"You, too, can learn to be a serial killer." (Robert Hale)

    Some theories in criminology believe that criminality is a function of individual socialization, how individuals have been influenced by their experiences or relationships with family relationships, peer groups, teachers, church, authority figures, and other agents of socialization.  These are called learning theories, and specifically social learning theories, because criminology never really embraced the psychological determinism inherent in most learning psychologies.  They are also less concerned for the content of what is learned (like cultural deviance theories), and more concerned with explaining the social process by which anyone, regardless of race, class, or gender, would have the potential to become a criminal.  Social Learning, Control, and Labeling theories are all examples of social process theories. 

    Learning is defined as habits and knowledge that develop as a result of experiences with the environment, as opposed to instincts, drives, reflexes, and genetic predispositions.  Associationism (developed by Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, and Hume) is the oldest learning theory.  It is based on the idea that the mind organizes sensory experiences in some way, and is called cognitive psychology today.  Behaviorism (developed by Pavlov and Skinner) is the second oldest learning theory.  It is based on the idea that the mind requires a physical response by the body in order to organize sensory associations.  There are two types of learning in behavioral psychology: classical conditioning (where stimuli produce a given response without prior training); and operant conditioning (where rewards and punishments are used to reinforce given responses).  Examples of operant conditioning include verbal behavior, sexual behavior, driving a car, writing a paper, wearing clothing, or living in a house. Most social behavior is of an operant natureImitation (sometimes called contagion) is the oldest social learning theory, and derives from the work of Tarde (1843-1904), a sociologist who said crime begins as fashion and later becomes a custom.  The Social learning theory that has had the most impact on criminology is associated with the work of Bandura (1969), a psychologist who formulated the principles of "stimulus control" (stimulus-to-stimulus reinforcement rather than stimulus-behavior reinforcement), outlined the stages of "modeling" (attend, retain, rehearse, perform), and pioneered the field of "vicarious learning" (media influences, for example).  Of these many contributions, the one about stimulus-to-stimulus chains of learning is the most important since it does away with the need for extrinsic rewards and punishments, arguing that observational learning can take place without them.  Bandura's ideas about role modeling resonated well with criminology because since the 1930s, criminology had a similar theory (differential association).  Julian Rotter was also another psychologist who had an enormous impact on social learning theory in criminology.


    Sutherland (1883-1950) is called the father of American criminology.  In 1924, he wrote a book called Criminology, the first fully sociological textbook in the field.  He first put forth his theory in the second edition of 1934, revised it again in 1939, and the theory has remained unchanged since the fourth edition of 1947.  When Sutherland died in 1950, Donald Cressey continued to popularize the theory.  It's called Differential Association (DA) theory, and Sutherland devised it because his study of white collar crime (a field he pioneered) and professional theft led him to believe that there were social learning processes that could turn anyone into a criminal, anytime, anywhere.  Let's look at the 9 points of DA theory:

1. Criminal behavior is learned....
2. Criminal behavior is learned in interaction with others in a process of communication....
3. Learning criminal behavior occurs within primary groups (family, friends, peers, their most intimate, personal companions)
4. Learning criminal behavior involves learning the techniques, motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes....
5. The specific direction of motives and attitudes is learned from definitions of the legal codes as favorable or unfavorable....
6. A person becomes a criminal when there is an excess of definitions favorable to violation of law over definitions unfavorable to violation of law.... (this is the principle of differential association)
7. Differential associations vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity (frequent contacts, long contacts, age at first contact, important or prestigious contacts)
8. The process of learning criminal behavior involves all the mechanisms involved in any other learning....
9. Although criminal behavior is an expression of general needs and attitudes, criminal behavior and motives are not explained nor excused by the same needs and attitudes (criminals must be differentiated from noncriminals)

    Sutherland's theory is tested mainly on juveniles because delinquency is largely a group crime.  The principle research problem is determining which comes first, the delinquency or delinquent friends.  It may be that "birds of a feather flock together" and delinquency "causes" delinquent friends, but delinquent friends do not cause delinquency.  There are plenty of negative test cases showing that not everyone who associates with criminals becomes a criminal. The theory doesn't even try to explain where the first, original unfavorable definition comes from. There's some research showing that more recent than earlier delinquent friends have more influence (Warr 1993), and other research (Short 1957;Jensen 1972) has produced mixed findings. Another problem is the complex modeling involved (Matsueda 1988) to specify the causal structure in Sutherland's theory, especially the ratio of definitions favorable and unfavorable to violating the law, as the following examples indicate:

