The Social Learning Theory of Crime

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  • 0:01 Criminology
  • 0:46 Social Learning
  • 1:54 Reinforcement
  • 4:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

How much do your friends influence your behavior? In this lesson, we'll examine the social learning theory of criminology, including the ideas of differential association and differential reinforcement, and when the tenets of social learning theory are most likely to happen.


Layla is worried. Her son Kenneth is hanging out with some new friends, and she doesn't like them. They don't do well in school, and they are always getting into trouble. She's worried that they will be a bad influence on Kenneth.

The study of crime and punishment is called criminology. In the field of criminology, people try to answer the question, why do people commit crimes? Layla is worried that Kenneth's new friends might lead him down a road towards criminal behavior. But is she right? Can a person's social circle really determine whether or not he is going to become a criminal? Let's take a look at the social learning theory of criminology and the circumstances under which it best applies.

Social Learning

Layla is worried that Kenneth's new friends might have a bad influence on him. They are into drugs, and a few of them have gotten in trouble for stealing before.

According to the social learning theory of criminology, Layla is right to be worried. The social learning theory says that people learn from the people around them. So, if Kenneth hangs out with a bunch of guys who break the law, he is likely to learn from them that it's okay to break the law. Just as the name suggests, the social learning theory is about how we learn our behaviors from those around us.

Differential association is the key here. It is just a fancy phrase for how people learn values and behaviors associated with crime from the people around them. For example, when Kenneth first started hanging out with his friends, he was shocked that they did some of the things they did. He couldn't believe that they might steal or take drugs.

But, as he hangs out with them, his values are likely to change. Slowly, he begins to think of these behaviors as normal, or even cool, and not as shocking or wrong. This is differential association at work.


Layla understands social learning theory and differential association, and the way they might influence her son Kenneth's behaviors now that he is hanging out with criminals. But, she wonders why differential association works. Why is it that just because he hangs out with some bad kids, Kenneth is more likely to break the law himself?

Differential reinforcement says that rewards and punishments shape behaviors. When something is reinforced, it means that it is strengthened, so think of differential reinforcement as a way of strengthening behaviors. For example, let's say that Kenneth is hanging out with his friends, and he decides to steal some candy from a store. He gets away with the theft, and now has free candy to enjoy and the respect of his peers, without having any consequences since he didn't get caught. His theft has been reinforced by the rewards of candy and respect, and there is no punishment to reinforce good behavior in him. Next time, he is more likely to steal again.

There are three conditions under which differential reinforcement is most likely to occur:

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