Criminology | Section 6.3

Fundamentals of Criminology by Adam J. McKee

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Social Learning Theories

There are really two distinct theories under the general heading of social learning theory.  The first was developed by C. Ray Jeffery as a direct application of popular operant-based learning theories from psychology.  The other, which has received greater acceptance by criminologists, is Ronald Akers’s social learning theory.

There are two general types of psychological approaches: Skinnerian, or operant theory, and social learning theory.  B.F. Skinner’s original version of operant theory allows only for direct material sources of reinforcements and punishments.  Social versions of learning, on the other hand, begin with Skinner’s theory and add the concept of indirect social stimuli and cognitive processes.  Jeffery used the more straightforward Skinnerian approach, whereas Akers relies on the social learning variety.

Operant learning theory is concerned with the effect an individual’s behavior has on the environment, and, subsequently, the consequences of that effect on the individual.  As Skinner noted, behavior is shaped and maintained by its consequences.  Therefore, behavior is a product of present and past events in the life of the individual.

The contingencies of reinforcement and punishment (aversive stimuli) determine whether the frequency of any particular behavior is increased or diminished.  Reinforcement may be described as any event that follows the occurrence of behavior and that alters or increases the frequency of the behavior.

Positive Reinforcers:  Another name for rewards.  Directly increase the frequency of the behavior.  A mother who gives her child a cookie for doing something good is using positive reinforcement.

Negative Reinforcers:  Increase the frequency of behavior if they remove something undesirable following the behavior.  That is, it removes some sort of punishment.

Punishment:  Also known as aversive stimuli, this is the opposite of reinforcement.  That is, it reduces the frequency of any behavior that it follows.

Positive Punishment:  The process of decreasing the emission of behavior through the presence of an aversive stimulus is called positive punishment.  This is the typical reason for spanking a child.

Negative Punishment:  Negative punishment results in the removal of rewards that would ordinarily have been present after a behavior.  In this case, the child does not get the cookie.

Discriminative Stimuli:  These do not occur after the behavior, but are present before or as the behavior occurs.  Further, they can be used to control behavior because they indicate whether reinforcement or punishment is forthcoming—they provide cues as to whether a behavior is appropriate.

It is this form of stimulus that is crucial in social settings; almost all our social world is composed of discriminative stimuli.  Advertising, for example, is primarily based on the use of discriminative stimuli to get us to associate a product with something we find rewarding.

Schedule of Consequences:  This refers to the frequency with which and probability a particular consequence will occur, as well as to the length of time it occurs after the behavior.  Those consequences immediately following behavior and having a high probability of occurrence are the ones that have the strongest effect on the individual.

This means some forms of behavior will be preferred over others because of their reinforcement schedules.  Conversely, it means that if we wait too long to punish someone for a crime, for example, the punishment will lose much of its effect.


Learning, then, takes place because of the consequences associated with behavior.  If an individual is reinforced after doing something, that behavior will occur again: the behavior has been learned.  On the other hand, if a punishment occurs after a certain behavior, the individual learns to avoid that kind of behavior.

Since people do not all have the same reward and punishment experiences in the past, some people will have learned some behavior while others will not.  Any social environment contains several possible situations, each of which might provide different cues and consequences for behavior.  It is relatively easy to misinterpret a situation and assume previous learning will apply when it will not.


Social learning theory also considers the concept of modeling to be central to the learning process.  This involves the process of learning by observing the behaviors of others.  If, for instance, some other person is rewarded for certain behavior, an individual watching the situation can also learn by observing the behavior of others.

In this way, the observer is “vicariously reinforced.”  Strict operant learning theory insists learning must be based on behaviors and consequences applied to the individual, not some other person.  Therefore, social learning theory is different in that it adds the social environment to the learning process.  Under this approach, it is possible to learn not only from other people around us but also from television and movies.

Jeffery’s Differential Reinforcement Theory

In 1965 Jeffery published the first article linking criminal behavior and operant learning theory.  This thesis was that differential association was “not valid in its present form, though it is basically sound in asserting that criminal behavior is learned.”  According to the theory, people do not have the same past experiences; therefore, their conditioning histories are different.  The stimuli people experience daily also have distinct meanings that produce differing qualities of reinforcement.  Among these stimuli are some that have previously affected criminal behavior.

Thus, some people have had criminal behavior reinforced, and some were punished.  Since most consequences are relatively intermittent, criminal behavior is not reinforced or punished every time it occurs.  Instead, past experience is sufficient to maintain the current criminal behavior.  Jeffery theorized that the most important factors are material, such as money and cars.  As a result, differential reinforcement maintains that one does not need associates to provide reinforcing consequences for criminal behavior, for the product of the crime itself can be a reinforcer.  Other people are said to be important for their discriminative value; that is, they provide cues about the probability of being rewarded for a criminal act.

Akers’s Social Learning Theory

Akers and Burgess provided criminology with the second connection between psychological learning theory and differential association.  After reading Jeffery’s 1965 article, they decided a more detailed statement of learning theory would be beneficial and began the process of fully reformulating the propositions of differential association theory.  The final version of seven propositions, which they labeled “differential association-reinforcement theory,” was not originally intended as an alternative to Sutherland’s theory.  Of necessity, however, it became a new broader theory.

In contrast to Jeffery’s approach, it is obvious Akers views the social environment as the most important source of reinforcement.  He even suggests that most of the learning of deviant behavior is the result of social interaction.  In fact, it is the presence of various subcultures in society that allow us to predict which stimuli are likely to be effective reinforcers for people.

This approach led the presence of definitions as one of the crucial aspects of the theory.  Definitions of behavior are the moral components of social interaction expressing whether something is right or wrong.  Akers refers to these definitions as verbal behaviors notes that they are learned as anything else is learned.

Once learned, however, definitions become a form of discriminative stimuli or cues about the consequences to be expected from other behavior.  They can be general beliefs applying a wide range of behaviors, or specifically focused on a single form of their action; that is, they denote the behavior is morally correct and will be rewarded.

Others are neutralizing definitions, providing a way to avoid some of an expected punishment and justifying or excusing the behavior (negative reinforcement).  Akers has continued to develop the theory, and has boiled it down into 7 major points:

  1. Deviant behavior is learned according to the principles of operant conditioning.
  1. Deviant behavior is learned both in nonsocial situations that are reinforcing or discriminating and through that social interaction in which the behavior of the other person is reinforcing or discriminating for such behavior.
  1. The principal part of the learning of deviant behavior occurs in those groups which comprise or control the individual’s major source of reinforcement.
  1. The learning of deviant behavior, including specific techniques, attitudes, and avoidance procedures, is a function of the effective and available reinforcers and the existing reinforcement contingencies.
  1. The specific class of behavior learned and its frequency of occurrence are a function of the effective and available reinforcers, and the deviant or non-deviant direction of the norms, rules, and definitions which in the past have accompanied reinforcement.
  1. The probability that a person will commit deviant behavior is increased in the presence of normative statements, definitions, and verbalizations which, in the process of differential reinforcement of such behavior over conforming behavior, have acquired discriminative value.
  1. The strength of deviant behavior is a direct function of the amount, frequency, and probability of reinforcement. The modalities of association with deviant patterns are important insofar as they affect the source, amount, and scheduling of reinforcement.

Social learning theory, then, states people learn both deviant behavior and the definitions that go along with it.  The learning can be direct, as through conditioning, or indirect, as through imitation and modeling.  The learned deviance can be strengthened by reinforcement or weakened by punishment.

Modification History

File Created:  08/04/2018

Last Modified:  08/13/2018

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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