The Social Learning Theory: Overview

Sociological theories seek to explain human interaction and the factors that influence it. They all have different approaches to defining key characteristics, since society and people’s interactions are a system of complex elements and mechanisms. These causal mechanisms and relations are the basis and explanation of various theories and their relationship with reality. Therefore, this paper will consider social learning theory, its causal relationships, and mechanisms to reveal its basic concepts and relevance for society.

Social learning theory is one of the most studied and used ideas in criminology. The reason for my choice was that this theory explains the causes of criminal behavior by using simple connections, as well as partially shows the prospects for reducing it. I also believe that this theory has a variety of applications; therefore, its study is essential for understanding general and specific trends in society. Social learning theory views the process of character formation in an individual as a response to social stimuli and argues that society forms patterns of behavior (Jennings & Henderson, 2014). At the same time, a person’s reaction to these incentives is conscious; thus, a person adapts his or her behavior to coincide with society’s principles.

Representatives of this concept also do not deny the importance of primary socialization, or period of childhood, but they are confident that changes also occur in adulthood (Farrington et al., 2018). These features also explain the reasons for criminal behavior, especially among adolescents and young adults. Farrington et al. (2018) note that antisocial behavior occurs in group interactions through rewards and punishments. Emotions and skills also arise in group interaction, and they influence the development and application of the behavioral self-regulation necessary for the assimilation of criminal behavior. For example, constant communication with people involved in illegal activity increases the likelihood of becoming a criminal. In other words, people exist in society and learn patterns of behavior and principles from its members, and then reflect it in their personal experience.

Consequently, the features of this theory indicate its causal connections and causal mechanisms. As Blossfeld and Prein (2019) point out, the causal relationship states that X causes Y, or shows a direct relation between them. Consequently, the causal relation of social learning theory is expressed in the fact that the characteristics of the society in which a person exists affect his or her social behavior. In criminology, these relationships are clarified, since the patterns of deviant behavior of society increase the likelihood of a person’s criminal behavior.

It is also possible to identify specific causal mechanisms that explain how causal relationships arise in this theory. Jennings and Henderson (2014) note such components as differential reinforcement, definitions, and imitation. Differential reinforcement means that people teach others specific actions, such as participating in crimes or avoiding them, by using punishment or rewards. For example, the reward for assisting in a robbery is money, which increases a person’s desire to participate in crime again. The second mechanism of definitions is beliefs in the correctness of some form of behavior. For example, the most common ideas are that using “light drugs” or participating in fights for one’s honor is a “normal” crime. The third mechanism is to imitate the behavior or inheritance of the senior mentor’s example (Jennings & Henderson, 2014). Such imitation can be positive, for example, the choice of the family profession of a doctor. However, this imitation can also push for deviant behavior if the person witnesses the crime of a person whom he or she respects. Thus, social learning theory explains how a person forms his or her personality through one or more of these mechanisms.

This theory has a significant impact on society as it explains the reasons for criminal behavior and the possibility of its correction. This theory is especially important for the analysis of juvenile crimes because it clarifies the reasons for committing a crime, and professionals can shield young people from their exposure (Farrington et al., 2018). For example, if teenagers were involved in a robbery or drug dealing because of their involvement in a street gang and family problems, then instead of punishing their crimes, the court may send them to a rehabilitation program. There are also mentoring programs for children from troubled families in which they imitate the positive social behavior of their mentors. Hence, social learning theory has a significant impact on explaining deviant behavior and reducing crime in society.

In conclusion, social learning theory is one of the approaches to explain the causes of human behavior, including deviant. The influence of society on the conscious formation of a personality is a key concept of the theory. Explaining and demonstrating this connection through various mechanisms of interaction contributes to understanding the causes of criminal behavior of people and their correction. This approach is especially appropriate for adolescents and young adults, who are most influenced by society. Consequently, social learning theory is relevant for modern sociology, psychology, and criminology, and its foundations have applications in many areas.


Blossfeld, H.-P., & Prein, G. (2019). Rational Choice theory and large-scale data analysis. Routledge.

Farrington, D. P., Kazemian, L., & Piquero, A. R. (2019). The Oxford handbook of developmental and life-course criminology. Oxford University Press.

Jennings, W. G., & Henderson, B. B. (2014). Social learning theory. The Encyclopedia of Theoretical Criminology, 1-8. Web.

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