How Does Social Learning Theory Explain Criminality?


Vincent White

The Social Learning Theory is a well-known psychological perspective that seeks to explain human behavior, including criminality. Developed by Albert Bandura in the 1970s, this theory suggests that people learn from observing others, particularly through social interactions and imitating the behaviors they witness. In this article, we will explore how the Social Learning Theory explains criminality and its implications for understanding crime.

The Basics of Social Learning Theory

Social Learning Theory posits that individuals acquire new behaviors, attitudes, and values through a process called observational learning. This learning process occurs when people observe the actions of others and then replicate those actions in their own lives. According to Bandura, individuals are more likely to imitate behaviors that they perceive as rewarding or beneficial.

Key Elements of Social Learning Theory:

  • Observation: Individuals learn by observing others’ behaviors.
  • Imitation: People imitate behaviors they find rewarding or beneficial.
  • Rewards and Punishments: The consequences of observed behaviors influence the likelihood of imitation.

Criminality as Learned Behavior

Applying Social Learning Theory to criminality suggests that individuals learn deviant or criminal behavior through observation and imitation. Criminal acts are not solely determined by individual characteristics or genetics but can be acquired through social processes. Factors such as family environment, peer influence, media exposure, and community norms play crucial roles in shaping an individual’s propensity for criminal behavior.

In the context of criminality, people may observe others engaging in illegal activities and perceive them as rewarding or beneficial. This perception can be influenced by several factors:

  • Familial Influence: Growing up in a household where criminal behavior is prevalent can increase the likelihood of an individual adopting deviant actions.
  • Peer Pressure: Friends and peers who engage in criminal activities can influence others to imitate their behavior to gain acceptance or respect.
  • Media Influence: Exposure to violent or criminal content in media, such as movies or video games, can shape an individual’s perception of criminal acts as desirable or glamorous.

The Role of Reinforcement

Social Learning Theory emphasizes the importance of reinforcement in the learning process. Reinforcement refers to the rewards or punishments received as a consequence of one’s behavior. In the context of criminality, reinforcement can significantly influence whether observed behaviors are imitated by individuals.

If a person observes that engaging in criminal activities leads to positive outcomes, such as financial gain or social status, they are more likely to imitate those behaviors. Conversely, if they witness negative consequences, such as legal trouble or social rejection, they may be deterred from replicating those actions.

Implications for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation

The Social Learning Theory provides insights into strategies for preventing and reducing criminal behavior. Based on this theory, interventions should focus on:

  • Modeling Prosocial Behavior: Providing positive role models and encouraging prosocial behaviors can counteract the influence of deviant models.
  • Promoting Positive Reinforcement: Rewarding individuals for engaging in legal and ethical behaviors can reinforce their inclination towards prosocial actions.
  • Evaluating Media Influence: Monitoring and regulating media content that glorifies violence or criminal behavior can help minimize the potential impact on individuals’ perceptions and behaviors.


The Social Learning Theory offers a comprehensive framework for understanding criminality as a learned behavior. By emphasizing the role of observation, imitation, and reinforcement, this theory sheds light on how individuals acquire criminal behaviors through social processes. Recognizing the social nature of crime enables us to develop effective strategies for crime prevention and rehabilitation that address the underlying factors contributing to criminal behavior.