Influence of Parents Vs Peers: Theories of Crime

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Table of Contents

  • Summary
  • Argument
  • Evidence
  • Bobo Doll Experiment
  • Bobo Doll: Version 2
  • Family Impact
  • Role of Peers
  • Limitations
  • Conclusion


What causes crime: individual or environmental factors? Nature vs nurture? It’s true a person’s genetic composition is key in providing one with the basic fundamental framework that acts as a general tendency to follow a certain course of action. Undeniably, an individual can be born with inherent qualities of greater intelligence but it is the environmental factors that determine how their abilities will be applied. If raised within an environment that prioritizes academic interest, the inherent quality of a higher intellect will allow for elevated expression compared to an environment that neglected such interests. The individual factors are comparable to a car and the environmental factors the driver. Yes, the car is a means for transportation but it is the driver who dictates what path that car will take. This concept is similarly applicable to criminal behaviour. The sociological and developmental factors an individual experience in their lifetime dictate their tendency to resort to criminal behaviour.

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Although there are several theories that support environmental over individual factors influencing criminal behavior, Social Learning Theory is one of the most significant. It suggests the interactions an individual has with others is indicative to the norms and values one has towards criminal behavior. In other words, an individual’s sense of right and wrong regarding crime is influenced by their association with peers. These include parents, friends, and teachers. If these individuals depict deviant behavior and believe the criminal way of life as acceptable, an individual associating with such a person or group is therefore more likely to mimic their actions. Some theorist are quick to disregard this theory for not holding individuals accountable for their actions but this theory proves that there is a deep correlation between criminal behavior and peer influences.


Childhood plays a significant role in developing a sense of right or wrong. At a young age, a child is surrounded by people considered their models like parents and teachers. Regardless of actions being good or bad, children see and mimic their models, encoding their behavior as their own.

Bobo Doll Experiment

This was demonstrated in the 1961 Bobo Doll Experiment conducted by Albert Bandura depicting the influence adults have on the behavior of children (McLeod 2014). Here, he split 72 children into 3 groups with equal ratios of boys to girls with from 3 to 6. Group 1 was exposed to adults attacking a “Bobo doll” using hammers, launching into the air and using words to emphasize their aggressiveness like “Boom” and “Pow”. Group 2 was exposed to a non-aggressive adult who left the “Bobo doll” alone and played with a tinker toy set in a quiet, calm manner. The last group, the controlled group, were left alone. The second stage, the “mild aggression arousal” stage, was individually taking a child to a room filled with exciting toys. When the child started playing with a toy, the experimenter would say that toy was the very best they had and would be left for the other kids. The third stage was used to observe imitation. Here the child was led to a room filled with both aggressive and non-aggressive toys. The toys included bears, crayons, tea sets, dart guns and Bobo dolls. Left in the room for 20 minutes, their actions were observed and rated. Any actions that did not match the actions of the models were noted. The experiment discovered that children of Group 1 who were exposed to an aggressive model mimicked identical aggressive behavior whereas the other 2 groups where not as aggressive. This group also displayed a more aggressive play that were not observed from their models. The results backed Bandura’s application of the Social Learning Theory. His experiments showed how a child will imitate the models in their life and mimic their behavior including aggression, anger, and can therefore be applied to criminal behavior. When grown in an environment surrounded by parents or guardians who live a life of crime, a child would therefore observe and mirror their behavior.

Bobo Doll: Version 2

Replicating the experiment of 1961, the test was repeated in 1965 but included a rewarding system. In the second iteration of the experiment, the aggressive adult model would be seen by the children getting rewards for their actions (McLeod 2014). Rewards included treats and praises like “Well done champ!”. As a result, the aggressive behavior was replicated by the children more often. However, when the model was scolded for their aggressive actions, the number of kids copying declined when they entered the last room. This goes back to the rewarding and punishment principle. If a criminal action is reinforced like it is in gangs, the action will become more frequent. But if met with punishment, then there is a higher chance it will stop for fear of the consequences.

Overall, the experiment provided proof that people are influenced by the individuals they interact with. If one displays deviant behavior such as aggression, violence, or drug abuse, there’s higher chances in their circle may demonstrate similar actions. When placed in a spot that does not condemn these actions, an individual is more likely to exhibit these actions. Although there are many potential influencers in an individual’s environment, studies have consistently shown there are 2 main categories that influence behavior: Family and friends (Green, Government of Ontario).

