Social Learning Theory Evaluation

There are many definitions of social learning. These definitions reflect the meanings and attachments that these authors have to them. Their moral values affect these definitions as well (Cullen & Agnew, 2011). General theories of social learning include religious, moral, and other conventional values. On the other hand, specific definitions focus more on the persons or specific acts that take place within their life (Cullen & Agnew, 2011). Akers and Sellers along with others (Sutherland, Cressey and Anderson) offer a have a more objective definition of Social learning theory. They define it as:

“Crime ..that… is learned through associations with criminal definitions. Interacting with antisocial peers is a major cause of crime. Criminal behavior will be repeated and become chronic if reinforced. When criminal subcultures exist, many individuals can learn to commit crime in one location, and crime rates- including violence- may become very high.”

Social learning theory is a complex theory due to its nature(Bryant, 2011). The reason being is because it has many other theories that fit together to explain this theory. Those definitions are differential reinforcement, behavioral acquisition, continuation, cessation , and cognitive learning theory (Akers, 1985:41).

Social learning includes a theory assessment which focuses on the macro aspects of the theory and defines its scope. The definition of social learning will dictate if social learning theory can be applied to other areas of crime. The empirical evidence for social learning theory seems to be mixed. Social Learning theory has policy implications such as the “GREAT” and “DARE” programs. Problems with the theory include neglected sections of the population and studying individuals in isolation (Mayer, Lavergne, Tourigny & Wright 2007).

Theory assessment

Social learning theory was developed in 1966 by Ronald L. Akers an his colleague Robert Burgess (Ngo &Dorris, 2009; Bryant 2011). This theory fits the macro level analysis because due to its “subjective” nature (Adler, Laufer, & Merton ,1995; Laufer & Adler, 1989). As a result this theory focuses on our social construction of reality, values and norms within our culture (Laufer & Adler, 1989; Williams & Mcshane, 1993; Cullen & Agnew, 2011; McLaughlin & Newburn, 2010; Akers, 1999). Social learning focuses on four key principles. These principles include: differential associations, differential reinforcement, definitions, and imitation (Cullen & Agnew, 2011; Goode, 2008; Rosenfield, Quinet & Garcia, 2012; Barlow & Decker, 2010; Ngo, Raymond & Doris, 2009). The differential aspect of this theory explains the different meaning individuals have on their own life based on their experience with others. Definitions represent peoples’ attitudes or meaning to a given behavior. Differential reinforcement focuses on the rewards and punishments associated with any given behavior (Akers 1990; Laufer & Adler, 1989; Lennings, 1996, Frost, 1993). Lastly, imitation refers that others serve as a model depending on if the behavior is rewarded (Vito, Holmes & Maahs, 1994; Akers 1998; Akers 1990; Zahn & Brownstein & Jackson 2004; Cullen, Wright & Belvins, 2006). Based on this, the individual is able to decide for themselves what actions they are going to take. For instance, if they are exposed to crime and they see this as a favorable definition, then they would likely engage in illegal activities. However, it’s important to realize that only when the favorable definitions are in excess of unfavorable crime definitions this happens. (Cullen & Agnew, 2011; Krohn, Lizotte & Hall, 2009; Williams & McShane, 1993).

Theory Assessment
Clear definition

Social leaning theory is considered the general theory of crime (Good 2008; Brit & Gottfrelson, 2003). This is because it applies to many other theories that explain deviance (Krohn, Lizotte & Hall, 2009). In that respect, social learning theory is very parsimonious (Rosenfield, Quinet & Garcia 2012). Also due to its broad nature it is able to explain a host of deviant behaviors. (Adler, Laufer, & Merton 1995, Laufer & Adler, 1989). As a matter of fact, social learning theory is used to explain a wide range of minor and serious criminal acts (Krohn, Lizotte & Hall, 2009). However, this theory has specific principles which apply to delinquent behavior (Bryant, 2011). Additionally, the definition focuses on explaining other theories in the process. In doing so, it explains conformity, or pro social behavioral, and non conformity or anti social behavior (Barlow & Decker, 2010). Furthermore, this theory has a clear foundation through its theoretical origins (Bryant, 2011). Its relationship with differential association theory is umbilical (Krohn, Lizotte & Hall, 2009; McLaughlin & Newburn, 2010; Bryant, 2011) . The principles explain how behavior is learned through interactions and encounters. Drives and motives as well as favorable or unfavorable definitions of acts are important in understanding social learning theory (Krohn, Lizotte & Hall, 2009; Bryant, 2011).

