Which Theory Applies Social Learning Theory to the Explanation of Criminal Behavior?


Vincent White

When it comes to understanding criminal behavior, one theory that stands out is the Social Learning Theory. This theory, developed by psychologist Albert Bandura, suggests that individuals learn from observing others and their behaviors. In the context of criminal behavior, it posits that people may engage in illegal activities as a result of observing and imitating others who engage in such behaviors.

The Role of Observational Learning

Observational learning, also known as vicarious learning or modeling, is a fundamental concept in the Social Learning Theory. According to Bandura, individuals acquire new behaviors by witnessing the consequences of those behaviors in others. This process involves four key steps:

  • Attention: In order to learn from others’ behavior, individuals must pay attention to the model and their actions.
  • Retention: The observed behavior needs to be retained in memory for later use.
  • Reproduction: Individuals then reproduce the observed behavior themselves.
  • Motivation: The likelihood of reproducing observed behaviors is influenced by reinforcement or punishment associated with those behaviors.

The Application to Criminal Behavior

In the context of criminal behavior, Social Learning Theory suggests that individuals may engage in illegal activities if they observe others being rewarded or experiencing positive outcomes as a result of those actions. For example, if someone observes their peers gaining respect or financial gain through involvement in criminal activities, they may be more likely to imitate those behaviors.

This theory also highlights the importance of social influences on an individual’s likelihood of engaging in criminal behavior. Bandura argues that people are more likely to engage in criminal acts if they have close relationships with individuals who already display deviant behavior. These relationships provide opportunities for observation and reinforcement of criminal behavior, further increasing the likelihood of imitation.

Limitations of the Social Learning Theory

While the Social Learning Theory offers valuable insights into the explanation of criminal behavior, it is not without its limitations. Critics argue that this theory does not adequately account for individual differences in susceptibility to observational learning. Additionally, it fails to explain why some individuals choose not to imitate observed criminal behaviors despite being exposed to them.

Moreover, the theory’s emphasis on external factors and social influences may overlook internal factors such as personality traits or genetic predispositions that could contribute to criminal behavior. Consequently, it is important to consider other theories and factors when seeking a comprehensive understanding of criminal behavior.


In conclusion, the Social Learning Theory provides a valuable framework for understanding how individuals learn and imitate behaviors, including criminal acts. By emphasizing observational learning and the influence of social factors, this theory sheds light on why some individuals may engage in illegal activities based on their observations of others. However, it is crucial to acknowledge the limitations of this theory and consider other contributing factors when exploring the complex nature of criminal behavior.