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Review of the Roots of Youth Violence: Literature Reviews

Volume 5, Chapter 8:

Social Learning Theories7

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 behaviour” This work combined the earlier sociological theory of differential association with the developmental psychological theory of reinforcement. This area of study became part of mainstream criminology with the publication of Ronald L. Akers’ work entitled “Deviant Behaviour: A Social Learning Approach” in 1973. Over the last 30 years, social learning theory has remained an important part of our understanding of both criminal and non-criminal behaviour, as is demonstrated by its repeated presence in various textbooks and edited volumes looking at deviant and non-deviant behaviour. 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.... in an effort to provide an explanation of crime and delinquency” (Akers and Jensen, 2003: 9).

This section will begin by providing an explanation of social learning theory and the critiques associated with this perspective. It will follow with an examination of the application of social learning theory in current research findings and will conclude with a discussion of the policy implications of adopting a social learning perspective.

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theories can be broadly understood as a social behavioural approach that emphasizes the “reciprocal interaction between cognitive, behavioral and environmental determinants” of human behaviour (Bandura, 1977: vii). In the study of crime and criminality, social learning theory is generally applied and understood as it was conceptualized by Ronald L. Akers in 1973.

Social learning theory is a general theory of crime and criminality and has been used in research to explain a diverse array of criminal behaviours. The theory as proposed by Akers is centred around the idea that “the same learning process in a context of social structure, interaction, and situation produces both conforming and deviant behavior. The difference lies in the direction ... [of] the balance of influences on the behavior” (Akers and Sellers, 2004: 85).

Social learning theory is best summarized by its leading proponent, Ronald L. Akers (1998):

The probability that persons will engage in criminal and deviant behaviour 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 (50).

The conceptualization of social learning theory embodies within it four fundamental premises that include differential association, definitions, differential reinforcement and imitation (Akers and Sellers, 2004). The following section will examine these premises as they relate to the more general social learning theory.

Differential Association

Differential association theory can be understood as comprising two important dimensions. The first dimension is behavioural-interactional and explains deviance as being produced through “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). The people or groups with whom an individual is in social contact, either directly or indirectly, are seen as providing the social context under which each of the four premises of social learning theory functions. That is, within this social context, individuals are exposed to varying definitions of acceptable and unacceptable behaviours, as well as a variety of behavioural models that may differentially reinforce criminal and non-criminal behaviour. These models may also serve as a source for the imitating of behaviour.

The people or groups with whom an individual associates are broken up into primary and secondary sources by social learning theorists. Primary associations include those with immediate family and friends. Secondary sources of social learning include a much wider range of people and would include, for example, teachers, neighbours, and church groups. Each of these groups is thought to contribute to the attitudes and values an individual adopts, as well as to how that person behaves in various social contexts.

It is generally understood, under the theory of differential association, that the timing, length, frequency and nature of the contact are important determinants of behaviour. That is, the greatest effect on a person’s behaviour 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 (Akers and Sellers, 2004). From a social learning perspective, then, associations made early on with family would arguably play an important role in shaping one’s behaviour.


Definitions, as they are to be understood under social learning theory, are an individual’s own values and attitudes about what is and is not acceptable behaviour . 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.

Social learning theory links attitudes and values to the influence of general and specific definitions. General definitions would include broad beliefs about conforming behaviour that is influenced principally through conventional norms, as well as religious and moral values (Akers and Sellers, 2004). These beliefs are thought generally to be those that do not support the commission of criminal or deviant acts. Specific definitions are seen as those that “orient a person to particular acts or a series of acts”(Akers and Sellers, 2004: 86). The main premise behind this notion of definitions is that the greater the number of definitions favourable to deviant or criminal behaviour, the greater the likelihood that an individual will take part in that type of conduct. Social learning theory also accounts for conforming behaviour to the extent that the greater the number of definitions favourable to conventional norms, the less likely an individual is to engage in deviant or criminal acts. It is conceivable within this understanding of social learning that an individual could adopt conforming attitudes and values about certain behaviours while at the same time develop attitudes and values that justify or excuse some types of non-conforming behaviours.

In explaining criminal behaviour, definitions are seen as either approving of or neutralizing the behaviour. Definitions that are approving generally frame criminal behaviour in a positive light, whereas 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 mind-set 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). It is important to note that an individual who has adopted approving or neutralizing definitions of deviant behaviour 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 behaviour, and definitions that are favourable to deviant conduct “facilitate law violation in the right set of circumstances” (Akers and Silverman, 2004: 21). Consequently, the context under which these behaviours take place is redefined in light of these approving and neutralizing definitions.