Family Impact

Family’s play a significant role in the behavioral make up of an individual. How a child is brought up is crucial to their development of what is right and wrong. Depending on the conditions they are brought up in, it influences the behaviors the child will continue to follow as they grow. Considering this, research has shown the correlation between children being witnesses to family violence and adolescent aggression. In the study conducted by Tina Hotton through using National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, discovered 32% of children who grew up in an environment exposed to violence were classified as highly aggressive (Hotton 2003). Whereas only 16% of children in un-exposed environments displayed the same. This showed that if grown in a hostile environment, a child is more likely to follow in their aggressive nature. This experiment further showed shortcomings in parenting practices also correlated to a child’s aggressive tendency. However, the study did discover that for both exposed and non-exposed children, saw a decline in aggression as they grew older.

This decline in aggression over time is consistent with other studies such as those conducted by Herrenkohl in 2003. However, it is found as a viable predictive tool for the display of aggression into adolescence and adulthood. In 2005, Loeber et al conducted his experiment on determining predictors of violence and homicide in young men (Loeber 2005). Conducted in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with 1517 participants, his experiment discovered poor and unstable child-rearing practices led to the development of violent behaviors. Some of the major correlations across the participants included: 2 or more guardians before the age of 10, physical punishment, poor supervision, and poor communication with the family. All of this reinforces the idea that an unhealthy family environment can be influential in developing deviant tendencies leading to criminal behavior.

Role of Peers

During childhood, parents and their families tend to play a significant role but peers become more pivotal during adolescence. Associating with peers who chose to indulge in criminal behavior tends to lead to the onset of delinquent behavior in the individual themselves. This was shown in Lacourse et al study of 2003 in Montreal. Using Montreal Longitudinal Experimental Study, he tracked kindergarten boys starting in 1984 across 53 schools in underprivileged societies, with a sample of 715 students (Lacourse 2003). The results indicated that those who associated with delinquent peers ended up committing a higher level of violence compared to individuals that avoided such peer associations. The study found that those who spent the longest in such delinquent groups also displaced the highest rates of violence. Similarly, when the individual left such peer groups, it correlated with a decrease in violent behavior. Overall this reinforced the theory that peers during childhood and adolescence play a significant role in the individual’s development of violent behavior and when they distance themselves from such groups, it correlates with a decrease in criminal behavior.


With how imperative Social Learning theory is in determine criminal behavior, there are limits to its application. This theory can criminalize lifestyles and cultures that may not follow societies norms, specifically minority groups. In societies where what is accepted as being deviant behavior and criminal might not resonate across all types of groups where their culture deems that same action justifiable. With that being said, this theory implies that there is an element of choice and free will. A culture participating in something criminal does not justify the person subjecting themselves to the same thing. This theory suggest that people have a choice in imitating the behaviors learnt by their cultural models and therefore does not exclude their actions from being criminal. This theory also fails to acknowledge biosocial and psychological factors playing a role in crime. All three look at crime from different perspectives. Biosocial more in terms of biology, psychological on one’s state of mind and Social Learning Theory on peers and the environment. However, Social Learning Theory does not discredit the other 2 factors. Biology and psych can play a role in causing one to display deviant behavior but the tendency to commit crime is not set in stone as they have the choice to act on these behaviors. This theory states that although actions are learnt from those around them, they have the ability to change their environment which can untimely decrease their likelihood of committing crime. This is why it the superior theory in explaining why people commit crime even with its flaws.


Stemming from Environmental factors, Social Learning Theory proves the correlation between criminal tendencies to actions learnt from peers. The Bobo doll experiment displayed the importance of models and how their behavior influences those observing them to replicate the same actions. During childhood, these models tend to be mainly parents with peers and friends playing a bigger role during adolescent into adulthood. In both cases, disassociating with groups supportive of deviant behaviors correlated with individuals living life less likely to be subjected to crime, proving the basis of the theory. Although the theory has its limitations, like failing to acknowledge biosocial and psychological factors, it still proves the significance of environmental factors on crime. This goes back to asking the question of what causes crime: Individual or Environment? With the evidence that this research paper provides, it is evident that although the individual characteristics may hold some merit in laying the framework, it is the environment that ultimately determines if they will display criminal behavior.  

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