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Social learning theory as an explanation for criminal or antisocial behaviour
The social learning theory is based on the concept of modelling explaining how we learn
behaviour through observing and imitating others. Modelling is derived from aspects of
operant conditioning and observational learning.
Operant conditioning is learning through reinforcement by rewarding or punishing behaviour.
Positive reinforcement is receiving something positive which encourages behaviour to be
repeated. E.g. someone may get material gain through shoplifting so criminal behaviour will
repeat this for the same rewards. Negative reinforcement is taking something bad away
which encourages behaviour to be repeated. E.g. someone may have financial hardship
removed through robbery, so will repeat criminal behaviour to maintain this.
Observational learning is learning through vicarious reinforcement, this is when behaviour is
reinforced through observing other people's behaviour. If an individual observes someone
else committing a crime and getting rewarded they will most likely imitate the crime but if
they see them getting punished, this will deter behaviour. E.g. if someone sees their friend
committing theft and sees them getting rewarded they will want to copy them to get the
same rewards, but wont if they see them getting punished for it.
Social learning theory can be used to explain criminal behaviour through the idea of
modelling, whereby we observe and imitate the behaviour of those we consider to be our role
models or can identify with. Modelling states that we will only imitate the behaviour if we can
relate to the person so for e.g. if the lead in a violent television series is male, a male
observer will identify with the character through gender and may imitate the behaviour of the
Bandura et al carried out an experiment where he investigated modelling with his bobo doll
experiment. He studied children aged 36 where they were exposed to role models showing
aggression to a bobo doll. He found that children imitated role models who were more
aggressive and of the same sex than those who weren't. He also found that boys were more
easily influenced by aggressive behaviour than girls, although girls were still affected.
Bandura proposed that there are four cognitive processes that are involved in modelling:
1. Attention the observer must be paying attention to the person carrying out the
2. Retention the observer must be able to retain the observed behaviour in their
3. Reproduction the observer must have the ability to reproduce the learned
4. Motivation the observer must have motivation to reproduce the behaviour.
Bandura proposed that there are three main factors that motivate the observer to carry out
1. Vicarious consequences If the observer sees another individual committing a crime
and sees them reaping benefits from the act they are motivated to imitate the
behaviour to receive the same rewards. If the see them getting punished this will
deter behaviour from being copied.
2. External motivation this is when the rules of operant conditioning apply, i.e.
behaviour that is rewarded is likely to be repeated, but those that are punished will
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Self reinforcement this is when the individual may receive internal satisfaction from
the behaviour, for e.g. they may experience excitement or a feeling of power from
committing a crime.
The social learning theory can also be used to explain the role of media in violence.
+ There is a lot of evidence that supports the idea that behaviour does get imitated, including
aggressive behaviour E.g. Eron and Huesman (1986) and Anderson and Dill (2000).…read more
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This provides a
link between television and aggression in real life. Although other factors were not taken into
account for criminal behaviour so the study lacks validity.
Another study carried out to see the effects of media violence on individuals was by Anderson
and dill (2000), who carried out to different methodologies to prove playing violent video
gamers results in aggressive response.…read more