Social learning theory also applies to a social system or a nation that is politically, socially and culturally consistent (McLaughlin & Newburn, 2010). However, this theory is not just applied to a specific demographic but its also applied to a a time and place (McLaughlin & Newburn, 2010).This further explains the macro concept of this theory and also taps into the scope of the theory. Because social learning is able to cover such a vast amount of information it has a wide scope.


The scope of this theory is wide because it covers many types of issues (Forst, 1993). One of the issues, school, is a good example to explain the scope of this theory as a whole (Wu & Lan-Yin, 2010). E-learning for instance is a dependent on the student’s attitude in order to take classes online. As a result he or she may be able to be either encouraged or discouraged by this type of Learning. Depending on their “intrinsic motivation” and learning climate they are able to learn the material (Wu & Lan-Yin, 2010). As far as scope is concerned with this-scenario it fits because the theory is able to explain the characteristics that will affect e-learning for students.

Moreover, this theory focuses on violations and norms of the real world ( Williams & McShane, 1993). That includes many criminal acts . A good example of this is how the culture has such a pronounced effect from the birth of individuals (Akers, 1996; Williams & McShane, 1993) . A culture that is primarily negative throughout the individual’s life is likely to stay negative. On the other hand, individuals who are part of the normative culture are likely to stay in that direction without engaging in criminal activities (Akers 1996; Williams & McShane, 1993) . As a result of this, our socialization, more so than our culture can impact us in the decisions that are made on a daily basis (Tittle & Antonaccio & Botchkovar, 2012).

When an individual makes decisions on a daily basis they are influenced by the consequences (Akers, 1990). Meaning, that social learning has rewards and punishments(Akers, 1990; Goode, 2008; Messner, Krohn & Liska, 1989). Based on the outcomes an individual will chose what is best for them. Some of these individuals will learn by a “formal deterrence,” or anticipation that they will be apprehended by the police. Others will learn through an “informal parental deterrence,” which is the the fear that that the parents will catch their sons or daughters (Akers, 1990; Goode, 2008). Therefore, the scope of this theory extends the options of individuals to prevent them from engaging in deviant behavior.

Empirical evidence

As far as empirical evidence is concerned this theory has a strong empirical support (Krohn, Lizotte & Hall, 2009; Messner, Krohn & Liska, 1989).

For instance, being brought in a family delinquent siblings increases the odds of a teenager being delinquent (Krohn, Lizotte & Hall, 2009). In this case the teenager’s exposure to delinquency increased their odds of becoming delinquent themselves. Family and friends are an important social normative for any particular person. As a result, the social learning structure (SSSL) is used to explain deviance within society based on culture, rates of crime, delinquency and deviance rates (Barlow & Decker 2010, Akers 1999). The evidence in this model strongly correlates the deviant behavior that takes place among individuals (Cullen, Jonson, Myer & Adler 2011; Barlow & Decker 2010; Akers 1999). As it is further explained, this model works when presented in a basic versionof a hypothesis where structure follows social learning which then follows behavior (Bryant, 2011).

A further example of SSL is that it is used to analyze the homicide rates among nations (McLaughlin & Newburn, 2010). In order to do this there were five characteristics designed to differentiate between societies : “cultural heterogeneity , exposure to violence, unstable family relationships, lack of state support of social welfare and availability of ungraded targets.” The characteristic that sticks out from these is cultural heterogeneity (McLaughlin & Newburn, 2010). This is the characteristic that is most troubling between the groups of power. It can have conflict that can escalate into more violence later on (McLaughlin & Newburn, 2010). This is the only theory that offers cultural heterogeneity. All the others including : strain , social bond, anomie and social disorganization do not focus on this concept. Cultural heterogeneity is an important concept to understand because it can impede cultural and political consensus between groups. At the same time, cultural heterogeneity can cause opportunities for people to engage or be victims of crime (McLaughlin & Newburn, 2010). Thus, cultural heterogeneity is explained quite well by this concept.