Definitions favorable: Definitions unfavorable:
Fair play Cheating and shortcuts are OK
Forgive and forget I don't get mad, I get even
Good always wins Sometimes evil wins
Give others a chance Take advantage of suckers

    Despite these criticisms, DA theory applies to most types of crime (upper world and underworld; juvenile and adult; it doesn't explain spontaneous, wanton acts). It sensitizes criminologists to the role of ideas, not social conditions, as influences on criminal behavior.


    In the late 1960s, new social learning theories were developed which dropped Sutherland's point that learning criminal behavior takes place in primary groups (Burgess & Akers 1968).  Differential reinforcement theories, as they were called, tried to incorporate the psychological principles of operant conditioning, and held that even nonsocial situations (such as the physical effects of drug use) could reinforce learning criminal behavior.  In sociology, there's also a group of theories called differential identification, which deal with imaginary, or comparative reference groups as influential in perceiving deviance as respectable.

    According to Akers (1985), people are first indoctrinated into deviant behavior by differential association with deviant peers.  Then, through differential reinforcement, they learn how to reap rewards and avoid punishment by reference to the actual or anticipated consequences of given behaviors.  These consequences are the social and nonsocial reinforcements that provide a support system for those with criminal careers or persistent criminality.  Structural conditions affect a person's differential reinforcements.  Criminal knowledge is gained through reflection over past experience.  Potential offenders consider the outcomes of their past experiences, anticipate future rewards and punishments, and then decide which acts will be profitable and which ones will be dangerous.  To get to the point where criminal behavior is activated by discriminative cues (norms), the whole process follows seven stages:

1. Criminal behavior is learned through conditioning or imitation.
2. Criminal behavior is learned both in nonsocial reinforcing situations or nonsocial discriminative situations and thru social interaction.
3. The principal components of learning occur in groups.
4. Learning depends on available reinforcement contingencies.
5. The type and frequency of learning depends on the norms by which these reinforcers are applied.
6. Criminal behavior is a function of norms which are discriminative for criminal behavior.
7. The strength of criminal behavior depends upon its reinforcement.

    This theory has been tested fairly successfully on teenage deviance such as tobacco, drug, and alcohol use (Akers et al. 1979).  It tends to explain 50-60% of the differences between users and abstainers using measurement items like: perceptions of actual or anticipated praise or absence of praise; and the total good things felt from deviance minus the total bad things felt.  Differential reinforcement theory tends to fit well with rational choice theory because they both explain the decision making process involved in developing the motivation, attitudes, and techniques necessary to commit crime.  It can explain solitary offending (since learning is sometimes solitary).  Like all learning theories, it claims to be a general theory of crime. 


    Not to be overlooked, Jeffery's (1965) theory of differential reinforcement is based on the ideas of conditioning history, deprivation, satiation, the proceeds of crime being reinforcing in themselves, and the absence of punishment.  This last variable (absence of punishment, or not getting caught) makes the theory tend to resemble a social control theory of crime (Conger 1976).

    Jeffery takes for granted the existence of constant stimuli in the environment, but argues that the key variables of deprivation and satiation are what make these stimuli reinforcing or not.  A person deprived of something will respond to a stimulus in a much different way than a person satiated with something.  Crimes against property produce things, like money or cars, which are themselves powerful reinforcers.  Crimes against persons most often involve what Jeffery calls negative reinforcement, the removal of an aversive stimulus (such as when a man kills his unfaithful wife).  Drug offenses are reinforced by biochemical changes in the human body.

    A criminal act may lead to reinforcement, but it may also lead to punishment.  Punishment is an important variable in Jeffery's theory because, essentially, he argues that crime occurs because criminal acts in the past, for a particular actor, have not been punished enough.  Criminals have different conditioning histories, but it is possible for a person living in a criminal environment to not become a criminal and for criminals to be found in noncriminal environments.  Associations with others do not matter.  The behavior is shaped by discriminative stimuli rather than reinforcing stimuli.  

