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Differential Reinforcement Theory(Akers)

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Differential Reinforcement Theory


The roots of the learning perspective can be dated back to the era of Gabriel Tarde (Criminology 1). He focused his social learning theory based on three laws of imitation. The first two laws were further used by the father of criminology Edwin H. Sutherland in his theory of differential association. The learning perspective was deemed as being too simple and not legitimate enough for the criminology world or sociology. He focused his theory on learning in a social environment. He further dramatized the idea of cultural conflict in his studies. He proposed nine prepositions of differential association. The main focus of his theory was juvenile delinquents. The main point of the theory was to figure out if delinquents or delinquent friends came first. Sutherland’s theory was highly criticized as being difficult to measure and hard to test.

During the 1950s and the 1960s there had been a number of new theories in the sociology world. In 1965 Ronald Akers an assistant professor at the University of Washington and Robert Burgess came together to introduce a new theory (Criminology 2). They published an article on “Differential Association Reinforcement Theory of Criminal Behavior (Burgess, Akers 1966).” They re-evaluated Sutherland’s theory about differential association using behaviorism. They tried to incorporate the psychological principles of operant conditioning and held that even non social effects can reinforce criminal behavior (O’Connor 3).

According to Akers (1985) people are first indoctrinated into deviant behavior by differential association with deviant peers. Then through differential reinforcement, they learn how to reap rewards and avoid punishment in reference to the actual or anticipated consequences of given behavior (O’Connor 3). The consequences are said to be social and nonsocial reinforcement that further applies to a criminal’s future. Ronald Akers further discussed that structure can affect a person’s differential reinforcement and that criminal knowledge is gained. Potential criminals often analyze what they can get out of the crime and what their punishment may be after committing the crime. From this analysis the criminal makes their decision. Differential reinforcement may also alter the response which is known as shaping or response differentiation. An example, of a child learning how to speak was used. A child’s vocalization is reinforced by the parent. The pattern or schedule of reinforcement is also important because reinforcement can be based on fixed interval, fixed ratio, variable ratio and contingencies. To show that criminal behavior is activated by discriminative cues Burgess and Akers cut down Sutherlands nine propositions to seven propositions.

1. Criminal behavior is learned according to the principles of operant conditioning (Burgess, Akers 1966:137). • Operant behaviors can involve conditioning, shaping, stimulus control and extinction (Burgess, Akers 1966:133-134). • 6 possible environmental consequences to the Law of Operant Behavior (Burgess, Akers 1966:133). • Stimulus control or stimulus discrimination: A child trying to reinforce the word “Daddy” to their real father instead of any random man (Burgess, Akers 1966: 134). 2. Criminal behavior is learned both in nonsocial situations or social situations (Burgess, Akers 1966:139). • Reinforcing and discriminative stimulus 3. The principle parts of learning occur in groups (Burgess Akers, 1966; 140). • Reference groups and media as reinforcers. 4. “The learning of criminal behavior including specific techniques, attitudes and avoidance procedures, is a function of the effective and available reinforcers, and the existing reinforcement contingencies (Burgess, Akers 1966: 141).” • A schedule of reinforcement • Techniques of committing the crime (Burgess, Akers 1966: 141). • Drives, motives, rationalization, and attitudes (Burgess, Akers 1966: 141). 5. “The specific class of behaviors which are learned and their frequency of occurrence are a function of the reinforcers which are effective and available, and the rules or norms by which these reinforcers are applied (Burgess, Akers 1966: 142).” • Behavior depends on how reinforcers are applied based on norms 6. Criminal behavior is a function of norms which are discriminative for criminal behavior (Burgess, Akers 1966: 142). • A person will become delinquent based on the function of the norms

7. The strength of Criminal behavior depends on the frequency and probability of its reinforcement (Burgess, Akers 1966: 144). •The main components include the amount of reinforcement, the frequency of reinforcement, and the probability of reinforcement.

