Is Social Learning Theory a Criminological Theory?


Martha Robinson

Social Learning Theory (SLT) is a psychological theory that emphasizes the role of social interactions in the formation of behavior patterns. It is widely used in various fields, including criminology, to explain criminal behavior.

But, is Social Learning Theory a criminological theory? Let’s dive deeper into this topic.

Understanding Social Learning Theory

SLT was developed by Albert Bandura and his associates in the 1960s. The theory suggests that individuals learn by observing and imitating others’ behaviors. Moreover, SLT posits that people are more likely to adopt behaviors that are reinforced or rewarded.

In short, SLT proposes that individuals’ actions are shaped by the social environment they live in. Therefore, it is not surprising that this theory has been applied in criminology to explain why people commit crimes.

Social Learning Theory and Criminology

Criminological theories seek to explain why some individuals engage in criminal behavior while others do not. They aim to identify the factors that contribute to criminal behavior and suggest ways to prevent it.

Social Learning Theory fits well into criminology because it offers an explanation for how people learn criminal behavior. According to SLT, individuals can learn criminal behavior through their interactions with others who engage in such activities.

For example, a person may observe their friends committing crimes and imitate their actions. Or they may see criminals being portrayed positively on TV or movies and be reinforced by this portrayal.

Evaluation of Social Learning Theory as a Criminological Theory

While Social Learning Theory provides valuable insights into how people learn criminal behavior, it has some limitations as a criminological theory.

Firstly, SLT does not account for individual differences between people’s susceptibility to learning from social environments. Not everyone who observes or experiences criminal behavior will necessarily adopt those patterns themselves.

Secondly, SLT does not explain why some people are exposed to more criminal influences than others. Some individuals grow up in neighborhoods where criminal behavior is prevalent, while others do not.

Lastly, SLT does not offer a complete explanation for why individuals commit crimes. It can explain how people learn criminal behavior, but not why they choose to engage in it.


In summary, Social Learning Theory is a psychological theory that has been applied in criminology to explain how people learn criminal behavior. While it has limitations, it provides valuable insights into the role of social environments in shaping behavior patterns.

Therefore, Social Learning Theory can be considered a criminological theory, but it should be used alongside other theories to provide a more comprehensive understanding of criminal behavior.