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Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory identifies parents, friends, the media, and other role models as potential causes of crime (Beaver). From personal experiences in my own life Social Learning Theory seems like a solid theory as to why some people end up committing crimes. I knew some people in my high school that hung out together, and they were always getting into trouble. I recall that they even had a name for their “gang’. This group of individuals were known to most of us other students as “the troublemakers”. Research shows that such self-selection into peer groups does occur, and studies also suggest that the continued association with other anti-social peers can magnify delinquent involvement (Lilly, et. al, 2011). They were into drugs, alcohol, and even fighting. Unfortunately for some of them this lifestyle led to bigger crimes like robbery, and drug distribution. In the end a few of them ended up in jail, and then prison. Social learning theory came from Sutherland’s differential association theory (Beaver).  This theory basically argues that criminal behavior is learned in frequent interactions with those close to you (Beaver). Criminologist Ronald Akers ended up making changes and modifications to Sutherland’s differential theory and called it Social Learning Theory (Beaver).  Sutherland’s theory implies that definitions once internalized continue to regulate people’s decisions, and Akers noted that in addition to these definitions some people can become involved in crime through imitation or in other words by modeling criminal conduct (Lilly, et. al, 2011).

Akers Social Learning Theory has been subjected to a lot of empirical testing through self-reported delinquency, and research has been supportive of this perspective (Lilly, et. al, 2011). Also, prior research has been supportive of differential association theory, but there has been little research on deviant behavior in natural settings (Akers, et. al, 1919). Even though I tend to agree with Akers Social Learning Theory there are some limitations with it. For example, rather than delinquent friends causing bad behavior, maybe the process is really a cause of “birds of a feather flock together” (Beaver). Think about that for a minute and recall what I mentioned above regarding those people from my high school who were always getting into trouble. I knew most of those individuals, and what I recall about them is that they were like-minded people who gravitated towards each other. However, many of them had no problems getting into trouble on their own, but once they started hanging out with similar individuals the troubles, they caused became amplified. I am sure that by hanging out together they may have learned new criminal behaviors from one another, but again most of these people were already causing problems on their own. Sutherland rejected individualist explanations of crime (Beaver). I realize that Akers just expanded on Sutherland’s differential theory, and by doing so he too was rejecting the individual explanation of crime. In my opinion this is a problem with Social Learning Theory. The theory seems to leave out that some people commit crimes on their own without someone influencing them or teaching them criminal behavior. The focus is not on altering some underlying pathology but on changing the values and ways of thinking that the offender has learned in prior social interactions with parents, sibling, friends, and other people in society (Lilly, et. al, 2011). That said I believe that they should have not ignored that some people are going to commit crimes on their own without the influence from other people who are close to them. By addressing the fact that the individual is sometimes the cause of their deviant behavior as well would not have proven that Social Learning Theory was not correct.  However, it would show that some of the time no matter what the influence is that some people are going to get into deviant behavior without learning this behavior from someone else.


Akers, RL., Krohn, MD., Lanza-Kaduce, L., & Radosevich, M. (1979).  Social Learning and Deviant Behavior: A Specific Test of a General Theory. American Sociological Review, Vol. 44, Pg. 636-655.

Dr. Kevin Beaver Power Point Presentation. Social Learning Theory. Florida State University (2021).

Dr. Kevin Beaver week 4 notes Social Learning Theory. Florida State University (2021).

Lilly, JR., Cullen, FT., & Ball, RA., (2011). Criminology Theory: Context and Consequences 5th edition. Thousand Oaks, Ca.

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