Some deviant behaviors that Akers focused on and tested included those of smoking among adolescents, drinking behavior, and drug use. The differential association reinforcement theory was never really a major topic of discussion nor did it receive instant credibility. Still today there are criticisms of the learning theory. Though learning theory is not a major topic of discussion it is still used in other studies today. One study used it to predict conflict tactics within Arabic families (Yahia, Noursi 1998), another was done on the effect of childhood violence on adult marital violence (Mihalic, Elliot 1997), William Skinner and Anne Fream used social learning theory as an explanation for computer crime at colleges (Skinner, Fream 1997). Another used the theory to test for difference by race and ethnicity and the fear of victimization (Houts, Kassab 1997). Evaluation:

Aker and Burgess developed a theory that can be applied to almost any kind of crime on an everyday basis. Specifically any crime that has some type of gain can be applied. The gain can range from positive attention from the group or person. The criminal behavior is also shown to have some type of reward whether good or bad. This can lead to higher status, a better name, and more attention. The feedback from the peer group was also proven to determine if the person will continue to commit deviant behavior or not. Akers and Burgess also give examples of each preposition in which they proposed. They further expressed that they had sought Sutherland’s views as a model.

Though Akers and Burgess may have had some high points in their theory there are still some issues that were not addressed. The theory does not apply the significance of individual differences among people. The theory does not take into account that individual difference may be biological, psychological, and sometimes physical. These differences may affect the groups and individual attitudes.

Everyone is not the same and we don’t come from the same backgrounds. We all have a mind of our own and our thinking abilities are not the same. Akers fails to explain the fact that we are all different and the causes of why some people may absorb criminal behavior and others will not. One factor he could have addressed was how our home life and beliefs can affect the outcome of participation in criminal behavior. Our genetic makeup and family relations could alter our views on life and the people around us. Some people are slower then others and others are just gullible. Other factors could be the lack of love and affection that one receives on a daily basis.

If criminal behavior is learned then somebody had to teach it. Akers also fails to address the amount of opportunity that was present. The assumption that people who learn criminal behavior must have came into contact with such behavior in the basis of the theory. But, the theory does not explain how the person came in contact with the people exhibiting criminal behavior. Aker and Burgess fail to explain if it was a relative, peer, sibling, broken home, or even a teacher that led that person to the teacher. Many people have idols that they look up to and at times imitate. Could the person have been and idol? In schools popularity is also a major issue maybe the person only committed an act to get attention from a certain person or group but not because the group told them to do it. Street life is also a cause to being led to criminal behavior. Homeless people and runaways are often exposed to criminal behavior. People who sell drugs might approach a dealer trying to make a few dollars and instantly get pulled into the game. What if a person is born into criminal activity such as a criminal family? That person really didn’t have a choice so is this still considered differential reinforcement?

Aker also fails to explain how some people who have never came in contact with any criminal behavior still manage to commit criminal activities. For example, say a child who has not started school yet and is about three years old and steals a cookie from the cookie jar after their mother told him not to. This child is committing a criminal behavior by stealing the cookie and hiding so they can eat it before there mother comes back. Where did this child pick up this criminal activity if they have never come in contact with children their age or a person that engages in criminal behavior? Could this be natural instinct? Empirical Study

One empirical study to test Differential Reinforcement was done by William Skinner and Anne Fream. The study was done as a Social Learning Theory Analysis of Computer Crime among College Students and placed in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency. The study took place at Southern University where 950 students were chosen from 13 different departments of three different schools. These schools within the university were the College of Arts and Sciences, Business and Economics, and Engineering. These schools were chosen because they were labeled as where computer use is more prominent and students have a high knowledge about computers. The two main objectives of the study included examining the extensive occurrence of five different illegal computer activities. These illegal activities included software piracy, guessing passwords to gain unauthorized access, gaining unauthorized access solely for the purpose of browsing, unauthorized access for the purpose of changing information, and writing or using a program like a virus that destroys computerized data (Skinner, Fream 496). Second they examine the ability of social learning theory to explain these behaviors.

