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Theory of Crime Causation

SECTION 1: Social Learning Theory

Description of the theory /theorist

The social learning theory (SLT) provides insights regarding the conceptualization of criminal behavior in individuals. Based on the theory, the conceptualization of deviant and criminal behavior occurs in different faces, including the acquisition, preservation, and adjustment of criminal and deviant behavior that harbors social, non-social, and cultural elements that not only motivate and guide criminal behavior but also weaken conformity (Akers & Jensen, 2017). The theory’s primary proposition is that a comparable learning course yields conforming and deviant behavior regarding social structure, interaction, and situation. As a “positivistic” theory, SLT describes the causes of crime and why individuals commit crimes but fails to describe why people do not participate in criminal acts. On the other hand, social learning theory incorporates crime expedition and protective factors. Based on one’s learning history at a specific moment and environment, one’s likelihood of engaging in illegal or deviant activities may be predicted by calculating the balance of these influences on conduct. The social learning theory posits that learning can happen without direct reinforcement but instead via vicarious reinforcement, whereas people observe the significances of the actions of others and adjust their behavior consequently.

In SLT, the four main tenets are imitation, definitions, differential reinforcement, and differential association. According to Akers and Jensen (2017), differential association shows two types of relationships: one in which people directly interact with one another and engage in different kinds of conduct or convey values, norms, and attitudes that support that conduct, and another in which people indirectly link and identify with further and further away reference groups. All social learning mechanisms rely on the groups to which an individual is differentially associated as their primary immediate and intermediate social environments. Family and friends make up the most important of these groups, but the differential association notion also includes exposure to reference groups, online communities, media, video games, and virtual communities, as well as secondary and indirect interactions with these groups. A person’s actions are most affected by the relationships that begin early (priority), continue for a long time (duration), occur frequently (frequency), and include people with whom one has a strong or intimate relationship (intensity) (Akers & Jensen, 2017). Social learning theory hypothesizes that the more one’s patterns of differential association are balanced regarding a higher exposure to deviant behavior and attitudes, the higher the likelihood of that individual participating in deviant or criminal behavior.

According to Akers and Jensen (2017), a person’s orientation, rationalizations, justifications, excuses, and other attitudes that characterize an action as more or less right or wrong, good or bad, desirable or undesirable, justified or unjustified, appropriate or inappropriate are also known as definitions. A person’s definition may include the values and standards they have internalized via their upbringing, such as religious and moral principles that promote harmony in society and discourage misconduct. People’s understanding of the world is shaped by their preconceived notions about what constitutes an opportunity for criminal activity and the circumstances around a given behavior. A positive correlation exists between the degree to which a person has acquired attitudes through learning and supports them despite their link to justifying and encouraging criminal behavior in discriminatory contexts and the likelihood that they will engage in such behavior (Akers & Jensen, 2017). These explanations provide a mental framework that compels one to commit the act when presented with the opportunity. In terms of behavior, they influence the commission of deviant acts by serving as internal discriminative stimuli. Alongside external discriminative stimuli, internal discriminative stimuli guide an individual to anticipate and exhibit certain behaviors in a given situation. It is important to note that an external discriminative stimulus consists of aspects such as location, time, the presence or absence of others, etc. Regarding this matter, definitions that advocate for adolescent delinquency and criminal behavior consistently fail to motivate action. Rather, they are conventional ideas that are not sufficiently held enough to serve as definitions negative to crime, or they are learned attitudes that either weakly or strongly support law breaking under certain contexts by offering approbation, explanation, or justification (Nicholson & Higgins, 2016).