Differential Reinforcement

Differential reinforcement can be broadly understood as the process by which individuals experience and anticipate the consequences of their behaviours. That is, a person’s actions are in part determined by what they perceive the consequences of their action or lack of action will be. “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 of attitudes, beliefs, and values occurs through both differential association and imitation and can be either positive or negative. Positive reinforcement occurs when actions are rewarded through positive reactions to the behaviour as well as through positive outcomes. Positive reinforcement can increase the likelihood of criminal behaviour through these rewards. Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, involves the removal of negative consequences or responses, and this may also increase the likelihood of taking certain 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 repetition of the behaviour when it occurs with greater value, occurs frequently as a consequence of the behaviour, and when the probability that the behaviour will be reinforced is greater (Akers and Sellers, 2004: 87). Reinforcement can occur directly and indirectly. For example, direct reinforcement would be the result of the effects of drug or alcohol consumption, while indirect reinforcement would occur through, for example, anticipation of rewards valued in subgroups. This notion of indirect reinforcement is important for understanding the role of symbolic social rewards and punishments. However, the most important reinforcements tend to be social (resulting from interactions with peer groups and family members).


Imitation, as its name implies, is the notion that individuals engage in behaviour that they have previously witnessed others doing. The extent to which behaviours are imitated is determined in large part by the “characteristics of the models, the behavior observed, and the observed consequences of the behavior” (Akers and Sellers, 2004: 88). The literature has indicated that witnessing the actions of others, in particular people that are close to us, can affect our participation in both conforming and non-conforming behaviours (Donnerstein and Linz, 1995). Imitation has also been found to be “more important in the initial acquisition and performance of novel behavior than in its maintenance or cessation of behavioral patterns once established” (Akers and Sellers, 2004: 89).


One of the major criticisms of social learning theory pertains to its principal concept that increased associations with deviant peers increases the likelihood that an individual will adopt attitudes and values favourable to criminal conduct through the mechanism of rewards and punishments. The critique centres around the temporal ordering of the adoption of deviant attitudes and behaviours and the association with other deviant peers.

Social learning theory is premised on the idea that it is association with others (family and friends) that contributes to the learning and subsequent acceptance of deviant conduct. It has instead been suggested that young people may develop these deviant attitudes and values without prior exposure to it and then seek out peers with similar attitudes and behaviours. The general theory of crime posits that an individual’s propensity to crime (as exemplified by low self-control) is stable throughout the life course and it is the opportunities for crime that change (Siegel and McCormick, 2006). More specifically,

Individuals with low self-control do not tend to make good friends. They are unreliable, untrustworthy, selfish, and thoughtless. They may, however, be fun to be with; they are certainly more risk taking, more adventuresome, and reckless than their counterparts. It follows that self-control is a major factor in determining membership in adolescent peer groups and in determining the quality of the relationships among the members of such groups. We would expect those children who devote considerable time to the peer group to be more likely to be delinquent. We would also expect those children with close relationships within a peer group to be less likely to be delinquent (Gottfredson and Hirshi, 1990: 157–158).

The problem is a causal one. That is, the cause of the delinquency, from a critic’s point of view, is not associations with deviant peers. Instead, delinquent behaviour or attitudes favourable to it are established before group contact (Akers and Sellers, 2004). From this perspective, individuals with low self-control seek out similar peers.

Social learning theorists have responded to this criticism by stating that development of delinquent attitudes and behaviour prior to association with deviant peers is not inconsistent with the theory because group associations still influence behaviour (even if delinquency precedes the group membership) (Akers and Sellers, 2004). In addition, longitudinal research has shown that, in addition to the persistence of delinquency, peer group associations are related to the onset of delinquent behaviour (see Lacourse et al., 2003).

The criticism that relationships among delinquent peers tend to be weak and involve loose affiliations has also been countered in the literature. Research in this area has shown that these relationships may not be as weak as suggested by critics. For example, Gillis and Hagan (1990) found that delinquent peers tend to demonstrate greater loyalty to friends and family than their conventional peers do (cited in Wortley, 1996). In addition, Kandel and Davies (1991), in a study of illicit drug-users and non-users, found that more frequent drug-users tended to have closer relationships with their drug-using peers than non-users did with their conventional peers (cited in Wortley, 1996). This research suggests delinquent peers do form close relationships with one another, and in turn, these relationships may indeed facilitate the onset and persistence of delinquency.

