III. Differential Association
The differential association component in Akers’s social learning theory is one of primary importance. Although its significance cannot simply be reduced to having “bad” friends, the individuals with whom a person decides to differentially associate and interact (either directly or indirectly) play an integral role in providing the social context wherein social learning occurs. An individual’s direct interaction with others who engage in certain kinds of behavior (criminal/deviant or conforming) and expose the individual to the norms, values, and attitudes supportive of these behaviors affects the decision of whether the individual opts to participate in a particular behavior.
Akers has indicated that family and friends (following Sutherland’s  emphasis on “intimate face-to-face” groups) are typically the primary groups that are the most salient for exposing an individual to favorable/unfavorable definitions and exhibiting conforming and/or nonconforming behaviors. For the most part, learning through differential association occurs within the family in the early childhood years and by means of the associations formed in school, leisure, recreational, and peer groups during adolescence. In contrast, during young adulthood and later in life, the spouses, work groups, and friendship groups typically assume the status of the primary group that provides the social context for learning. Secondary or reference groups can also indirectly provide the context for learning if an individual differentially associates him or herself with the behaviors, norms, values, attitudes, and beliefs with groups of individuals, including neighbors, church leaders, schoolteachers, or even what Warr (2002) called virtual groups, such as the mass media, the Internet, and so on.
According to the theory, the associations that occur early (priority); last longer or occupy a disproportionate amount of one’s time (duration); happen the most frequently; and involve the intimate, closest, or most important partners/peer groups (intensity) will likely exert the greatest effect on an individual’s decision to participate in either conforming or nonconforming behavior. Taking these elements into consideration, the theory proposes that individuals are exposed to pro-criminal and prosocial norms, values, and definitions as well as patterns of reinforcement supportive of criminal or prosocial behavior. The more an individual is differentially associated and exposed to deviant behavior and attitudes transmitted by means of his or her primary and secondary peer groups, the greater his or her probability is for engaging in deviant or criminal behavior:
The groups with which one is in differential association provide the major social contexts in which all of the mechanisms of social learning operate. They not only expose one to definitions, but they also present one with models to imitate and differential reinforcement (source, schedule, value, and amount) for criminal or conforming behavior. (Akers & Sellers, 2004, pp. 85–86)