Social Learning Theory

The basic assumption in social learning theory is that the same learning process in a context of social structure, interaction, and situation, produces both conforming and deviant behavior. The difference lies in the direction . . . [of] the balance of influences on behavior.


  1. Introduction
  2. Origin and Overview of Social Learning Theory
  3. Differential Association
  4. Definitions
  5. Differential Reinforcement
  6. Imitation
  7. Testing Social Learning Theory
  8. Social Structure and Social Learning
  9. Future Directions
  10. Conclusion

I. Introduction

The purpose of this research paper is to provide an overview of Akers’s social learning theory with attention to its theoretical roots in Sutherland’s differential association theory and the behavioral psychology of Skinner and Bandura. Empirical research testing the utility of social learning theory for explaining variation in crime or deviance is then reviewed; this is followed by a discussion of recent macrolevel applications of the theory (i.e., social structure and social learning). The research paper concludes with a brief offering of suggestions for future research and a summary of the importance of social learning theory as a general theory in the criminological literature.

II. Origin and Overview of Social Learning Theory

Burgess and Akers’s (1966)

differential association-reinforcement theory was an effort to meld Sutherland’s (1947) sociological approach in his differential association theory and principles of behavioral psychology. This was the foundation for Akers’s (1968, 1973; Akers, Krohn, Lanza-Kaduce, & Radosevich, 1979) further development of the theory, which he came more often to refer to as social learning theory. Sutherland’s differential association theory is contained in nine propositions:

  1. Social Learning TheoryCriminal behavior is learned.
  2. Criminal behavior is learned in interaction with other persons in a process of communication.
  3. The principal part of the learning of criminal behavior occurs within intimate personal groups.
  4. When criminal behavior is learned, the learning includes (a) techniques of committing the crime, which are sometimes very complicated, sometimes very simple, and (b) the specific direction of motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes.
  5. The specific direction of motives and drives is learned from definitions of the legal codes as favorable or unfavorable.
  6. A person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of the law.
  7. The process of learning criminal behavior by association with criminal and anti-criminal patterns involves all of the mechanisms that are involved in any other learning.
  8. Although criminal behavior is an expression of general needs and values, it is not explained by those general needs and values, because noncriminal behavior is an expression of the same needs and values.
  9. Differential association varies in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity. The most frequent, longest-running, earliest and closest influences will be most efficacious or determinant of learned behavior. (pp. 6–7)

Sutherland (1947)

referred to the sixth statement as the principle of differential association. According to Sutherland, an individual learns two types of definitions toward committing a particular behavior. He can either learn favorable definitions from others that would likely increase the probability that he will commit the behavior, or he can learn unfavorable definitions that would likely decrease the probability that he would engage in a particular behavior. Stated in terms of criminal involvement, when an individual learns favorable definitions toward violations of the law in excess of the definitions unfavorable to violations of the law, that individual is more likely to commit the criminal act(s).

Learning favorable versus unfavorable definitions can also be described as a process whereby individuals attempt to balance pro-criminal definitions against prosocial or conforming definitions. It is logical to assume that individuals learn favorable or pro-criminal definitions for committing crime from those involved in crime themselves (i.e., the criminals) and, in contrast, learn unfavorable definitions for committing crime from those individuals who are not involved in crime, and this assumption is supported empirically. It should be remembered, however, that it is possible for law-abiding persons to expose individuals to pro-criminal attitudes and definitions, just as it is possible for an individual to learn conforming definitions from criminals (see Cressey, 1960, p. 49).

According to Sutherland’s (1947) seventh principle, the theory does not merely state that being associated with criminals leads to crime or that being associated with law-abiding persons leads to conforming behavior. It is the nature, characteristics, and balance of the differential association that affect an individual’s likelihood of violating the law. More specifically, if a person is exposed to pro-criminal definitions first (priority), and these definitions increase in frequency and strength (intensity) and persist for some time (duration), the individual is more likely to demonstrate involvement in criminal and deviant acts.

Although Sutherland’s (1947) differential association theory began to accumulate a rather large amount of attention throughout the sociological and criminological literature in the years after its emergence, Burgess and Akers (1966) noted that the theory had still failed to receive considerable empirical support and had yet to be adequately modified in response to some of its shortcomings and criticisms.

Some of these issues included the inconsistency both within and between studies regarding the support for differential association and a common criticism among scholars on the difficulty of operationalizing the theory’s concepts. In response to these criticisms and the prior failure of differential association theorists in specifying the learning process of the theory, Burgess and Akers presented their reformulated version of the theory, that is, differential association-reinforcement theory.