Recent Research Findings

Social learning theory has been applied in numerous studies and its theoretical value has been supported by the strong relationships found between social learning concepts and criminal behaviours. The concepts of differential association, definitions, imitation, and differential reinforcement have been explored separately, as well in various combinations in the research literature. Of these social learning concepts, differential association has been examined most frequently and has consistently been shown to be a significant factor in explaining criminal and deviant behaviours (see Arriaga and Foshee, 2004; Clingempeel and Henggeler, 2003; Conway and McCord, 2002; Daigle et al., 2007; Haynie et al,. 2006; Herrenkohl et al., 2001; Hochstetler et al., 2001; Losel et al., 2007; Sellers et al., 2003; Steffensmeier and Ulmer, 2003; Wiesner et al., 2003). Research has also shown support, though more moderately, for definitions, imitation and differential reinforcement as social learning concepts (see Baron et al., 2001; Bellair et al. 2003; Graham and Wells, 2003; Herrenkohl et al., 2001; Huang et al., 2001). It is worth noting that the relationships between social learning variables or concepts and criminal behaviour have generally been shown to be “strong to moderate, and [that] there has been very little negative evidence [found in the research] ... literature” (Sellers and Akers, 2004: 92).

Studies of social learning theory as it relates to behaviour are wide-ranging in terms of the types of behaviours typically examined. The range includes, but is not limited to, childhood and adolescent aggression, intimate partner violence, drug and alcohol use, terrorism, and other violent and non-violent criminal behaviour. Social learning variables have been found to explain these aforementioned behaviours in numerous studies (see Akers and Silverman, 2004; Akers et al., 1989; Barak, 2004; Boeringer et al., 1991; Jensen and Akers, 2003; Silverman, 2002). Two areas of this research that have received considerable attention in the literature and are worth further exploring are how associations with family and friends impact behaviour.

The Role of Family

The research literature has consistently found that there is a strong relationship between childhood experiences of violence in the family and early childhood aggression, and a more moderate relationship between these experiences and adolescent aggression (see Gover, 2002; Hotton, 2003; Unnever and Agnew, 2006; Herrenkohl et al., 2001, Loeber et al., 2005; Loeber and Hay, 1997; Moffit and Caspi, 2001; Rappaport and Thomas, 2004). Work by Hotton (2003) that looked at childhood aggression and exposure to violence in the home found that childhood aggression and exposure to violence in the home was significantly related to aggressive behaviour among children. The study used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY), developed by Human Resources Development Canada and Statistics Canada. Hotton (2003) found that approximately 32 per cent of children exposed to violence were considered highly aggressive, compared with 16 per cent of non-exposed children. The study also revealed that hostile and ineffective parenting practices were related to higher levels of child aggression. Interestingly, the study also found that high levels of aggressive behaviour declined as children got older, and this was consistent for both children who were and were not exposed to violence in the home.

The finding that aggression in childhood diminishes in adolescence is consistent with existing literature (see Herrenkohl, 2003; Loeber and Stouthamer-Loebe, 1998; Moffitt and Caspi, 2001). And while research has demonstrated that early aggression as learned through family exposure diminishes over time, it is still found to be a moderate predictor of aggressive behaviour in adolescence and early adulthood. Loeber et al. (2005) examined predictors of violence and homicide in young men in an American city and found that poor and unstable child-rearing practices were factors that contributed to the prediction of violent behaviour in the future. The study was conducted in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and utilized data from a longitudinal, multiple cohort study of delinquency development among boys that included 1,517 participants. The poor and unstable child-rearing practices that were found to predict violence included two or more caretaker changes prior to 10 years of age, physical punishment, poor supervision, and poor communication within the family.

The Role of Peers

Exposure to violence in the family may be a stronger predictor of aggression in childhood than it is in adolescence. Peer influences, however, appear to be more important in adolescence. Research on adolescent aggression has shown that exposure to violent or delinquent peers, over and above the influence of family, are stronger predictors of violence among adolescents.

