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Social learning theory or SLT is the theory that people learn new behavior through overt reinforcement or punishment, or via observational learning of the social factors in their environment. If people observe positive, desired outcomes in the observed behavior, then they are more likely to model, imitate and adopt the behavior themselves. Modern theory is closely associated with Julian Rotter and Albert Bandura.


Social learning theory is derived from the work of Cornell Montgomery (1843-1904) which proposed that social learning occurred through four main stages of imitation:

• close contact,

• imitation of superiors,

• understanding of concepts,

• role model behaviour

It consists of three parts observing, imitating and reinforcements

Julian Rotter moved away from theories based on psychosis and behaviourism and developed a learning theory. In Social Learning and Clinical Psychology (1954), Rotter suggests that the effect of behaviour has an impact on the motivation of people to engage in that specific behaviour. People wish to avoid negative consequences, while desiring positive results or effects. If one expects a positive outcome from a behaviour, or thinks there is a high probability of a positive outcome, then they will be more likely to engage in that behaviour. The behaviour is reinforced, with positive outcomes, leading a person to repeat the behaviour. This social learning theory suggests that behaviour is influenced by these environmental factors or stimulus and not psychological factors alone.

Albert Bandura (1977) expanded on Rotter's idea, as well as earlier work by Miller & Dollard (1941) and is related to social learning theories of Vygotsky and Lave. This theory incorporates aspects of behavioural and cognitive learning. Behavioural learning assumes that people's environment (surroundings) cause people to behave in certain ways. Cognitive learning presumes that psychological factors are important for influencing how one behaves. Social learning suggests a combination of environmental (social) and psychological factors influence behaviour. Social learning theory outlines three requirements for people to learn and model behaviour include attention: retention (remembering what one observed), reproduction (ability to reproduce the behaviour) and motivation (good reason) to want to adopt the behaviour.


In criminology, Ronald Akers and Robert Burgess (1966) developed social learning theory to explain deviancy by combining variables which encouraged delinquency (e.g., the social pressure from delinquent peers) with variables that discouraged delinquency (e.g., the parental response to discovering delinquency in their children).

The first two stages were used by Edwin Sutherland in his Differential Association Theory. Sutherland's model for learning in a social environment depends on the cultural conflict between different factions in a society over who has the power to determine what is deviant. But his ideas were difficult to put into operation and measure quantitatively. Burgess, a behavioral sociologist and Akers revised Sutherland's theory and included the idea of reinforcement, which increases or decreases the strength of a behavior and applied the principles of Operant Psychology, which holds that behavior is a function of its consequences and can be really bad in some cases (Pfohl, 1994).

Functionalism had been the dominant paradigm but, in the 1960s, there was a shift towards Social Control Theories, Conflict Criminology and Labeling Theories that tried to explain the emerging and more radical social environment. Moreover, people believed that they could observe behavior and see the process of social learning, e.g., parents watched their own children and saw the influence of other children on their own; they could also see what kind of affect they had on their own children, i.e. the processes of differential association and reinforcement. The conservative political parties were advocating an increase in punishment to deter crime. Unlike Labeling Theory, Social Learning Theory actually supports the use of punishment which translates into longer sentences for those convicted and helps to explain the increase in the prison population that began in the early 1970s (Livingston, 1996).

Unlike situational crime prevention, the theory ignores the opportunistic nature of crime (Jeffery, 1990: 261-2). To learn one must first observe criminal behavior, but where was this behavior learned? The theory does explain how criminal behavior is 'transmitted' from one person to an animal, which can explain increases in types of crimes, but it does not consider how criminal acting can be prevented (Jeffery, 1990: 252) although it may be fairly assumed that the processes of learning behaviors can be changed.

There is also a definite problem. What may be reinforcement for one person may not be for another. Also, reinforcements can be both social involving attention and behavior between more than one person and non-social reinforcement would not involve this interaction (Burgess & Akers: 1966) Social Learning Theory has been used in mentoring programs that should, in theory, prevent some future criminal behavior. The idea behind mentoring programs is that an adult is paired with a child, who supposedly learns from the behavior of the adult and is positively reinforced for good behavior (Jones-Brown, 1997). In the classroom, a teacher may use the theory by changing the seating arrangements to pair a behaving child and a misbehaving child, but the outcome may be that the behaving child begins to be very bad.

Serial Murder and Social Learning Theory

Hale (1993) applied the social learning theory to serial murder using case studies and he claimed that serial murder can be learned. The social learning theory suggests that people learn new behavior through punishment and rewards. Hale argued that serial murderers must go through some humiliating experience in the early development of their life (Singer and Hensley, 2004). But the serial murderer goes through a different process because most children go through some sort of humiliation during their life. The child who becomes a serial killer is often introduced to a humiliating experience and cannot distinguish between a rewarding and non rewarding experience, which is part of the social learning theory. This causes the child to look at certain situations in a negative way, causing the child to become frustrated. When the individual becomes frustrated from a humiliating experience from the past, the individual then choose vulnerable outlets for their aggression (Singer and Hensley, 2004). The child learns to expect humiliation or a negative situation from the past, which then causes frustration or aggression.

Case Examples: Ed Gein was humiliated early in his life and later turned his aggression out on others. Gein was controlled by his mother and rejected by his father as a child and was often abused (Hale, 1993). Ted Bundy chose his victims based on the resemblance to a former girlfriend who had broken their marriage engagement (Hale, 1993). David Berkowitz had a sense of rejection stemmed from being adopted and it was said he felt rejected and humiliated by the world. In this case, Berkowitz turned to fire starting the vent his frustration as a child. Later in his life, Berkowitz obtained a sexual transmitted disease which created more hatred for women, which he would later turn to kill random women (Fishman, 2006). In all of these instances the serial killer was presented with some form of humiliation as a child and learned to vent their anger through aggression.