On the other hand, the differential reinforcement dimension describes the balance of anticipated or actual rewards associated with a particular behavior. Ideally, the reinforcements entail the consequences of engaging in a certain conduct or behavior. Whether a person engages or refrains from engaging in a criminal behavior depends on the past, future, and present rewards or punishments of engaging in the particular behavior. The higher the value, frequency, and likelihood of reward for deviant behavior, the higher the likelihood that it will occur and be recurring (Akers & Jensen, 2017). Social learning theory posits that majority of the learning in criminal and deviant behavior is the result of direct and indirect social interaction whereby the words, responses, presence, and behavior of other individuals unswervingly strengthen behavior, offer the setting for reinforcement, or act as the conduit over which other social rewards and punishers are delivered (Akers & Jensen, 2017). The social reinforcement concept encompasses the entire range of actual and anticipated, tangible and intangible, material and symbolic rewards respected in society or subgroups. Social rewards can be exceedingly figurativeBy assuming the position of another in self-reinforcement, the individual is able to exercise self-control and either reinforce or penalize their own behavior. Reinforcement balance may inspire people to commit law violations or deviant acts even in the adversity of their own definitions opposed to those acts, but the acts are most plausible when both the reinforcement balance and the balance of an individual definitions are in a similar deviant direction.

Imitation refers to the participation in behavior after direct and indirect observation of same behavior from others. The characteristics of the models, the observed behavior, and consequences of the behavior determine whether or not the behavior modeled will be imitated (Akers & Jensen, 2017). Although imitation has less of an impact on the persistence or cessation of known behavioral patterns, it does have a role in the early acquisition and performance of new behaviors.

All of the aforementioned ideas about social learning describe sets of factors that are part of the same process at work in an individual’s learning history, in the present moment when a criminal opportunity presents itself, and in the broader social structural setting. Feedback and reciprocal effects are essential components of social learning’s dynamic nature. The significance of reinforcement in operant conditioning, a process involving responses to stimuli and subsequent actions, is emphasized by Akers and Jensen (2017). Despite various researchers’ characterizations of social learning theory, the sequential and reciprocal implications of social learning factors and deviant/conforming behavior are acknowledged, whereas learning variables’ impacts on deviant conduct are disregarded. Another view holds that lawbreaking and other forms of deviance have a distinct temporal consequence: the commission of an inherently deviant or delinquent act due to the interplay between learned definitions, anticipated reinforcement, and modeling one’s behavior after that of criminals or other deviants. Although mimicry is less crucial when repeating an action than when learning it from scratch, these factors nonetheless have a facilitative impact. Following provocation or commencement, some social and non-social reinforcers, and punishers impact the frequency and chance of a repeat of activities. The results of past actions influence both positive and negative actions and definitions. The learning history of an individual, the set of definitions, reinforcement contingencies, and discriminative stimuli in a situation determines the probability of repeating a deviant act if a situation presents itself.

The role of families as main groups in the differential association process has already been explained. Long before criminal activity begins, there is clear evidence of association, conforming modeling, deviation, reinforcement of deviant behavior, and exposure to positive or negative definitions of deviance in the home. Deviant acts or tendency pulls an individual to deviant peer groups as this associations increases due to attractions to particular people, friendships, and circumstances such as location and preferences. For instance, the proximity to certain neighborhoods could instill some aberrant behavior in certain individuals (Akers & Jensen, 2017). A person could start participant in various deviant acts through interaction with peers. According to the social learning theory, there is a specific sequence of events that, once delinquency begins, aberrant connections begin as well. These people will determine the degree of the crime committed based on the balance on rewards than other alternatives provided by such associations. An individual’s patterns of definitions, associations, and reinforcement have the potential to determine deviant patterns across time.

Theory origin and context (social, political)

During the 1970s, when Ronald L. Akers developed the social learning theory, the US experienced a wave of social and political changes. The era faced a social upheaval of anti-war protests, civil rights movement, and the feminist movement. These movements disrupted the conventional power structures and social norms as they created an atmosphere of change and reevaluation of societal values. The civil rights movement called for a culmination of segregation and discrimination and sparked extensive protests and legislative reforms. At the same time, anti-war protests against the Vietnam War stimulated people across the globe, as it questioned the morality and rationale of military tactics and interventions. On the other hand, the feminist movement of the 1970s advocated for gender equality and women’s right, mobilized women to oppose traditional roles, and demanded equal opportunities in all life spheres. Such movements reshaped societal values, nurtured a culture of activism, and paved war for significant political and social reforms.

