Social Learning Theory: an Attempt to Explain Crime

Table of Content

There are multiple theories to explain criminal behavior, one of which emphasizes the impact of associations on individuals’ actions. To delve deeper into this theory, we will analyze robbery data from the Uniform Crime Report, which encompasses one of the four violent crimes. Additionally, we will give an outline of a study that investigates this theory and its findings and conclusions. Utilizing the data, theoretical components, and test results, we will suggest innovative policies.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines robbery as forcefully or through threat of violence taking or attempting to take something valuable from a person or persons under their care or control, causing fear in the victim (FBI, 2011). According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report for 2011, there were 354,396 instances of robbery in the United States. This represents a rate of 113.7 robberies per 100,000 people and a four percent decrease from the previous year (FBI, 2011). In Connecticut alone, there were 3,677 reported robberies which is approximately equivalent to 102 robberies per 100,000 residents.

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The FBI (2011) reported that the majority of offenses, totaling 3,581, took place in metropolitan areas within the state. Street or highway was the location for 43.8% of national robberies in 2011. Residences were the second most common location, accounting for 17% of robberies. The average amount seized during each robbery was $1,153. In addition, physical violence was used against victims in 130,839 robberies in the United States according to the FBI (2011). Out of these incidents, firearms were the weapon of choice in 128,793 cases.

The National Crime Victimization Survey provides insights into the dynamics between offenders and victims in relation to violent crimes. In the United States, males experience victimization more frequently than females. The victimization rate for males aged twelve and above is 25.7 per 1,000 individuals, which is 5.2 higher than the rate for females (Criminal, 2011). American Indians/Alaskan Natives and African Americans are the two racial groups with the highest rates of victimization.

According to the 2011 Criminal Report, violent crimes had a greater impact on American Indians and African Americans compared to other racial groups. The victimization rate for American Indians was 45.4 per every 1,000 individuals aged twelve and above, while for African Americans it was 26.4 per every 1,000 individuals in the same age group. Among those under the age of 24, particularly between 18-24, the victimization rate was highest at 49 per every 1,000 inhabitants. Individuals aged 12-17 experienced a lower victimization rate of 37.8 per every 1,000 inhabitants. Other age groups had significantly lower rates of victimization.

When examining different regions, the West had the highest victimization rate at 27.1 followed closely by the Midwest with a rate of 26. The south and northeast also had relatively high rates of victimization. In terms of geographic areas, urban areas had a higher victimization rate (27.4) compared to suburban or rural areas.

The analysis of data from both the Uniform Crime Report and National Crime Victimization Survey leads to questions about why people commit crimes. Understanding deviance and criminality remains largely unknown in social science disciplines; however, there are various theories that attempt to explain these phenomena. One notable theory is Ronald Akers’ Social Learning Theory which provides the most reasonable explanation for deviant behavior.

Social Learning Theory suggests that individuals become conforming or deviant by learning from and imitating others. The balance of various influences, as mentioned by Akers, such as differential association, differential reinforcement, modeling, and cognitive definitions, plays a significant role in an individual’s decisions. Differential association, involving direct or indirect association with specific individuals or groups, forms the foundation for these other factors.

The reason for this is that behaviors receive formal or informal punishments or rewards based on the group one associates with (differential reinforcement). Additionally, these groups influence an individual’s behavior through imitation, as the individual tends to model the behaviors of those they associate with. Differential association also plays a role in cognitive definitions, as individuals tend to share ideas with their associates. Thus, if a certain behavior, whether it is a crime or a conforming act, is positively defined within the group, that definition carries over into the individual’s mindset, making it acceptable for them to engage in that behavior.

When making the decision to engage in criminal behavior or not, an individual’s choice is impacted by the concept of differential reinforcement. This refers to the anticipated rewards or punishments they believe they will experience. These reinforcements can take two forms: social and nonsocial. For instance, if a teenager is presented with the opportunity to smoke a cigarette and opts not to, it could be because they are worried about their physical well-being, afraid of disappointing their family, or both.

The likelihood of a person performing an act again or often is influenced by the reinforcements they receive. This can either increase or decrease the likelihood. Positive and negative definitions also play a significant role. If a person’s social group has a positive regard for a deviant act or excuses and justifies it, the person is more likely to commit the act. The same principle applies to imitation. Individuals are likely to imitate behaviors of those they deem important, such as family and close friends (Akers).

If robbery is examined through the Social Learning perspective, it becomes evident how individuals may become involved in such criminal activities. It is possible for robbery to be perceived in a positive manner based on the company one keeps; it can be regarded as a fast and effortless method to acquire money. The act is justified as it fills a void within the individual, and engaging in the crime can lead to a transformation. If someone’s associates view robbery positively, it is likely that they will also partake in the crime, making room for imitation.

