Social Learning is a very unique theory with a lot of history that helped the criminal justice system evolve to what it is today. The Social Learning theory was originally discovered by Robert L. Burgess and published again by Ronald L.
Akers in 1973. Social Learning theory is the idea that new behavior can be acquired by observing and imitating others. Without the contributions of Burgess and Akers, all the good that this theory has caused might not be put into place today. This paper will discuss the history of how this theory became what it is today, The studies conducted on this topic to really understand what The Social Learning theory was and how The Social Learning theory has been very effective in addressing criminal and deviant behavior. Bandura and other philosophers have shaped this theory to be strong, compared to other theories, although there are some weaknesses which will be discussed as well. The Social Learning theory has been re-published many times by different philosophers and criminologists.
Research done by B.F. Skinner, Edwin Sutherland, and Robert L. Burgess helped build The Social Learning theory from an idea to what it is now. Every great theory must have roots behind it and the roots behind the Social Learning theory began with the works of an American psychologist, B.F. Skinner, and American criminologist, Edwin Sutherland.
Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning says that learning takes place from modeling. This means that as humans, we learn by association made through reinforcements such as rewards and punishments. Sutherland’s differential theory of crime states that criminal acts are much more likely to occur in a social setting that casts crime in a favourable light. Skinner and Sutherland’s theories were two large advancements in the history of the Social Learning theory. These two theories enlightened more people about criminal behavior but still wasn’t able to explain every criminal.
Sutherland’s theory was the basis of a lot of criticism due to his lack of empirical effectiveness and relatable explanations. Sutherland never fully explained how some people learn these patterns of crime, he only explained the idea that these patterns are learned. Even though Sutherland’s work was criticized it was a huge step into what would become the Social Learning theory. Ronald Akers and Robert Burgess were the first to dig even deeper into the theoretical ideas of Skinner and Sutherland and were able to portray more of the aspects and importance of the Social Learning Theory. They also better explained its connection to deviance in society. Using these two theories, Akers argued that even though criminal behaviour is attained through social interaction and modeling, it is maintained over a period of time through the actual consequences of criminal acts, both nonsocial and social.
This means that someone can learn to normalize criminal behavior and behave this way for a long period of time. The reason this most likely happens is because when children see violence, or are the victims of violence, that leaves an impression on them. It can scar them to the point that it affects their adulthood. He also argued that social learning is the process that resolves the effects of social structural factors on deviant and criminal behaviour. Later versions of Akers’ Social Learning theory involved work from American psychologist Albert Bandura.
This work broadened operant conditioning to include learning that takes place through modeling behavior and deeper examined the effects of behaviours seen on television and in motion pictures on individuals. Akers’ Social Learning covered many different aspects of criminal behavior and made it much easier to correlate social learning with criminals. He argued the idea that some people can learn deviant behavior in the same way as they would learn non-deviant behavior. There are a few factors that are also required in order to interpret his theory.
The four major concepts of the theory are differential association, differential reinforcement, modeling, and definitions. These four concepts begin to go deeper into the thoughts of criminal behavioral patterns and criminal stimuli and the balance of rewards over punishment. This balance is taught between the praise or the consequences that comes after a criminal act takes place. Although these ideas of modeling, punishment and consequences may become repetitive, each factor looks deeper into why people choose to behave this way. These definitions of criminal stimuli and behavior, lead to the thought of imitating those with criminal intentions and getting praise for their actions once they see it being approved with rewards and disapproved with punishments.
In other words, these criminals will begin to feed off the benefits of committing the crime and will begin to fear no consequence for their action because of the approval they have gotten. Akers’ theory can be explained by Bobo doll experiment, created by Albert Bandura during the 1960’s. In this experiment, children would be watching a group of adults act aggressively or non-aggressively towards a five foot tall a clown doll, named Bobo. The experiment was very well done and chose children from different genders, ages, and personality types. There was also a control group so the researches could see how the children would act if nothing happened to Bobo. It was already known that humans do learn by association, also known as classical conditioning, but Bandura wanted to see if humans could learn criminal behavior just by watching another person do it.
The results of this experiment were very telling. Children who saw the adults verbally or physically abuse Bobo did the same. Children who saw adults act passively towards the doll also acted passively. This experiment showed how children act differently based on age, gender, and personality types but also proved to be inconclusive.
Bandura’s research did not show what happened after a long period of time of seeing repeated violence. It also shows different results depending on different groups of kids, such as females and males. A big issue with this research is that the Bobo the doll could not be knocked down when hit and many children saw this as a game. This experiment also used children because they have reduced cognitive development, so they are easily manipulated. If young children are shown different behaviors, they are more likely to follow because they are more impressionable.
Akers’ later research was greatly affected by Albert Bandura’s experiment which lead to Akers being able to evolve Bandura’s’ ideas. Overall, Bandura’s experiment with Bobo the clown did help to prove some findings that related to The Social Learning theory but failed to prove that this theory is absolute. Although someone can become violent by watching a person also be violent, there are multiple factors that can cause this. This can be compared to the research done on children who play violent video games. There is research that shows that violent video games can cause the players to display aggressive tendencies. The issue with these findings is that there are many variables with different types of games and is mostly conducted on younger boys who are more likely to be violent.