The rise of social psychology stressed the impact of social influences on behavior. Scholars ventured into conducting studies that examine the influence of social contexts in individual lives. Similarly, this period experienced a high crime rate and heightened awareness of criminal behavior. Akers established a solid framework that could explain the sociological and psychological dimensions that could explain how individuals obtain criminal behaviors through learned and social experiences. In the midst of increased awareness of social reinforcement in human behavior, the theory helped to elucidate crime occurrences. The theorist illustrated a departure from strict behaviorism by incorporating numerous cognitive processes and acknowledging the role of social interactions in learning.

The era also witnessed an increased need to understand the causes and mechanisms of criminal and deviant behavior. Urban centers and major cities experienced rising crime rates thus the need to explore the social factors impelling criminal conduct. The theory offered a valuable framework for comprehending how people learn criminal behaviors via their social interactions, such as exposure to crime in the media or associating with others. Aker aided a deeper comprehension of the pathways via which people might become involved in criminal acts through the social learning theory.

Theory application to various types of crime

The social learning theory can be regarded as a general theory of crime causation as it offers an extensive framework for grasping the acquisition and manifestation of various criminal behaviors and types. Aker’s social theory is not a crime specific theory thus it’s not constrained to a specific type or group of crime, but instead offers a thorough explanation on how people learn and acquire behaviors encompassing criminal ones, via social interactions and reinforcement processes. Its applicability in various age groups and social settings and property offenses to violent crimes demonstrate its flexibility and breadth, contributing to its efficacy as a general crime causation theory within the criminological field.

Section 2: A Review of the Evidence.

Has the theory been evaluated?

Some scholars are skeptical about the idea that we learn by watching others. Pratt and his colleagues (2017) tested this idea by reviewing a lot of studies in a meta-analysis. They wanted to see how well the idea holds up in reality. They found out that the results were not consistent. Some factors that the idea predicts, such as how we think and feel about right and wrong, or how we fit in with others, were strongly linked to crime and deviance. But other factors, such as how we copy or learn from rewards and punishments, were weakly linked. They also found out that the way the studies were done and the models they used affected the results a lot. They concluded that some parts of the idea were well supported, but others needed more work or changes.

Kruis and his colleagues (2019) did another meta-analysis, but they focused on substance abuse. They looked at 83 studies that spanned over four decades. They wanted to see if the idea could predict different types of drug problems. They found out that the idea was quite good at explaining drug use. The idea had medium effects on average. The strongest effect was for how we are influenced by our friends and their views. The weakest effect was for how we imitate others. This showed that other things besides social learning, such as personal rewards, mattered for drug use. They suggested that the idea was better at understanding drug use than other types of crime and delinquency.

Research also shows that drug use is greatly affected by our peers, their opinions and actions. The results showed how important social relationships are for starting addictive behaviors. Kruis and his colleagues (2019) argued that based on the idea, we can help people with drug problems by reducing their exposure to bad influences and increasing their chances for good ones. They also found that age and location were other things that affected the relationship between the idea and drug use.

Akers (1996) addresses the critique that the differential association theory by Sutherland and social-learning reformulation of it are considered “cultural deviance” theories. Critics proclaim that these theories assume entire success in socialization, fail to explain individual differences in deviance within the same group, imply unlimited cultural variability, cannot account for norms violations, and recommend culture as the single cause of crime. Akers scrutinizes the basis and validity of this label, avowing that it is usually based on misinterpretations. The author contends how cultural aspects are incorporated into the theory and emphasizes that the theory does not partake entre success in socialization nor limitless cultural variability. Akers (1996) stipulates that the exposure of individuals to differing definitions and influences leads to variations in deviant behavior adoption. Furthermore, Akers contends that the theory does not perceive culture as the single cause of crime but also highlights the link between cultural influences and personal learning experiences. The author defies the conception that social-learning reformulation of differential association theory should be labeled as a “cultural deviance” theory. Rather, Akers (1996) argues that deviant behavior is influenced by a multidimensional interplay of factors such as cultural influences, socialization, and individual learning processes.

What does the research reveal?

