Social learning theory

Social learning theory or SLT is the theory that people learn new behavior through overt reinforcement or punishment, or via observational learning of the social factors in their environment. If people observe positive, desired outcomes in the observed behavior, then they are more likely to model, imitate, and adopt the behavior themselves.


Social learning theory is derived from the work of Cornell Montgomery (1843-1904) which proposed that social learning occurred through four main stages of limitation:

It consists of 3 parts observing, imitating, and reinforcements

Julian Rotter moved away from theories based on psychosis and behaviourism, and developed a learning theory. In Social Learning and Clinical Psychology (1954), Rotter suggests that the effect of behaviour has an impact on the motivation of people to engage in that specific behaviour. People wish to avoid negative consequences, while desiring positive results or effects. If one expects a positive outcome from a behaviour, or thinks there is a high probability of a positive outcome, then they will be more likely to engage in that behaviour. The behaviour is reinforced, with positive outcomes, leading a person to repeat the behaviour. This social learning theory suggests that behaviour is influenced by these environmental factors or stimulus, and not psychological factors alone.[1]

Albert Bandura (1977)[2] expanded on Rotter's idea, as well as earlier work by Miller & Dollard (1941),[3] and is related to social learning theories of Vygotsky and Lave. This theory incorporates aspects of behavioural and cognitive learning. Behavioural learning assumes that people's environment (surroundings) cause people to behave in certain ways. Cognitive learning presumes that psychological factors are important for influencing how one behaves. Social learning suggests a combination of environmental (social) and psychological factors influence behaviour. Social learning theory outlines three requirements for people to learn and model behaviour include attention: retention (remembering what one observed), reproduction (ability to reproduce the behaviour), and motivation (good reason) to want to adopt the behaviour.


In criminology, Ronald Akers and Robert Burgess (1966) developed social learning theory to explain deviancy by combining variables which encouraged delinquency (e.g. the social pressure from delinquent peers) with variables that discouraged delinquency (e.g. the parental response to discovering delinquency in their children).

The first two stages were used by Edwin Sutherland in his Differential Association Theory. Sutherland’s model for learning in a social environment depends on the cultural conflict between different factions in a society over who has the power to determine what is deviant. But his ideas were difficult to put into operation and measure quantitatively. Burgess, a behavioral sociologist, and Akers revised Sutherland’s theory and included the idea of reinforcement, which increases or decreases the strength of a behavior, and applied the principles of Operant Psychology, which holds that behavior is a function of its consequences and can be really bad in some cases.(Pfohl, 1994).

Functionalism had been the dominant paradigm but, in the 1960s, there was a shift towards Social Control Theories, Conflict Criminology, and Labeling Theories that tried to explain the emerging and more radical social environment. Moreover, people believed that they could observe behavior and see the process of social learning, e.g., parents watched their own children and saw the influence of other children on their own; they could also see what kind of affect they had on their own children, i.e. the processes of differential association and reinforcement. The conservative political parties were advocating an increase in punishment to deter crime. Unlike Labeling Theory, Social Learning Theory actually supports the use of punishment which translates into longer sentences for those convicted, and helps to explain the increase in the prison population that began in the early 1970s (Livingston, 1996).

Unlike situational crime prevention, the theory ignores the opportunistic nature of crime (Jeffery, 1990: 261-2). To learn one must first observe criminal behavior, but where was this behavior learned? The theory does explain how criminal behavior is ‘transmitted’ from one person to an animal, which can explain increases in types of crimes, but it does not consider how criminal acting can be prevented (Jeffery, 1990: 252) although it may be fairly assumed that the processes of learning behaviors can be changed.

There is also a definite problem. What may be reinforcement for one person may not be for another. Also, reinforcements can be both social involving attention and behavior between more than one person, and non-social reinforcement would not involve this interaction (Burgess & Akers: 1966) Social Learning Theory has been used in mentoring programs that should, in theory, prevent some future criminal behavior. The idea behind mentoring programs is that an adult is paired with a child, who supposedly learns from the behavior of the adult and is positively reinforced for good behavior (Jones-Brown, 1997). In the classroom, a teacher may use the theory by changing the seating arrangements to pair a behaving child and a misbehaving child, but the outcome may be that the behaving child begins to be very bad.

Serial Murder and Social Learning Theory

Hale[4] (1993) applied the social learning theory to serial murder using case studies, and he claimed that serial murder can be learned. The social learning theory suggests that people learn new behavior through punishment and rewards. Hale argued that serial murderers must go through some humiliating experience in the early development of their life (Singer and Hensley, 2004). But the serial murderer goes through a different process because most children go through some sort of humiliation during their life. The child who becomes a serial killer is often introduced to a humiliating experience, and cannot distinguish between a rewarding and non rewarding experience, which is part of the social learning theory. This causes the child to look at certain situations in a negative way, causing the child to become frustrated. When the individual becomes frustrated from a humiliating experience from the past, the individual then choose vulnerable outlets for their aggression (Singer and Hensley, 2004)[5]. The child learns to expect humiliation or a negative situation from the past, which then causes frustration or aggression.

Case Examples: Ed Gein was humiliated early in his life and later turned his aggression out on others. Gein was controlled by his mother, and rejected by his father as a child, and was often abused (Hale, 1993). Ted Bundy chose his victims based on the resemblance to a former girlfriend who had broken their marriage engagement (Hale, 1993). David Berkowitz had a sense of rejection stemmed from being adopted, and it was said he felt rejected and humiliated by the world. In this case, Berkowitz turned to fire starting the vent his frustration as a child. Later in his life, Berkowitz obtained a sexual transmitted disease which created more hatred for women, which he would later turn to kill random women (Fishman, 2006)[6]. In all of these instances the serial killer was presented with some form of humiliation as a child, and learned to vent their anger through aggression.


The applications of social learning theory have been important in the history of education policies in the United States. The zone of proximal development is used as a basis for early intervention programs such as Head Start. Social learning theory can also be seen in the TV and movie rating system that is used in the United States. The rating system is designed to all parents to know what the programs that their children are watching contain. The ratings are based on age appropriate material to help parents decide if certain content is appropriate for their child to watch. Some content may be harmful to children who do not have the cognitive ability to process certain content, however the child may model the behaviors seen on TV.

Guided participation is seen in schools across the United States and all around the world in language classes when the teacher says a phrase and asks the class to repeat the phrase. The other part to guided participation is when the student goes home and practices on their own. Guided participation is also seen with parents who are trying to teach their own children how to speak.

Portraitising is another technique that is used widely across the United States. Most academic subjects take advantage of portraitising , however mathematics is one of the best examples. As students move through their education they learn skills in mathematics that they will build on throughout their scholastic careers. A student who has never taken a basic math class and does not understand the principles of addition and subtraction will not be able to understand algebra. The process of learning math is a portraitising technique because the knowledge builds on itself over time.


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