Since there are so many variables in test subjects and cases it is hard to say that the social learning theory is, without a doubt, a theory that can be used in every case. For these reasons, the social learning theory might never be proven indefinitely but the information we get from these studies is helping the criminal justice system every day. Just like Sutherland and Skinner’s theories, Akers’ research was also under a lot of scrutiny. There were a few negative issues that occured with Akers’ social learning theory that brought criticism upon him. Akers argued that criminal behavior is the product of normal learning. This would mean that a criminal normalizes violent, illegal behavior and adopts these habits.
A theory like this one has many different variables and resources that are involved. Although a variable was used, it is still hard to completely eliminate all problems. This causes a lot of problems when it comes to explaining the various variables or experimental conclusions. Another issue that has come to light with Akers’ theory is the idea that maybe there are external reasons that differential association is used and not necessarily criminal behavior that enabled the effects the social learning theory claims to have.
Some could argue that causal interpretations of this correlation, like those outlined in other learning theories, could be misleading, since the connection is possibly due to a faulty measurement and the tendency of people to seek the company and approval of others that are like them. This idea along with other thoughts of delinquents wanting to remove themselves from family or school problems and isolate themselves into a life of crime and violence is also a hard criticism but one that is completely reasonable. People can become criminals for a variety of reasons besides just watching someone be violent or abusive. This theory is not absolute and is not a one hundred percent reason why someone could become a violent criminal.
Akers’ theory is however, a partial reasoning for why someone can become deviant. Akers’ couldn’t explain everything in his theory and although it drew criticism, it was still a very reliable and important theory. Even though there were a few problems with Akers’ theory, there were a lot of things that proved it was true. It did do what it had planned to, which was to help explain why someone could start showing signs of violent or deviant behavior.
Akers’ research has changed the legal system in a big way by providing enough evidence and proof to put lawmakers into motion. There are laws put into place so that children do not get abused and thanks to the social learning theory. Children can easily pick up negative traits from trusted adults and for this reason, many laws have been put into place, not only to protect children from being abused, but also to prevent violence in adulthood. Research has shown that high levels of negative parental behavior can disrupt a child’s ability to regulate their emotional responses and manage conflict appropriately. Children are extremely vulnerable to the effects of harsh and violent punishment so these laws are put into place to prevent them also becoming harsh and violent. There have also been several several secondary prevention programs into place.
These prevention programs focus on evidence-based parent training that target high-risk families. If it were not for Akers findings then these programs might not have ever been put into action. This means that thousands of families might have become victims, witnesses, or abusers themselves if Aker had not conducted these studies. These programs have not been tested to see its effects on child abuse but the goal of the program is to focus on positivity. The parents participating will gain the skills that can help to reduce violent confrontation and this can ultimately affect child abuse in a positive way.
There are also tertiary programs set in place for people who live in high risk areas and need additional prevention. The point of these programs is to prevent children from being violent by cutting out parental violence or deviance. A newer set of programs are being set up as a class for children to learn emotions like empathy to attempt to prevent them being violent in their adulthood. When children learn empathy, they learn how to put themselves in someone else’s’ shoes and imagine what someone else would feel like.
Feelings like this can help the cognitive parts of a child’s’ brain develop. These feelings also help to prevent violent or aggressive thoughts in children. It is hard to find a theory that has put this amount of programs into place. It is also hard to find a different theory that has made such a positive impact of the criminal justice system and the way that detectives conduct their investigations.
The social learning theory has really helped to develop new ways to observe and research violent criminals and their childhoods. Something that is unique to the social learning theory are the secondary and tertiary programs put into place that help to prevent children from growing up into violent or deviant adults. Again, these programs have not been proven to reduce child abuse on a national level but they do help to prevent future incidents. The research done on these programs ultimately provides information on weather or not a child would want to participate in conforming or non-conforming behaviors. It is hard to say that if Akers did not research the social learning theory has much as he did, that these programs would be here.
This theory in all is just one explanation of why some people participate in crime and deviance. When criminologists are studying a criminal, The Social Learning theory is something that comes up often. As said before, this theory is not one hundred percent accurate, but it is helpful for investigators to understand why a criminal is how they are. Using this theory, investigators can speculate that a highly violent criminal might have been abused and that narrows down the suspect list. The social learning theory can be experimented with, defined, and compared to other theories in many ways. Many different opinions and views will always be apart of this controversial theory.
There will always be more examples and experiments performed on this theory. This will ultimately prove the empirical validity of this theory and its lasting strength as a beneficial and worthy criminological theory. Sutherland and Akers are just a few of the important people to provide in the progression of this theory that still is used to describe criminological events and acts everywhere. The social learning theory is taught all around the world.
Although this theory cannot be applied in every single case around the world, it still has made significant changes in the criminal justice system. It is one of the most highly looked upon theories to describe crime. The social learning theory has had a lasting impact not only in society, but in criminology as well.