What Is the Difference Between Social Learning Theory and Differential Association Theory?


Diego Sanchez

What Is the Difference Between Social Learning Theory and Differential Association Theory?

Social Learning Theory:

Social learning theory, also known as observational learning or modeling, was developed by psychologist Albert Bandura in the 1960s. This theory suggests that individuals learn behavior by observing others and imitating their actions. According to social learning theory, learning can occur through direct observation or through media influences.

The Key Components of Social Learning Theory:

  • Observation: In social learning theory, observation plays a crucial role. Individuals learn by observing the behavior of others, whether it is a family member, friend, or a character in a movie.
  • Imitation: Once an individual observes a behavior, they may imitate it if they perceive it as rewarding or meaningful.
  • Reinforcement: Social learning theory emphasizes the importance of reinforcement in shaping behavior. Reinforcement can be positive (rewarding) or negative (punishing), and it strengthens the likelihood of the observed behavior being repeated.

Differential Association Theory:

Differential association theory was developed by sociologist Edwin Sutherland in the 1930s. This theory focuses on how individuals acquire deviant behavior through interactions with others within their social environment. According to differential association theory, individuals learn deviant behaviors from close relationships with others who engage in such behaviors.

The Key Components of Differential Association Theory:

  • Association: Differential association theory emphasizes that individuals become deviant when they associate with others who engage in deviant behaviors. These associations can occur within various social groups such as peers, family members, or subcultures.
  • Frequency and Duration: The theory suggests that the more frequent and long-lasting an individual’s association with deviant individuals, the higher the likelihood of adopting deviant behavior.
  • Definitions: Definitions refer to an individual’s beliefs and attitudes towards deviant behavior. If an individual associates with others who view deviant behavior as acceptable or justified, they are more likely to engage in such behaviors themselves.

The Differences:

While both social learning theory and differential association theory focus on how individuals learn behavior from others, there are some key differences between the two:


Social learning theory is primarily a psychological perspective that focuses on individual learning processes. In contrast, differential association theory is a sociological perspective that emphasizes the role of social interactions and group dynamics in shaping behavior.

Reinforcement vs. Definitions:

Social learning theory highlights the importance of reinforcement in shaping behavior, whereas differential association theory emphasizes how an individual’s attitudes and beliefs (definitions) towards deviant behavior influence their own engagement in such behaviors.


Social learning theory can be applied to various forms of learning, including both prosocial and antisocial behaviors. On the other hand, differential association theory specifically focuses on explaining how individuals acquire deviant behaviors within a social context.

In conclusion,

Social learning theory and differential association theory provide valuable insights into how individuals learn behaviors from others. While social learning theory emphasizes observation, imitation, and reinforcement, differential association theory focuses on associations with deviant individuals and the influence of definitions towards deviant behavior. Understanding these theories can help us comprehend the complex mechanisms behind human behavior and inform interventions aimed at promoting positive behaviors and reducing deviance.