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Crime Causation: Sociological Theories

Social Learning Theory

Why do people engage in crime according to social learning theory? They learn to engage in crime, primarily through their association with others. They are reinforced for crime, they learn beliefs that are favorable to crime, and they are exposed to criminal models. As a consequence, they come to view crime as something that is desirable or at least justifiable in certain situations. The primary version of social learning theory in criminology is that of Ronald Akers and the description that follows draws heavily on his work. Akers's theory, in turn, represents an elaboration of Edwin Sutherland's differential association theory (also see the related work of Albert Bandura in psychology).

According to social learning theory, juveniles learn to engage in crime in the same way they learn to engage in conforming behavior: through association with or exposure to others. Primary or intimate groups like the family and peer group have an especially large impact on what we learn. In fact, association with delinquent friends is the best predictor of delinquency other than prior delinquency. However, one does not have to be in direct contact with others to learn from them; for example, one may learn to engage in violence from observation of others in the media.

Most of social learning theory involves a description of the three mechanisms by which individuals learn to engage in crime from these others: differential reinforcement, beliefs, and modeling.

Differential reinforcement of crime. Individuals may teach others to engage in crime through the reinforcements and punishments they provide for behavior. Crime is more likely to occur when it (a) is frequently reinforced and infrequently punished; (b) results in large amounts of reinforcement (e.g., a lot of money, social approval, or pleasure) and little punishment; and (c) is more likely to be reinforced than alternative behaviors.

Reinforcements may be positive or negative. In positive reinforcement, the behavior results in something good—some positive consequence. This consequence may involve such things as money, the pleasurable feelings associated with drug use, attention from parents, approval from friends, or an increase in social status. In negative reinforcement, the behavior results in the removal of something bad—a punisher is removed or avoided. For example, suppose one's friends have been calling her a coward because she refuses to use drugs with them. The individual eventually takes drugs with them, after which time they stop calling her a coward. The individual's drug use has been negatively reinforced.

According to social learning theory, some individuals are in environments where crime is more likely to be reinforced (and less likely to be punished). Sometimes this reinforcement is deliberate. For example, the parents of aggressive children often deliberately encourage and reinforce aggressive behavior outside the home. Or the adolescent's friends may reinforce drug use. At other times, the reinforcement for crime is less deliberate. For example, an embarrassed parent may give her screaming child a candy bar in the checkout line of a supermarket. Without intending to do so, the parent has just reinforced the child's aggressive behavior.

Data indicate that individuals who are reinforced for crime are more likely to engage in subsequent crime, especially when they are in situations similar to those where they were previously reinforced.

Beliefs favorable to crime. Other individuals may not only reinforce our crime, they may also teach us beliefs favorable to crime. Most individuals, of course, are taught that crime is bad or wrong. They eventually accept or "internalize" this belief, and they are less likely to engage in crime as a result. Some individuals, however, learn beliefs that are favorable to crime and they are more likely to engage in crime as a result.

Few people—including criminals—generally approve of serious crimes like burglary and robbery. Surveys and interviews with criminals suggest that beliefs favoring crime fall into three categories. And data suggest that each type of belief increases the likelihood of crime.

First, some people generally approve of certain minor forms of crime, like certain forms of consensual sexual behavior, gambling, "soft" drug use, and—for adolescents—alcohol use, truancy, and curfew violation.

Second, some people conditionally approve of or justify certain forms of crime, including some serious crimes. These people believe that crime is generally wrong, but that some criminal acts are justifiable or even desirable in certain conditions. Many people, for example, will state that fighting is generally wrong, but that it is justified if you have been insulted or provoked in some way. Gresham Sykes and David Matza have listed some of the more common justifications used for crime. Several theorists have argued that certain groups in our society—especially lower-class, young, minority males—are more likely to define violence as an acceptable response to a wide range of provocations and insults. And they claim that this "subculture of violence" is at least partly responsible for the higher rate of violence in these groups. Data in this area are somewhat mixed, but recent studies suggest that males, young people, and possibly lower-class people are more likely to hold beliefs favorable to violence. There is less evidence for a relationship between race and beliefs favorable to violence.

Third, some people hold certain general values that are conducive to crime. These values do not explicitly approve of or justify crime, but they make crime appear a more attractive alternative than would otherwise be the case. Theorists such as Matza and Sykes have listed three general sets of values in this area: an emphasis on "excitement," "thrills," or "kicks"; a disdain for hard work and a desire for quick, easy success; and an emphasis on toughness or being "macho." Such values can be realized through legitimate as well as illegitimate channels, but individuals with such values will likely view crime in a more favorable light than others.

The imitation of criminal models. Behavior is not only a function of beliefs and the reinforcements and punishments individuals receive, but also of the behavior of those around them. In particular, individuals often imitate or model the behavior of others—especially when they like or respect these others and have reason to believe that imitating their behavior will result in reinforcement. For example, individuals are more likely to imitate others' behavior if they observe them receive reinforcement for their acts.

Social learning theory has much support and is perhaps the dominant theory of crime today. Data indicate that the people one associates with have a large impact on whether or not one engages in crime, and that this impact is partly explained by the effect these people have on one's beliefs regarding crime, the reinforcements and punishments one receives, and the models one is exposed to.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCrime Causation: Sociological Theories - Strain Theory, Social Learning Theory, Control Theory, Labeling Theory, Social Disorganization Theory, Critical Theories