When testing social learning theory its important to that there have been not enough tests in order to test gender differences (Akers & Jensen, 2003). Akers mentions that original emphasis should be used instead of causation to explain gender differences. A better way to predict the relationship between structural variables in gender rather than completely accounting for complete gender differences (Akers & Jensen, 2003). The problem also lies for less serious crimes which would not be affected for racial differences . Therefore, in order to find differences between races further investigation needs to take place to see the effect of the learning process (Akers & Jensen, 2003).

Another effective way of testing social learning theory is by analysis courtship violence (Akers & Jensen, 2003). The two efforts that were successful included; “Intergenrational transmission theory” and “male peer support theory.” (Akers & Jensen, 2003) Intergenerational theory poses that individuals who witness violence between parents that happens during their child hood are later imitated in personal relationships. Male peer support theory, is when a relationship become patriarchal in nature (Akers & Jensen, 2003; McLaughlin & Newburn, 2010). Both of these theories have limitations in terms of the violence against an intimate partner but they are able to account for all indents of courtship violence through its broad scope (Akers & Jensen, 2003; McLaughlin & Newburn, 2010; Cullen, Jonson, Myer & Adler 2011).

Logical consistency

Social learning theory is a logical consistent theory(Akers & Jensen, 2003; Tontodonato & Crew, 1992). However, it is important to realize that no theory is ever truly complete (Britt & Gottfrelson, 2003). For instance, presidential elections were consistent with the voters. The logical voters were able to choose the presidential candidate without hesitation(Chambers, 1985). This meant that they were logical due to their consistency. Their less logical counter parts weer able to choose the presidential candidate but they were not as consistent in their decisions. As a result decisiveness seems to be closely linked with logical consistency (Chambers, 1985; Chambers, 1984; Weinstock et al., 1969).

Furthermore, logical consistency is connected to social learning in different educational environments (Lennings 1996). This means that college students are logically consistent with each other in the class room environment. They are able to be: oriented, adjust to teaching attitudes, react to student teaching and perform consistently as well (Weinstock et al., 1969).

Another important part of social learning that is consistent with self control is religion (Rosenfield, Quinet & Garcia 2012). Based on prior findings religion does indeed exhibit more control in individuals (Rosenfield, Quinet & Garcia 2012). This is due to the fact that people who are religious are more likely to have morally virtuous behavior (Rosenfield, Quinet & Garcia 2012). Although little is know about the process and how self control is directly liked with religion on the is certain. Self control seems to develop over time in individuals who are religious (Rosenfield, Quinet & Garcia 2012).

As a result of religion, individuals are less likely to engage in delinquent types of behavior (Rosenfield, Quinet & Garcia 2012). One of the reasons that self control is increased in religious individuals is partly because certain religions create opportunities where individuals can have more opportunities for self control (Rosenfield, Quinet & Garcia 2012). Generally speaking religious individuals were more likely to participate in pro social behavior which wards off delinquency. Therefore, it’s important to understand that religion does influence self control (Rosenfield, Quinet & Garcia 2012).

However, its also imperative to realize that self control is not always increased in religious individuals (Rosenfield, Quinet & Garcia 2012). Some people may develop self control from their child hood. These individuals are likely to be taught self control at an early age. By having this knowledge early on it is possible for individuals to exhibit more self control (Rosenfield, Quinet & Garcia 2012). So it’s possible to see non religious individuals with a great level of self control as well.

Policy implications

Policy implications that reflect the social learning theory are present within our communities (Barlow & Decker 2010).. One of these programs is the “GREAT” delinquency program originating from officer run classroom sessions (Barlow & Decker 2010). This program is great for social learning theory because the students are able to learn from the officers. This will give them a “deterrent effect when it comes to breaking the law because the officers will have an influence on their actions as a result of their presence (Barlow & Decker 2010). This in turn, allows students to be pro social social by accessing the internet, playing video games and watching tv. As a result the students are better able to bond with each other and stay out of trouble (Barlow & Decker 2010).