What is Social Learning Theory?

The social learning theory proposed by Albert Bandura has become perhaps the most influential theory of learning and development. While rooted in many of the basic concepts of traditional learning theory, Bandura believed that direct reinforcement could not account for all types of learning.

His theory added a social element, arguing that people can learn new information and behaviors by watching other people. Known as observational learning (or modeling), this type of learning can be used to explain a wide variety of behaviors.

Basic Social Learning Concepts

• People can learn through observation.

Observational Learning

In his famous "Bobo doll" studies, Bandura demonstrated that children learn and imitate behaviors they have observed in other people. The children in Bandura's studies observed an adult acting violently toward a Bobo doll. When the children were later allowed to play in a room with the Bobo doll, they began to imitate the aggressive actions they had previously observed. Bandura identified three basic models of observational learning:

• A live model, which involves an actual individual demonstrating or acting out a behavior.

• A verbal instructional model which involves descriptions and explanations of a behavior.

• A symbolic model, which involves real or fictional characters displaying behaviors in books, films, television programs, or online media.

• Mental states are important to learning.

Intrinsic Reinforcement

Bandura noted that external, environmental reinforcement was not the only factor to influence learning and behavior. He described intrinsic reinforcement as a form of internal reward, such as pride, satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. This emphasis on internal thoughts and cognitions helps connect learning theories to cognitive developmental theories. While many textbooks place social learning theory with behavioral theories, Bandura himself describes his approach as a 'social cognitive theory.'

Learning does not necessarily lead to a change in behavior.

While behaviorists believed that learning led to a permanent change in behavior, observational learning demonstrates that people can learn new information without demonstrating new behaviors.

The Modeling Process

Not all observed behaviors are effectively learned. Factors involving both the model and the learner can play a role in whether social learning is successful. Certain requirements and steps must also be followed. The following steps are involved in the observational learning and modeling process:

Attention: In order to learn, you need to be paying attention. Anything that detracts your attention is going to have a negative effect on observational learning. If the model interesting or there is a novel aspect to the situation, you are far more likely to dedicate your full attention to learning.

Retention: The ability to store information is also an important part of the learning process. Retention can be affected by a number of factors, but the ability to pull up information later and act on it is vital to observational learning.

Reproduction: Once you have paid attention to the model and retained the information, it is time to actually perform the behavior you observed. Further practice of the learned behavior leads to improvement and skill advancement.

Motivation: Finally, in order for observational learning to be successful, you have to be motivated to imitate the behavior that has been modeled. Reinforcement and punishment play an important role in motivation. While experiencing these motivators can be highly effective, so can observing other experience some type of reinforcement or punishment. For example, if you see another student rewarded with extra credit for being to class on time, you might start to show up a few minutes early each day.

The social learning cycle is based on ground-breaking work by IFF member Max Boisot on the political economy of knowledge. See the figure below. The two axes represent the codification of knowledge and its diffusion. The knowledge cycle generates new ideas at bottom left (not well codified, not widely shared), codifies them, is then able to broadcast and disseminate them to a wider audience and that knowledge is then translated into action, absorbed into practice. Scanning that new practice, the new features in the landscape, can generate new ideas (bottom left) and so the cycle starts again.

This is a learning cycle. It most commonly breaks down with the difficulty of translating theory or policy or new ideas (the red arrows) into practice (green). By paying attention to the cycle IFF helps manage this transition. We call the process 'convergence' - the convergence of ideas and action.

IFF work in both spheres: ideas and action. Typically in complex circumstances there is a mismatch between the way we make sense of the world in context 1 and context 2. Context 1 is the world of policy making, decision taking, priority setting. Context 2 is the world of action and delivery, the 'coal face', the 'real world'. IFF's processes, guided by the learning cycle, seek to

• bring the context for idea generation and the context for action closer together in order to

A Social Learning Cycle

Fig. 14.11: A Social Learning Cycle

encourage effective action; and

• expand the range of views and perspectives involved in the context for action, in other words get a fuller picture of the 'real world' and the way it is moving as the context for action.

This is a key use of the IFF's resources in terms of international personnel, the perspectives from futures research and the experience of diverse innovative projects around the world. Typically IFF will organise a learning journey early on in a project - to broaden the participants' horizons, to introduce learning from experience alongside abstract policy-making and to give a novel but collective set of points of reference which help the group develop its capacity to see the world differently. This is a powerful way to kick start the learning cycle.

Paying attention throughout our work to managing the learning cycle delivers the following benefits:

• the learning approach offers a new perspective on project management.

• Traditionally we think in terms of project planning followed by project delivery to produce agreed outcomes. This is broadly analogous to a single journey around the learning cycle from ideas (red arrows) to delivery (green arrows). If the project is explicitly managed as a learning project this allows for multiple learning cycles, enhances the capacity for the project to adapt to changing circumstances, reduces the risk of failure and promises at conclusion not only delivery against agreed outcomes but an enhanced knowledge of the operating environment and a greater knowledge of the other options that the initial project will have generated;

• IFF's experience of operating in a complex environment and working with the learning cycle offers new models and new insights for scaling from successful local innovation. Most attempts to scale kill the spirit and the spark that made the initial small-scale innovation possible. But there are principles of smart project design and effective learning that will help projects scale more naturally. IFF calls this 'social acupuncture'.

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