Arriaga and Foshee (2004), in a study of intimate violence, examined the relationship between dating violence and friends involved in or supportive of this type of violence and inter-parental violence. The study found that while both variables were significant predictors, the effect of friend dating violence on the dating behaviours of adolescents was stronger than the effect of inter-parental violence. This finding is consistent with other research that indicates the power of peer influences on behaviour during adolescence (see Herrenkohl et al., 2003). This finding has also been shown to be consistent when looking at aggression across gender. Daigle et al. (2007) examined gender differences in the predictors of juvenile delinquency. The study used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health (Add Health), a national school-based panel study of adolescents in grades 7 to 12 in the United States between 1994 and 1996. The study found that the factors that predicted delinquency were similar for both boys and girls, and that the most significant predictor for both was the number of delinquent peers they interacted with. Negative peer associations, then, appear to be better predictors of delinquency and aggression in adolescence than negative family experiences are.

Research has also looked at the temporal ordering of the onset of delinquent behaviour and shown that associations with delinquent peers appears to precede the onset of delinquent behaviour. For example, Lacourse et al. (2003), in a longitudinal study of the developmental trajectories of boys’ delinquent group membership and facilitation of violent behaviours during adolescence, found that delinquent peer groups were associated with the onset and frequency of violent behaviour in adolescence. The study used data from the Montreal Longitudinal Experimental Study, which tracked all male students in kindergarten classes, beginning in 1984, from 53 Montreal elementary schools in low socio-economic areas. The sample that was used in this study comprised 715 respondents, who were assessed between the ages of 11 and 17. The results indicated, more specifically, that as a group, individuals who associated with delinquent peers during childhood or during adolescence committed more violence than the group who did not develop these delinquent peer associations. Those who formed delinquent peer associations during childhood, and thus were involved with these groups the longest, showed the highest rates of violence. Transitioning out of a delinquent peer group was also shown to be associated with a decrease in violent behaviour. Over all, this study showed that involvement with delinquent peer groups during childhood and during adolescence facilitated the onset of violent behaviour, and this effect was stable throughout adolescence.

Ulrich (2003), in a comprehensive review of the literature, found that the strongest cause of violent behaviour onset identified in the literature was association with delinquent peer groups, where violence was both modelled and rewarded. Weak social ties to conventional peers and affiliation with anti-social delinquent peers were found to be strong predictors of violence, and the impact was consistently found to be greater for adolescents than for younger children. Ulrich (2003) also finds strong support in the literature for a relationship between aggressive children being rejected by their non-aggressive peers and an increase in their deviant peer networks, the result of which tends to lead to a reduction in positive peer interactions and increases the likelihood of deviant or violent behaviours.

Social learning theory explains the onset of deviant and criminal behaviour, but it can also explain transition into conforming behaviours. Clinigempeel and Henggeler (2003), in a study of aggressive juvenile offenders transitioning into adulthood, found that the quality of the relationships the young people had with others was significantly related to their desistence or persistence in criminal conduct. The study tracked 80 young people between the ages of 12 and 17, over a five-year period, in Charleston, South Carolina. The findings showed that after the five-year period, youth who committed the fewest and least-serious acts of aggression also reported significantly more emotional support and higher-quality relationships with others.

Though the relationships are different, the literature clearly shows that family and peer interactions play an important role in the onset and maintenance of delinquent and criminal conduct. Violence in the home during childhood is predictive of aggression in childhood and, in part, adolescence. Interestingly, learned aggressive behaviours in childhood diminish as children age. What appears to be most important in adolescence is interaction with negative peer groups. That is, while negative family experiences might explain some of an adolescent’s delinquency, his or her association with negative peer influences appears to be able to explain delinquency far better (even when the young person has not experienced violence in the home).

Policy Implications

The support social learning theory has generated in the research literature has important implications for policy. From a social learning perspective, deviant and criminal conduct is learned and sustained via associations with family and peer networks. If one agrees that this is the source of such behaviour, then it follows that these behaviours could be modified “to the extent that one is able to manipulate those same processes or the environmental contingencies that impinge on them” (Akers and Sellers, 2004: 101). From this perspective, policy-makers should focus on developing and implementing preventive and rehabilitative programs that use social learning variables to change behaviour in a positive direction. Examples of programs guided by social learning principles include mentoring, behavioural modification, delinquency prevention, peer counseling and gang interventions. The idea behind some of these types of programs is that providing positive experiences and role models for young people serves to expose them to conventional norms and values that might diminish future delinquent or criminal acts.


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7 This section was prepared with the assistance of Carolyn Greene, PhD candidate, Centre of Criminology, University of Toronto.


Volume 1. Findings, Analysis and Conclusions

Volume 2. Executive Summary

Volume 3. Community Perspectives Report

Volume 4. Research Papers

Volume 5. Literature Reviews