Another program that is also related the development of adolescents is DARE. This program was created to help the youth stay drug free. To do this, police officers teach the curriculum to students over a 17 week period. The intention of this program is to demonstrate to students that they can resist peer pressure when things get out of hand (Barlow & Decker 2010).. So in relation to social learning theory this program can raise awareness for students in school districts, and by making them aware they are able to think before they engage in crimes (Barlow & Decker 2010)..

College students also demonstrated a policy implicated toward social learning theory. Colleges students are known to engage in computer crime such as piracy or with illegal access programs that are restricted because of favorable crime associations (Andrewa & Bonta 1994). This is consistent with the policy of social learning because of the favorable definitions that the students have of getting illegal material from the internet (Andrews & Bonta 1994). Because they are getting this software illegally they are engaging in deviant behavior which may change laws to become more stringent down the road.


However, social learning theory has encountered criticisms as well (Akers & Jensen, 2003). The more notable criticism is its applicability to minor forms of youthful misbehavior (Akers & Jensen, 2003). The serious offenses in this case are neglected. This will require a theory restructure in order for the theory to be valid for multiple types of offenses. Furthermore, this theory also focuses on crimes committed by adolescents (Akers & Jensen, 2003). The social learning theory will need to shift its focus if it is likely to be applicable to other forms of crimes.

Furthermore, offenses have to be commuted in front of others in order to have immediate consequence (Akers & Jensen, 2003). If these acts are commuted in private then those consequences are not present. As a result, a design for a dependent variable in order to make it possible to test for deviance that is created in isolation (Akers & Jensen, 2003). This is important in terms of applicability because if the theory is not able to be applied then it will serve no use to be tested against different kind of environments.

Another criticism of social learning theory is that it focuses more on the “haves” than on the “have nots.” (Forst, 1993) Attention seems to be given to the individuals who have the monetary resources, while no attention is given to the individuals who lack monetary value (Forst, 1993). The “have nots” are usually the ones that are “disposed” by the criminal justice system (Forst, 1993). Therefore the criminal justice system favors those who are in poor condition and ignores those who are not (Forst, 1993).


Based on the research articles, social learning theory is a PROMISING theory (Krohn, Lizotte & Hall, 2009). It focuses on the macro level and it is able to explain concepts about criminal deviance from the big picture (Adler, Laufer, & Merton 1995; Laufer & Adler, 1989; Pepi, Faria, Alesi, 2006). The definition is clearly defined and able to tell an individual the main implications as it relates to social learning. Its scope is wide which means that it covers many concepts of deviant behavior (Wu & Lan-Yin, 2010). Also, social learning theory has strong empirical support and the structure learning theory is used to explain a wide range of phenomena (Barlow & Decker 2010; Akers 1999).

This theory is logically consistent with religion because it affects self control (Akers 1999). This means that people who are religious are less likely to engage in activities that do not allow them to exhibit great control over their actions (Rosenfield, Quinet & Garcia 2012). As a result, this can directly be measured using this theory. Norms and values also influence our definitions of learning theory excess (Cullen & Agnew, 2011; Krohn, Lizotte & Hall, 2009; Williams & McShane, 1993). Ifthe definition is favorable then deviance is likely to occur, if not , then the deviance will not happen.

Therefore, based on the criteria given social learning passes most of the requirements. Although it does have some criticisms such as looking at different levels of evidence. Also due its ability to study people who are in isolation there are some drawbacks. However, overall it is still a promising theory.


Social Learning Theory is an deliberate theory in life in which a person undergoes learning experiences, this applies most often to the acquiring or not acquiring of delinquency and criminality. The theory is broken down into four components, differential association, differential reinforcement, imitation and definitions. The best way to identify gender differences when applied to the theory is through courtship. Courtship either positive or negative then reflects to the upbringing of the child in the home and how they are influenced by their environmental situations and associated adult role models. The adult role models and the impact they leave on their children is a sub categorical theory itself, that is, inter-generational theory. The media, is a contributing factor to imitation when applied to the theory, as one perceives an idol they also imitate their actions. Religion counteracts the negative stimuli which come off as very appealing, but reinforces the idea that you must stay logically consistent with what you are doing.