Study author Study Sample Size Research design type Study Findings
Akers (1996) Not Applicable Theoretical analysis The study addresses the appraisal classification differential association theory and the associated social learning reformulation as cultural deviance theories. The author refutes these assertions by arguing that misinterpretations and offering clarifications. Akers contends that the theory does not perceive culture as the single cause of crime but also highlights the link between cultural influences and personal learning experiences.
Pratt et al. (2017) Not Applicable Meta-analysis The meta-analysis examines the empirical status of social learning theory. Findings demonstrate that substantial variation in effect sizes for variables specified by SLT, with strong associations for measures of definitions and differential association, and modest associations for differential reinforcement and modeling/imitations.
Kruis et al. (2019) 83 primary studies Systemic review and meta-analysis. The study blends earlier research on Aker’s SLT concerning substance use. The findings revealed medium-sized weighted mean effect size estimations for SLT linked to substance abuse. Moreover, the study found strongest effect size estimates among measures of differential association. Conclusions propose SLT constructs are increasingly suited to explain soft drug usage unlike hard drugs usage.

What are the strengths and limitations of this theory?

The above discussion highlights numerous strengths tied to Aker’s social learning theory. It is evident that the theory provides a critical elucidation of human behavior as it describes the role of social interactions and cognitive processes in influencing behaviors. SLT provides a holistic comprehension of how people learn and engage in certain behaviors. Most importantly, the theory stresses on observational learning where people learn by observing other’s attitudes and behaviors. The concept of observation learning aids in explaining the transmission of behaviors within certain social groups and through generations. Moreover, the theory’s applicability in various fields to express aggression and delinquent behaviors makes it a monumental theory in criminological field. Furthermore, the theory is backed up by various research studies as meta-analyses have unswervingly established substantial relationship between the concepts of the theory and deviant behavior forms. The adaptability and flexibility of the theory to various social, cultural, and environmental settings illustrate that learning processes may vary across groups and individuals and can be impacted by socialization practices, cultural norms, and environmental conditions. Finally, understanding the learning and reinforcement of behaviors allows for targeted interventions that intends to modify behavior and uphold positive outcomes.

Despite the strengths associated with SLT, it also encounters some limitations. In particular, SLT overemphasizes observational learning by downplaying other potential factors that could influence behavior. It fails to account for genetic factors or innate predispositions that can have a significant influence in shaping behavior. Also, SLT places inadequate attention to individual differences in the sense that it tends to assume a uniformity in the learning process, and overlooks individual differences in personality traits and cognitive abilities. The variation in the learning ability is not described by SLT. While it places an increased emphasis on learning and imitation of others, SLT does not provide an explanation of the initiation of new behaviors. It leaves gaps in explaining behaviors that have been acquired from observing others.

SLT plays a significant role in understanding human behavior thus it will lead to more benefits from periodic revisions and further research to refine its explanatory power and address its limitations. Integrating intuitions from other psychological theories like cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology could aid to further develop the theory due to the different perspectives in understanding human behavior. SLT could benefit from being revised to integrate the role of cultural factors in shaping social learning processes. This may entail exploring cross-cultural variations in observational learning, social norms, and modelling behaviors. At the same time, more research is required to examine how digital technology mediums impact social learning behaviors including the modelling of behaviors, the dissemination of information, and social identities formation. Longitudinal studies could aid in examining the protracted effects of social reinforcement and observational learning on behavior. Further research could help with applying SLT to emerging domains such as virtual communities, online learning, and artificial intelligence. Studies in these new domains can provide insight on how the social learning processes functions in new contexts thus informing the development of appropriate interventions and educational approaches. Scholars can continue to expand our understanding of social learning processes and their implications for behavior if they incorporate interdisciplinary perspectives and leverage new methodological approaches.

Section 3: Policy Implications of Social Learning Theory (SLT)

How to Solve Crime Problem based on SLT

SLT links the tendency or engagement in criminal activity to learned behavior. According to the theory, individuals would readily engage in criminal behavior if they were surrounded by people or groups immersed in the ill of crime commitment. Akers and Jensen (2004) claim that differential association, differential reinforcement, and imitation are the four major explanatory causation concepts of criminal behavior. This implies that addressing the issue of crime requires policymakers to target the four explanatory concepts.

