Social Learning Theory | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminology

Social Learning Theory proposes that criminal behavior is learned through observation, imitation, reinforcement, and modeling, and that social context and personal agency shape behavior.

Social Learning Theory suggests that people learn criminal behavior through their social interactions and exposure to others who engage in such behavior, as well as through reinforcement and modeling of those behaviors. This theory posits that criminal behavior is not inherent but rather learned through observation and imitation of others. In criminology, the theory is used to explain why some individuals engage in criminal activities while others do not and how social factors influence criminal behavior.

The Social Learning Theory was first proposed by Albert Bandura in the 1960s, and it has since become one of the most widely accepted theories in criminology. According to this theory, individuals learn through four main processes: observation, imitation, reinforcement, and modeling. When individuals observe others engaging in criminal behavior, they may be more likely to imitate that behavior, especially if the observed behavior is rewarded or reinforced in some way.

For example, a child who grows up in a household where violence is common may be more likely to engage in violent behavior themselves because they have observed and learned that violence is an acceptable way to resolve conflicts. Similarly, individuals who have been exposed to drug use or other criminal behavior may be more likely to engage in those behaviors themselves because they have learned that those behaviors are acceptable in their social context.

The Social Learning Theory also suggests that individuals may be more likely to engage in criminal behavior if they perceive the rewards for such behavior to be greater than the risks or punishments. For example, if an individual believes that they can make a lot of money through drug trafficking without being caught or punished, they may be more likely to engage in that behavior.

In addition, the theory posits that the social context in which an individual lives plays a significant role in shaping their behavior. Individuals who are surrounded by others who engage in criminal behavior may be more likely to do so themselves because they are being exposed to that behavior on a regular basis.

Finally, the Social Learning Theory suggests that individuals are not passive recipients of social influences but rather active agents who can shape their own environments and behaviors. For example, if an individual is exposed to criminal behavior but has strong internal moral values that discourage such behavior, they may be less likely to engage in criminal activities themselves.

The Social Learning Theory is an important concept in criminology that helps explain why some individuals engage in criminal behavior while others do not. By understanding how individuals learn criminal behavior through social interactions, reinforcement, and modeling, criminologists can develop strategies to prevent and reduce criminal activity in communities.

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Last Modified: 03/14/2023


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