    Jeffery's theory is compatible with the classical school of criminology in that the perceived certainty of punishment, not its severity, is what deters people from criminal acts.  He's also concerned with sloppy administration of the criminal justice system, in the sense that it's administration produces avoidance and escape responses rather than aversive consequences.  Hence, a criminal doesn't refrain from crime, but from apprehension, detection, and conviction (by not leaving fingerprints, hiring a good lawyers, pleading insanity, etc.).


    Neutralization theory (Sykes & Matza 1957) holds that people learn the values, attitudes, and techniques of criminal behavior through subterranean values, which exist side by side with conventional values.  Few people are "all good" or "all bad."  Matza argues that most criminals are not involved in crime all the time.  They drift from one behavior to another, sometimes deviant, sometimes conventional.  Sykes and Matza state that criminals frequently admire honest, law abiding persons, and therefore are not immune from guilt and the demands of conformity.  They have to use excuses that allow them to drift into crime. In this way, neutralization theory is a control theory if the excuses are seen as post-hoc rationalizations.  If they exist in a subterranean fashion (as originally thought), then it's a learning theory.  They identified the following techniques of neutralization that criminals use to escape from the demands of conventionalism:

1. Denial of responsibility -- It's not my fault; I didn't have a choice
2. Denial of injury -- It's no big deal; They have too much money
3. Denial of victim -- They had it coming; They had a bad attitude
4. Condemnation of the condemners -- Everybody does it; Why me?
5. Appeal to higher loyalties -- Only cowards back down; protecting

    Neutralization theory can explain the behavior of occasional criminals, like shoplifters or poachers.  Further, specific types of crime may be related to specific types of excuses.  Learning theories, in general, have the capacity to explain a wide assortment of criminal activities.  Agnew (1994), for example, applied neutralization theory to violent crime, and Minor (1980) has come up with several extended neutralization techniques.  Some criminologists think of neutralization theory as a CONTROL theory while others believe it fits into a symbolic interactionist, or LABELING, perspective which focuses upon identity formation processes.

David Matza in Criminological History
DeMelo's Criminology Page
Techniques of Neutralization

The Self-Efficacy Page (Albert Bandura & Self)
The Social Learning Theory of Julian Rotter

Agnew, R. (1994). “The Techniques of Neutralization and Violence.” Criminology 32(4): 555-80.
Akers, R., M. Krohn, L. Lanze-Kaduce & M. Radosevich. (1979). "Social Learning and Deviant Behavior: A Test of General Theory." ASR 44: 636-55.
Akers, R. (1985). Deviant Behavior: A Social Learning Approach. Belmont: Wadsworth.
Bandura, A. (1969). Principles of Behavior Modification. NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Burgess, R. & R. Akers. (1968). "A Differential Association-Reinforcement Theory of Criminal Behavior." Social Problems 14:128-47.
Conger, R. (1976). "Social Control and Social Learning: A Synthesis." Criminology 14:17-40.
Hale, R. (1998). "The Application of Learning Theory to Serial Murder or You, Too, Can Learn to be a Serial Killer," Pp. 75-84 in R. Holmes & S. Holmes (Eds.) Contemporary Perspectives on Serial Murder. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Jeffery, C. (1965). "Criminal Behavior and Learning Theory." J. Crim Law, Crim, Political Science 56:294-00.
Jensen, G. (1972). "Parents, Peers, and Delinquency." American Journal of Sociology 78:63-72.
Matsueda, R. (1988). "The Current State of Differential Association Theory." Crime & Delinquency 34:277-06.
Minor, K. (1980). “The Neutralization of Criminal Offense.” Criminology 18(1): 103-20.
Short, J. (1957). "Differential Association & Delinquency." Social Problems 4:233-90.
Siegel, L. (2004). Criminology: Theories, Patterns, & Typologies, 8e. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
Sutherland, E., D. Cressey & D. Luckenbill. (1992). Principles of Criminology. NY: General Hall.
Sykes, G. & D. Matza. (1957). "Techniques of Neutralization." American Sociological Review 22:664-70.
Warr, M. (1993). "Age, Peers, and Delinquency" Criminology 31:17-40.

Last updated: Nov 30, 2006
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