Modeling oneself after respected individuals is a common practice, particularly when these individuals appear to be receiving rewards for their behavior. In certain cases, the allure of monetary rewards may outweigh the potential consequences of legal punishment. Consequently, individuals are more inclined to engage in similar actions when they associate with those who already perform these behaviors. Ronald Akers and Gang Lee conducted a longitudinal study on adolescent smoking to test Akers’ theory of Social Learning, which hypothesized specific factors influencing this behavior.

The study examined the relationship between teenage smoking patterns and the Social Learning Theory. In Muscatine, Iowa, secondary school students from grades 7-12 in both junior high and senior high schools were surveyed three times over a five-year period. The survey was completed by returning students, new students, and seventh-grade entrants.

Each year, approximately 2,000 students were involved in the study, which took place in homerooms or mandatory physical education classes. Over a span of five years, 454 students consistently participated in the study (Akers). To account for potential dishonest responses from teenagers who may lie about their smoking habits to evade trouble or appear more attractive, the students’ answers were cross-referenced with the level of thiocyanate detected in their saliva. Thiocyanate is a byproduct of nicotine (Akers).

The researchers employed various methods, including the “randomized response” technique, to determine the accuracy of participants’ answers. The levels of thiocyanate were found to closely correspond with the self-reported smoking habits and frequency reported by the students (Akers). This study primarily focused on examining how often individuals smoked cigarettes. Participants indicated their smoking frequency using a six-point scale that ranged from never smoking to smoking daily. In a similar fashion, the social learning factors were evaluated using similar scales and by combining the responses received (Akers).

The measurement of differential reinforcement involved questioning positive and negative reinforcements, both social and non-social. The balance of reinforcement was determined by subtracting positive reinforcements (reactions from friends and family) from negative reinforcements (health risks) (Akers). Imitation was not included in the measurements as it significantly overlaps with differential association. This is because imitation mainly plays a role in initiating certain acts, like smoking, rather than continuing them (Akers).

The assessment of differential association involved inquiring about the smoking habits of friends, considering factors like duration, frequency, and intensity of the friendship. Additionally, attitudes towards smoking were examined in close relationships such as family and friends using a scale ranging from strong approval to strong disapproval. To establish an overall attitude towards smoking, participants’ responses regarding their personal definitions of smoking were averaged (Akers).

Akers confirmed the hypothesis through the study’s results. The third administration of the questionnaire in the fifth year showed a strong link between smoking and social learning factors. Additionally, it was noted that variables in the first year had an impact on variables in the third year, and variables in the third year affected those in the fifth year. However, there was a lesser influence of first-year factors on the fifth year, indicating a decreased correlation over time.

This study demonstrates that social learning variables have a persistent impact on the smoking habits of adolescents, as it reveals stability in the behavioral process of smoking. However, the stability observed in smoking is not as strong as the stability observed in social learning variables, suggesting that factors other than those outlined in the Social Learning Theory play a role in smoking. Notably, specific trends exist, such as teenage boys being less influenced by their girlfriends’ smoking compared to teenage girls affected by their boyfriends’ smoking habits.

The impact of peers and parents’ attitudes towards smoking differs across different age groups (Akers). Considering the aforementioned facts and research, implementing certain policies could potentially decrease the chances of certain crimes, although they might not be completely feasible. One policy suggestion is to require the collection of data on individuals’ cognitive definitions through questionnaires, similar to the ones used in the Akers study, starting from a young age.

By utilizing this information, individuals can be placed in classes, clubs, or sports teams with others who have positive cognitive definitions, either with or without their knowledge. If we accept the concept of differential association influencing criminal activity, then being surrounded by individuals who possess certain values may lead to the adoption of those values. Alternatively, the media can play a role in shaping people’s cognitive definitions, particularly among adolescents. One potential approach would be to mandate that television shows include anti-crime commercials at least once per episode.

The media has a significant impact on individuals, albeit not as much as their close friends and family. A potential method to control crime, though not ideal, could involve rigidly regulating an individual’s social circle. This would involve completely isolating deviants from the rest of society. To some extent, this approach is already implemented in schools, where disruptive students are kept separate from their peers, and in jails where adults are imprisoned for committing crimes. Although these measures may not have been explicitly designed to prevent others from engaging in deviant behavior through association, they inadvertently serve this purpose. Nevertheless, implementing such policies would require stringent rules and decisions starting from early childhood to determine whom individuals are allowed to associate with.


  1. Akers, Ronald , and Gang Lee. “A Longitudinal Study of Social Learning Theory: Adolescent Smoking. ” Journal of Drug Issues 26. 2 (1996): 317-343. Print.
  2. “Criminal Victimization, 2011. ” www. bjs. gov. N. p. , n. d. Web. 3 Dec. 2012.

  3. “FBI” Robbery. ” FBI” Homepage. N. p. , n. d. Web. 3 Dec. 2012.