To describe their revised version in terms of its modifications and derivations from the original theory (as exemplified in Sutherland’s [1947] nine principles), Burgess and Akers (1966) offered the following seven principles that illustrate the process wherein learning takes place:

  1. Criminal behavior is learned according to the principles of operant conditioning (reformulation of Sutherland’s Principles 1 and 8).
  2. Criminal behavior is learned both in nonsocial situations that are reinforcing or discriminative and through that social interaction in which the behavior of other persons is reinforcing or discriminative for criminal behavior (reformulation of Sutherland’s Principle 2).
  3. The principal part of the learning of criminal behavior occurs in those groups whi
    ch comprise the individual’s major source of reinforcements (reformulation of Sutherland’s Principle 3).
  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 (reformulation of Sutherland’s Principle 4).
  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 (reformulation of Sutherland’s Principle 5).
  6. Criminal behavior is a function of norms which are discriminative for criminal behavior, the learning of which takes place when such behavior is more highly reinforced than noncriminal behavior (reformulation of Sutherland’s Principle 6).
  7. The strength of criminal behavior is a direct function of the amount, frequency, and probability of its reinforcement (reformulation of Sutherland’s Principle 7). (pp. 132–145)1

Akers (1973, 1977, 1985, 1998)

has since discussed modifications to this original serial list and has further revised the theory in response to criticisms, theoretical and empirical developments in the literature, and to ease the interpretation and explanations of the key assumptions of social learning theory, but the central tenets remain the same. It is important to note here that, contrary to how social learning is often described in the literature, social learning is not a rival or competitor of Sutherland’s (1947) theory and his original propositions. Instead, it is offered as a broader theory that modifies and builds on Sutherland’s theory and integrates this theoretical perspective with aspects of other scholars’ principles explicated in behavioral learning theory, in particular behavioral acquisition, continuation, and cessation (see Akers, 1985, p. 41). Taken together, social learning theory is presented as a more comprehensive explanation for involvement in crime and deviance compared with Sutherland’s original theory; thus, any such support that it offered for differential association theory provides support for social learning theory, and findings that support social learning theory do not negate/discredit differential association theory.

The behavioral learning aspect of Akers’s social learning theory (as first proposed by Burgess and Akers, 1966) draws from the classical work of B. F. Skinner, yet, more recently, Akers (1998) commented on how his theory is more closely aligned with cognitive learning theories such as those associated with Albert Bandura (1977), among others. According to Burgess and Akers (1996) and, later, Akers (1973, 1977, 1985, 1998), the specific mechanisms by which the learning process takes place are primarily through operant conditioning or differential reinforcement. Stated more clearly, operant behavior, or voluntary actions taken by an individual, are affected by a system of rewards and punishments. These reinforcers and punishers (described later) ultimately influence an individual’s decision of whether to participate in conforming and/or nonconforming behavior.

Burgess and Akers (1966)

originally considered the imitation element of the behavioral learning process (or modeling) to be subsumed under the broad umbrella of operant conditioning; that is, imitation was itself seen as simply one kind of behavior that could be shaped through successive approximations and not a separate behavioral mechanism. However, Akers later began to accept the uniqueness of the learning mechanism of imitation from operant or instrumental learning and to discuss it in terms of observational learning or vicarious reinforcement. Burgess and Akers also recognized the importance of additional behavioral components and principles of learning theory, such as classical conditioning, discriminative stimuli, schedules of reinforcement, and other mechanisms.

Considering the brief overview of social learning theory as described earlier, the central assumption and proposition of social learning theory can be best summarized in the two following statements:

The basic assumption in social learning theory is that the same learning process in a context of social structure, interaction, and situation, produces both conforming and deviant behavior. The difference lies in the direction . . . [of] the balance of influences on behavior.

The probability that persons will engage in criminal and deviant behavior is increased and the probability of their conforming to the norm is decreased when they differentially associate with others who commit criminal behavior and espouse definitions favorable to it, are relatively more exposed in-person or symbolically to salient criminal/deviant models, define it as desirable or justified in a situation discriminative for the behavior, and have received in the past and anticipate in the current or future situation relatively greater reward than punishment for the behavior. (Akers, 1998, p. 50)

It is worth emphasizing that social learning theory is a general theory in that it offers an explanation for why individuals first participate in crime and deviance, why they continue to offend, why they escalate/deescalate, why they specialize/generalize, and why they choose to desist from criminal/deviant involvement. Social learning theory also explains why individuals do not become involved in crime/deviance, instead opting to participate only in conforming behaviors. Thus, considering the generality of the theory as an explanation for an individual’s participation in (or lack thereof) prosocial and pro-criminal behaviors, more attention is devoted in the following paragraphs to fleshing out the four central concepts of Akers’s social learning theory that have received considerable (yet varying) amounts of attention and empirical support in the criminological literature: differential association, definitions, differential reinforcement, and imitation (Akers, 1985, 1998; Akers et al., 1979).