Social Learning Theory
Criminal Justice and criminological theories have a complicated and intricate past that many researchers have delved deep into to discover mysteries and causes of crime. The Social Learning Theory is just one of many that have marked a lasting impact on society and the field of criminology. Robert Burgess and Ronald Akers were the first to dig even deeper into the theoretical ideas of criminology and portray the aspects and importance of the Social Learning Theory and its application to deviance in society. As Akers describes this, “social learning is complementary to other sociological theories and could be used to integrate extane aspects of criminology is what makes this an appealing theory to be researched.
However, it was not the original theory to be researched based on this outlook into the causes and choices of crime. Akers’ ideas stemmed from a past well-known yet sometimes criticized theory called the differential association theory. The first criminologist to research this was Sutherland, who described the differential association theory as, “the process by which persons experience these conflicting definitions about appropriate behavior. Thus, definitions favorable and unfavorable to delinquent or criminal behavior are learned through interaction in intimate personal groups” (Matsueda, 1982, p. 489). This is very similar to the well-known social learning theory we all know today just less detailed and less proven experimental research to reinforce the idea. Delinquent and criminal behavior is rooted in the idea of interaction with others and the frequency, duration, and the environment that it is seen in. It states that if individuals encounter crime-beneficial messages in associations with intimate group members, they are likely to learn definitions favorable to crime (Matsuenda, 1982). Therefore, those who pick up on and learn the patterns and stigmas related to crime will be more likely than those unfavorable to crime to commit such heinous events. This theory starts the basis of what Akers was able to take into a whole new level with new factors and research to explain his criminological ideas of criminal behavior.
Sutherland’s theory however, was the basis of much criticism due to lack of relatable explanations and empirical validity. Akers stated that Sutherland never explained how people learn these “patterns” of crime, only the idea that they are “learned.” This was a huge factor into the reasoning that Akers came to further explain the social learning theory and the specific facts needed for definitions through differential reinforcement and the ever-important principles of operant conditioning (Brauer, 2012).
Leading further into the social learning theory, the mere capability to be out in public people watching and enjoying a beautiful sunny day can have influence over someone and his or her proneness to committing a criminal act. The social learning theory relays back to modeling and operant conditioning and basic models that behavior stems from each and every person. Consequences, rewards, and punishments all can take part in such a broad but very important theory. “Differential association with others, shapes the individual’s definitions of one’s own attitudes or meanings that one attaches to given behavior” (Pratt, 20120, p.767). Who you hang out with and who you associate with fully influences your attitudes, behavior, and thought processes more than one might think. When dealing with society and crime, this is where social learning comes into play to analyze why crime rates are still holding steady and how they vary from place to place.
Arguing the idea that people learn deviant behavior in the same manner and fashion as they would learn non-deviant behavior can lead researchers to question the theory and explore different options. There are quite a few factors that are also required in order to interpret this theory, “the four major concepts of the theory—differential association, differential reinforcement, modeling, and definitions” (Brauer, 2012, p. 158). These four begin to inquire into the thoughts of criminal behavior patterns and criminal stimuli and the balance of rewards and punishment, and the balance that is taught between the consequences or praise that comes after. (Brauer , 2012). Although all of these ideas of modeling, punishment and consequences may sound repetitive, each factor looks into more depth of why people choose to behave this way and the internal and many times unconscious ways criminal behavior can be formed and interpreted. There is a process that the social learning theory follows stating “differential associations are important because groups expose one to definitions, present models to imitate, and provide differential reinforcement for criminal behavior.” (Brauer, 2012, p. 160). Definitions of criminal behavior and stimuli, lead to the idea of imitating those with criminal intentions and getting reinforcement for their actions once they see it being approved with rewards and disapproved with consequences. These individuals begin to outweigh the benefits they may receive from the punishments they may face through the onset of preset examples.
Many factors clearly are used to comprise this theory, such as modeling, imitation, and self-concepts and perspectives. Akers does a great job of combining a plethora of ideas and putting them into a well formulated theory. Crime throughout history and into the present is a huge problem our society has had to face, and researchers and criminologists such as Akers have made a lot of progress to try and give some answers to how and why crime continues to persist. With a little background knowledge on the social learning theory, it is easier to delve deeper into experiments and the validity of a theory such as this one.
