How Does Social Learning Theory Explain Criminal Behaviour?

Criminal behaviour is a complex phenomenon that has been studied by psychologists, sociologists, and criminologists for decades. One theory that seeks to explain the development of criminal behaviour is the Social Learning Theory. This theory suggests that individuals learn deviant and criminal behaviours through observation, imitation, and reinforcement from their social environment.

The Key Concepts of Social Learning Theory

According to Social Learning Theory, criminal behaviour is not solely influenced by individual characteristics or biological factors but is also shaped by the social context in which individuals interact. The theory highlights several key concepts:

The Role of Socialization in Criminal Behaviour

Socialization plays a crucial role in the development of criminal behaviour according to Social Learning Theory. During the process of socialization, individuals internalize societal norms, values, and beliefs. However, if an individual’s social environment promotes deviant or antisocial behaviours, they are more likely to adopt these behaviours themselves.

A study conducted by Bandura et al. (1961) provides support for this idea.

In their famous Bobo doll experiment, children who observed aggressive behaviour towards a doll were more likely to imitate that behaviour compared to children who did not witness aggression. This study demonstrated that individuals learn aggressive behaviours through observation and subsequently imitate them.

Peer Influence and Criminal Behaviour

Peers have a significant impact on an individual’s likelihood of engaging in criminal behaviour. According to Social Learning Theory, individuals are more likely to engage in criminal acts if they associate with delinquent peers who engage in such behaviours. This association exposes them to deviant norms, values, and attitudes, increasing the likelihood of adopting criminal behaviours.

A longitudinal study by Moffitt (1993) examined the influence of peer groups on juvenile delinquency. The study found that adolescents who associated with delinquent peers were more likely to engage in criminal activities themselves compared to those with non-delinquent peer groups.

The Importance of Family and Role Models

Family plays a vital role in shaping an individual’s behaviour according to Social Learning Theory. Children learn from their parents or guardians through observational learning and modeling. If parents exhibit criminal or deviant behaviours, children are more likely to internalize and imitate these behaviours.

A study by Farrington et al. (2001) supports this notion. The researchers found that individuals with convicted parents were more likely to engage in criminal activities compared to those without convicted parents.


In conclusion, Social Learning Theory provides valuable insights into the development of criminal behaviour. By emphasizing the role of observation, imitation, reinforcement, and social context, this theory explains how individuals learn and adopt deviant behaviours from their surroundings. Understanding these concepts can aid in the development of effective interventions and prevention strategies to reduce criminal behaviour in society.