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Social Learning Theory as Important Part of Knowledge About Behavior

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Social learning theory is an important part of our understanding of both criminal and non-criminal behavior. Social learning theory is a general theory used in research to explain different kinds of criminal behavior. This theory precisely emphasizes the interaction between cognitive, behavioral, and environmental determinants and their role in developing criminal behaviors.

The development of social learning theory can be traced back to the work of Robert L. Burgess and Ronald L. Akers in 1966, as presented in their work entitled “A differential association-reinforcement theory of criminal behavior”. The area of study where the role of social context in developing criminal behavior became an important part of criminology with the publication of Ronald L. Akers’ work entitled “Deviant Behavior: A Social Learning Approach” in 1973. The theory is also arguably one of the most tested contemporary theories of crime and deviance and has undergone considerable elaboration and testing since the 1970s. The theory has more recently attempted to “link the processual variables [of] the theory to macro-level and meso-level social structural variables… to explain crime and delinquency”.Social learning theory is best summarized by its leading proponent, Ronald L. Akers:  “The probability that persons will engage in criminal and deviant behavior is increased and the probability of their conforming to the norm is decreased when they differentially associate with others who commit criminal behavior and espouse definitions favorable to it, are relatively more exposed in-person or symbolically to salient criminal/deviant models, define it as desirable or justified in a situation discriminative for the behavior, and have received in the past and anticipate in the current or future situation relatively greater reward than punishment for the behavior”.There are four fundamental premises with which social learning theory can be conceptual, differential association, definitions, differential reinforcement, and imitation (Akers and Sellers, 2004). The following sections will explore these ideas and their relation to social learning theory.

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Differential Association. There are two important dimensions of differential association. The first dimension, Behavioral-interactional explains the “direct association and interaction with others who engage in certain kinds of behavior; as well as … indirect association and identification with more distant reference groups” (Akers and Sellers, 2004: 85). Social theorists break up people or groups with whom an individual associates into primary and secondary sources. Primary associations comprise family and friends, whereas secondary association means interaction with people of a much wider range, for example, teachers, neighbors, etc. Each of these groups plays important role in contributing to the adoption of individuals’ values and attitudes. The timing, length, frequency, and nature are the important determents of behavior according to the ferential association. That is, the greatest effect on a person’s behavior occurs the earlier the association is made, the longer the duration of the association, the more frequently the association occurs, and the closer the association is. From a social learning perspective, then, associations made early on with family would arguably play an important role in shaping one’s behavior.

Definitions. Definitions are an individual’s values and attitudes about determining the acceptance of the behavior. That is, “they are orientations, rationalizations, definitions of the situation, and other evaluative and moral attitudes that define the commission of an act as right or wrong, good or bad, desirable or undesirable, justified or unjustified” (Akers and Sellers, 2004: 86). These attitudes and values are learned and reinforced through the process of differential association. Definitions are seen as either approving of or neutralizing the behavior. Approving definitions makes an individual see criminal behavior in a positive light, on the other hand neutralizing definitions act as a means of justifying and/or excusing some or all forms of criminal conduct (Akers and Sellers, 2004).“Cognitively, definitions favorable to deviance provide a mindset that makes one more willing to commit the act when the opportunity occurs or is created. Behaviorally, they affect the commission of deviant behavior by acting as internal discriminative stimuli” (Akers and Silverman, 2004: 20). An important note to consider is that an individual who has adopted approving or neutralizing definitions of deviant behavior does not necessarily have to act on them. It is instead an interactional process whereby conventional norms may be weakly held, thereby providing little or no restraint against criminal behavior, and definitions that afavorableble to deviant conduct “facilitate law violation in the right set of circumstances”. Consequently, the context under which these behaviors take place is redefined in light of these approving and neutralizing definitions.

Differential Reinforcement.  Differential reinforcement is the process by which individuals experience and anticipate the consequences of their behaviors. “Whether individuals will refrain from or commit a crime at any given time (and whether they will continue or desist from doing it in the future) depends on the past, present, and anticipated future rewards and punishments for their actions” (Akers and Sellers, 2004: 87). Reinforcement can be positive or negative. When actions are rewarded through positive reactions to the behavior as well as through positive outcomes, positive reinforcement occurs. On the other hand, negative reinforcement means the removal of negative consequences or reactions. Both types of reinforcement may increase the likelihood of taking certain criminal actions. The degree to which differential reinforcement occurs is related to the degree, frequency, and probability of its occurrence. That is, reinforcement is most likely to happen and contribute to the repetition of the behavior when it occurs with greater value, occurs frequently as a consequence of the behavior, and when the probability that the behavior will be reinforced is greater. Reinforcement can occur both directly and indirectly.

And finally, imitation. Imitation occurs when an individual engages in behavior that they previously witnessed others doing. The extent of imitation is measured by “characteristics of the models, the behavior observed, and the observed consequences of the behavior”. Imitation gentry occurs by observing people who are close to us and can affect our participation in both conforming and non-conforming behaviors. 

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