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Social Learning Theory and Delinquency


In conditions of social disorganization and the weakening of cultural values ​​and norms, delinquency is a phenomenon that creates challenges for different spheres and structures. In this regard, studies on the prerequisites of crime are closely associated with theoretical approaches and practices that involve analyzing the causes of people’s deviant behavior. Among various areas in which the development of criminological theories has passed, the concept of social learning may be distinguished. This technique is one of the main approaches to assessing factors and drivers that stimulate delinquency as a widespread problem.

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The evaluation of the conditions of education and development is one of the fundamental mechanisms that form the concept under consideration. In addition, this methodology covers a wide range of potential prerequisites for crime, which makes its application convenient and universal from the perspective of interpreting delinquency. This work aims to describe the theory of social learning and its relationship with crime, give examples of the manifestations of this interaction, and offer an objective justification base to explain specific correlations.

Elements of the Theory

The social learning theory is a criminological technique that interprets any manifestations of delinquency as a result of inadequate human development at different stages. Cochran et al. (2017) note that Akers, who proposed this approach, described it as an assumption that anyone could become a criminal. Thus, an innate tendency to delinquency is denied, and the conditions of social development are considered the key prerequisites for crimes. Learning ability, in turn, is a trait to which a person can be predisposed from birth and can adopt subsequently. As a result, this skill allows assimilating any available forms of behavior, including both socially acceptable and delinquent ones.

When analyzing the key elements of the theory, one should take into account the variety of forms of human development. In her study, Fox (2017) describes peer association as an important indicator determining character traits that people acquire in the process of interacting with one another. However, the author also notes the significance of a biosocial perspective that implies assessing external factors for the development of specific behavioral traits, for instance, living conditions (Fox, 2017).

Finally, imitation is also the element of the theory under consideration, and this indicator can play a key role in the formation of delinquent inclinations. Fox (2017) argues that the delinquent intentions of people with low social status are the desire to achieve the same level of welfare as more affluent citizens. Another example is the imitation of adult crime by young people since this behavior creates a false sense of growing up and maturity. Therefore, various elements of the theory are to be considered simultaneously to obtain a comprehensive idea of ​​its basic provisions.

The proposed elements of the concept in question make it possible to understand that human behavior is assimilated primarily by mastering specific patterns as a result of social communication. It is during observation that a person learns to imitate specific models and create an individual image based on a chosen goal. Others’ opinions also play a significant role since approval or, conversely, condemnation is evaluative indicators that allow adapting certain patterns. Therefore, the variety of elements that form the social learning theory is one of the properties that distinguish this concept from many other approaches to assessing delinquent behavior.

Causes of Delinquency from the Perspective of the Theory

In the context of the concept in question, the main cause of delinquency is the interaction of an individual with persons prone to crime. Cochran et al. (2017) call this aspect a differential association and note that criminal behavior is the result of learning in the process of symbolic interaction with criminals in primary or closely related social groups. In other words, all contacts among individuals occur individually and are not a trend that spreads under any conditions. Also, Cochran et al. (2017) consider the social learning theory as an approach that includes not only a differential association but also the provisions of behaviorism.

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A specific type of conduct, in this case, maybe a response to a particular stimulus. The authors explain that deviance is caused not by differential connections through direct influences but indirectly, within the framework of special mechanisms of self-identification, amplification, and imitation (Cochran et al., 2017). Thus, a real criminal act may depend on past, present, and anticipated rewards and punishments for its commission. As a result, delinquency is an informed choice by the social learning theory.

The explanation of the causes of crime by this theory may be given in the context of two drivers. The likelihood of developing delinquent behavior increases with an encouraging reaction to it, which is a form of positive reinforcement (Cochran et al., 2017). Impunity, in turn, is negative reinforcement and, as Cochran et al. (2017) argue, can stimulate crime no less than approval. Social learning is a process of complex interaction with a strongly pronounced effect of feedback when the norms of a specific criminal subculture dominate. Family, school, media, religion, and other social institutions determine the general contexts of individuals’ learning.

They either contribute to or impede people’s criminal or conformal behavior. Differences at the general social or group level of participation in delinquent behavior exist to the extent to which cultural traditions, norms, and social control systems provide learning conditions leading to conformism or deviance. Therefore, the causes of delinquency from the standpoint of the social learning theory correspond with the initial assumption about the role of human development in specific conditions that stimulate criminal behavior manifestations.

Examples of Applying the Theory to Delinquency

Real-life examples explaining the application of the social learning theory in practice prove the relevance of the concept to the aforementioned explanations and justifications. For instance, Fox (2017) cites the situation of the theft of bread as a form of criminal behavior and considers it from several perspectives. When analyzing such an act from the standpoint of social reinforcement, it will not receive recognition among the majority of the population.

However, while discussing it in the context of the possibility of finding food, this form of behavior will be approved by individual social groups that practice these acts. Thus, individual perspectives play an essential role in the perception of specific delinquent behavior, and the social background of people who are prone to crimes largely determines the differentiation of opinions and the amplification factor.

Another example may be engaged to reflect an individual’s degree of motivation for a crime by his or her social background. Koon-Magnin et al. (2016) describe a situation with adolescents who often fight and find themselves involved in litigation with law enforcement agencies. At the same time, the authors note that the motivations of pugnacious teenagers and those who carry weapons and are ready to use them for delinquent purposes are different (Koon-Magnin et al., 2016).

A child brought up in an environment in which thefts of private property and other serious crimes are encouraged perceives aggression and deviance as the norm and imitates adults who lead such a lifestyle. Thus, by using the factor of imitation as one of the elements of the concept under consideration, one can determine how some delinquent situations and criminal cases may be explained.

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By analyzing the aforementioned examples, one can assume that the social learning theory is the concept that may be applied as a universal approach to explaining many criminal situations. Nevertheless, the variety of elements and manifestations of this methodology requires assessing numerous factors, including not only social but also external biological aspects of people’s development in society. As a result, a complex set of cause-and-effect relationships is to be taken into account to compose an objective picture of a specific situation and explain certain delinquent motives.


Evaluating the elements of the social learning theory about delinquency makes it possible to determine the causes of criminal behavior in the context of this concept and provide relevant examples. Various aspects are to be taken into account, including both the social background of people and biological aspects. Learning ability is an innate trait while adopting deviant behaviors is an acquired skill. Imitation, differential associations, and amplifications are important factors while evaluating the given theory and describing prerequisites for delinquency.


Cochran, J. K., Maskaly, J., Jones, S., & Sellers, C. S. (2017). Using structural equations to model Akers’ social learning theory with data on intimate partner violence. Crime & Delinquency, 63(1), 39-60. Web.

Fox, B. (2017). It’s nature and nurture: Integrating biology and genetics into the social learning theory of criminal behavior. Journal of Criminal Justice, 49, 22-31. Web.

Koon-Magnin, S., Bowers, D., Langhinrichsen-Rohling, J., & Arata, C. (2016). Social learning, self-control, gender, and variety of violent delinquency. Deviant Behavior, 37(7), 824-836. Web.

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