In the context of differential association, individuals learn criminal behavior from immediate affiliation groups or individuals. As such, stakeholders in the security sector can address the problem of crime by limiting individuals’ contact with groups or individuals with deviant behaviors. This can be done at the family level, where parents prohibit their children from interacting with known criminals. The concept of differential reinforcement can also help address the crime problem. According to Akers and Jensen (2004), differential reinforcements entail the engagement in behavior based on rewards and punishments associated with the behavior. As such, people can address the issue of crime by implementing punishment measures as a deterrent strategy. Similarly, they can provide rewards for positive behaviors. Ultimately, targeted groups may exhibit behavioral change based on the rewards associated with refraining from deviant behavior and engaging in morally acceptable conduct.

The concept of imitation can also be targeted or utilized by fostering morally right behavior in primary and secondary groups in society. For instance, parents and the community can engage in positive behavior as a way to address crime. Akers and Jensen (2004) claim that individuals learn deviant behavior from their environment. Akers acknowledges that imitation is mostly a reference point for behavior acquisition but not maintenance or cessation. However, it is still a major strategy for shaping behavior, particularly in the early stages of human development.

SLT and its Application in Solving Crimes

Social learning theory can be used to predict and reform deviant behavior. It is important to note that the main function of the criminal justice system (CJS) is to maintain law and order. The CJS creates a working system that not only addresses crimes conducted by individuals but also deters other crimes from occurring. In the social learning theory, differential reinforcement is described as a major factor that determines an individual’s tendency to drift toward deviant behavior. A review of Akers and Jensen’s work shows that learning in the context of criminal behavior is associated with the conduct of other individuals who play a critical role in behavior transference. When looked into its broader sense, differential reinforcement is a critical concept in the criminal justice system because it helps law enforcement officers predict and develop strategies focused on reducing crime. The concept entails punishment, which has long been used as a measure to prevent crime in society. Punishment in the CJS often ranges from financial penalties to jail sentences. The former form of punishment is more popular in civil cases, while the latter is more popular in criminal cases.

Society has also tried to solve crime using the labeling concept. However, the effect of the labeling concept is controversial, with indications that involvement with the criminal justice system increases individuals’ tendency to continue engaging in criminal behavior. Similarly, people labeled as criminals are more likely to engage in criminal behaviors than their peers not labeled. As such, the effects of strategies used in deterring crimes have varying impacts. In this case, the labeling aspects hurt the fight against crime (Akers & Jensen, 2004). Instead of addressing the issue, it escalates it as individuals labeled as criminals will likely engage in activities associated with their labels.

Lessons Learned from Efforts towards Addressing Crime

Lessons learned from efforts targeted at addressing crime are interesting, considering the outcomes may not necessarily align to implement mitigation measures. The war against poverty can help prevent individuals from engaging in crime. Fighting poverty entails different strategies, including the creation of job opportunities. With the availability of jobs, individuals utilize much of their time executing tasks that guarantee returns and incentives. There is limited free time that they could use to engage in crime. Besides, jobs provide people with the money needed to cater to their needs. Therefore, there will be no need to engage in crime to get money to cater to individual needs and desires.

Efforts implemented to prevent or address crimes can also have a negative impact. According to Akers and Jensen (2004), prohibitionist alcohol policies are expected to have a positive impact on the reduction of violent crimes such as homicide. Akers acknowledges that prohibitionist alcohol policies reduce alcohol consumption. However, the policies may cause a sharp increase in homicide cases. Akers and Jensen (2004) associate this unexpected effect of prohibiting alcohol consumption with competition over illicit alcohol supply. The competition reduces the odds that people will engage in a formal control mechanism to competition over limited alcohol availability. In the end, the whole approach creates an environment that fosters increased violence linked with alcohol use. The escalation of homicide associated with prohibitionist alcohol policies aligns with social disorganization, a concept of social learning theory. Overall, mitigation measures focused on ending crime would not always guarantee the achievement of projected outcomes. Instead, it may foster the escalation of other criminal behaviors.


Akers, R. L., & Jensen, G. F. (2004). Empirical Status of Social Learning Theory of Crime and Deviance: The Past, Present, and Future.


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