behaviour.

“Cognitively, pro-deviance definitions foster a mindset that encourages people to do the act when the chance arises or is provided." They have a behavioural effect on aberrant conduct by functioning as internal discriminative cues." It's worth noting that someone who has adopted approving or neutralising definitions of deviant behaviour isn't obligated to act on them. Instead, it's an interactive process in which traditional standards are weakened, offering little or no constraint against illegal behaviour, and definitions that favour deviant behaviour "enable law breaking under the proper set of circumstances." As a result of these approving and neutralising meanings, the context in which these behaviours occur is reinterpreted.

Differential reinforcement is the process through which people perceive and anticipate the effects of their actions in different ways. That is, a person's behaviours are influenced in part by their perceptions of the repercussions of their acts or inaction. "Whether people will refrain from or commit a crime at any given time (and whether they will continue or cease from doing so in the future) is determined by the past, present, and predicted future incentives and penalties for their behaviour." 

Attitudes, beliefs, and values are reinforced through differential association and imitation, which can be positive or negative. When activities are rewarded with good reactions to the behaviour as well as beneficial consequences, this is known as positive reinforcement.

Through these benefits, positive reinforcement can raise the chance of illegal behaviour. Unpleasant reinforcement, on the other hand, entails removing negative consequences or reactions, which may enhance the chance of certain acts being done. 

The degree, frequency, and likelihood of differential reinforcement are all proportional to the degree, frequency, and probability of its occurrence. That is, reinforcement is more likely to occur and contribute to behaviour repetition when it has a higher value, happens often as a result of the behaviour, and when the likelihood of the behaviour being rewarded is higher. Direct and indirect reinforcement are both possible.

Direct reinforcement, for example, would be the consequence of drug or alcohol intake, but indirect reinforcement would be the result of, say, anticipating benefits prized by subgroups. Knowledge the function of symbolic social rewards and punishments requires an understanding of indirect reinforcement. The most essential reinforcing, however, are usually social (resulting from interactions with peer groups and family members).


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