The study revolved around the concepts of differential association, differential reinforcement/ punishment, definitions, and imitation. Differential Reinforcement was measured by asking several deterrence questions. These questions included, (1) how likely is it that you would be caught using, making, or giving another person a “pirated” copy of software? and (2) how likely is it that you would get caught accessing or trying to access another computer account or files without his or her permission (Skinner, Fream 505). Possible answers ranged from (1) never to (5) very likely. The severity of punishment aspect to deterrence was measured by the following questions: (1) how severe do you think the punishment would be if you got caught using, making, or giving to another person pirated software? and (2) how severe do you think the punishment would be if you got caught accessing or trying to access another computer account or files without his or her knowledge or permission? Possible answers ranged from (1) not severe at all to (4) very severe (Skinner, Fream 505).

The results for this portion of the study showed that the chance of suffering a penalty or punishment had little effect on the continuous use of computer crime. It was stated that “There is neither a general nor specific deterrent effect that serves as a differential reinforcement/ punishment for computer crime (skinner, Fream 513).” There also appears to be little incentive from a deterrence perspective for students to quit engaging in illegal computer activity (Skinner, Fream 514). Basically getting caught and punished did not stop these students from continuing to commit computer crimes and at times are rarely caught.

Policy Implication:

Mentoring programs are examples of policies based on social learning that are said to be able to prevent some future criminal behavior in the theory. Mentoring is a relationship between two different individuals one being an adult who is 21 or older and a juvenile. The meetings take place on a regular basis over an extended period of time. Some mentoring programs include JUMP program which addresses poor school performance and dropping out of school among teens . Another is the Big brothers and Big sisters program which involves one to one youth mentoring in which older youth spend time with younger youth (Big Brother Big Sisters 1).

Mentored groups are shown to earn higher grades in school and skip school less. They are also 46 percent less likely than the control group to initiate drug use during the study period (Big Brother Big Sisters 1). Minorities were shown to be 70 percent less likely than the control group to take part in any type of drug use while under a mentor supervision (Big Brother Big Sisters 1). Mentors are also 27 percent less likely to begin using alcohol, less assaultive, and had better relationships with their parents (Big Brother Big Sisters 1).

Mentoring programs can help keep students off the streets and help those who come from troubled backgrounds. While under a mentor supervision the likelihood of engaging in criminal behavior is slim. Mentors are there to listen to youth and encourage them to do better in life. The fact that they have somebody there to take the time to listen and spend time with them keeps them positive and out of trouble


Akers, Ronald L.1998. Social Learning and Social Structure: A General Theory of Crime and Deviance. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.

Burgess, Robert L., Akers Robert L.1966. “A Differential Association-Reinforcement Theory of Criminal Behavior.” Social Problems 14:2 128-147.

Skinner, William F., Fream, Anne M.1997. "A Social Learning Theory Analysis of Computer Crime among College Students.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 34:495.

Houts Sandra, Kassab Cathy.1997. “Rotter’s Social Learning Theory and Fear of Crime: Differences by Race and Ethnicity.” Social Science Quarterly.

Mihalic, Sharon W., Elliot, Delbert.1997. “A Social Learning Theory Model of Marital Violence.” Journal of Family Violence 12:1.

Yahia, Muhammand M., Noursi, Samia D.1998.“Predicting the Use of Different Conflict Tactics among Arab Siblings in Israel: A Study based on Social Learning Theory.”Journal of Family Violence 13:1.

Big Brothers Big Sister.2007. “The Results.” Philadelphia, PA:Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Retrieved July 24, 2007

Criminology.2007. “Ronald Akers and Social Learning Theory.” Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University Criminology, Retrieved July 26, 2007

O’Connor, Tom Dr.April 14, 2005. “Learning Theories of Crime.” North Carolina Wesleyan College, Retrieved Jul 25, 2007

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