Before the positive value of this theory is looked upon, there are also a few negative issues that occur with the social learning theory that gives criticism to not only Akers but also other researchers using this theory. In the article it states, “scholars continue to debate the interpretations or exact causal mechanisms underlying these empirical relationships” because of the continual denial and questioning of “peer associations and participation in deviant behavior, or between cognitive attitudes (definitions) and participation in deviant behavior” (Brauer, 2012, p. 9). A theory such as this has many different factors and resources that are encompassed, which causes many problems when it comes to explaining various variables or experimental conclusions. Another issue that has been brought up with this theory is the idea that maybe there are outside and external reasons that differential association is used and not necessarily criminal behavior that caused the effects the social learning theory claims to have. “Some argue that causal interpretations of this correlation, like those outlined in learning theories, are misleading, since the correlation is possibly due to ‘faulty measurement and the tendency of people to seek the company of others like themselves’” (Brauer, 2012, p. 7). This idea along with the thought of delinquents wanting to get away from family stress or school problems and isolate themselves into a life of crime and violence is also a hard criticism but one that is completely viable. This criticism can be a good thing however because it even further strengthens the importance of the research when it fails to falsify results and leads to truthful valid research that can be used in articles, papers, and an additional understanding of the research.
There are several ways that have been used to show empirical validity and reliability of this theory in order to prove to others the importance of understanding and being able to relate social learning to crime. Reinforcing the idea again Akers claims, “differential reinforcement…is the central causal mechanism in Akers’ theory, since differential association, definitions, and imitation/modeling all affect one’s probability of committing deviance in relation to a process of differential reinforcement” (Brauer, 2012, p. 11). Differential association allows us to figure out the amount of exposure to others with criminal behavior the person has experienced. Then, definitions are used in order to measure realizations or rationalizations that consider the situation given as criminal or socially desirable or undesirable. Lastly, differential reinforcement is assessed even deeper in regards to anticipated or expected consequences, punishment, or rewards that may result from the behavior that may arise. We therefore must learn ways to be able to test and experiment using all of these factors within this theory and use the various hypotheses that Akers has proposed in this theory through the years.
Many experiments and studies have been done to prove this social learning theory and it was definitely not one formed over night. All of these conclusions and factors have been drawn and discovered due to much research in the field and in the office. Experimenting and researching have all been apart of various articles and books that can be found physically and on the Internet. A very interesting topic that is researched in relation to the social learning theory is aggression. Aggression has always been a questionable topic in relation to nature vs. nurture and whether the environment is the main predictor of this trait. Innate and biological theories have concluded that this is internal and part of your instinct, but social theories have debated otherwise. Numerous criminologists, including Bandura have intently researched this topic and have come to a few conclusions; “people learn aggressive behaviors the same ways they learn other social behaviors—by direct experience and by observing others” (Bandura, 1978, p. 25). Experiments on this range from young infants being observed in modeling situations up to adults monitored in various socio-economic environments. “If the model is rewarded for behaving aggressively, aggressive responding is strengthened in observers. If the model is punished for behaving aggressively, aggressive responding is weakened in observers” (Bandura, 1978, p. 26). Various causes of aggression are found through media, chemicals in your body such as testosterone, and culture but the basis of this research looks to experiments. Little kids may fight their toy army men because their dad watches war movies and although maybe not consciously, they see the small satisfaction and rewards he gets from this so it has to be acceptable and able to be repeated. Modeling and dissociative reinforcement are found everywhere and prime examples can be found in day-to-day living.
The social learning theory can be defined, experimented with, and compared to other theories in countless ways. Differing opinions and views will always be apart of this controversy in trying to prove the social learning theory. There will always be examples and experimental research performed on this theory, that will be used prove the empirical validity and its lasting strength as a valuable and worthy criminological theory. Akers and Sutherland are just a few of the monumental individuals to take part in this progression of a theory that still is used to describe many criminological acts and events. The social learning theory is implemented in schools, businesses, and corporations worldwide and one of the most highly looked upon theories to describe crime. Programs around the country trying to fight and face violent crime have researched this theory for years and the information explained throughout this paper along with countless other articles and journals prove the valuable information it entails and its relation to outside events.
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