Youth and Crime

Social Learning Theorists also believe that learned behaviour can be maintained by the 'internal rewards' of the excitement prior to and during the criminal activity, and the sense of achievement achieved when they remain undetected. This is described by Jack Katz in 'The Seductions of Crime' where John McVicar is quoted as saying: ". . . when I was on the run . . . I used to get a buzz out of being wanted and outwitting them." (Katz 1989:231)

Prior to Bandura's development of Social Learning Theory (1977), he conducted the Bobo Doll Experiment (1963) in which sixty-six four and five year-old children were exposed to an adult 'model' behaving in a physically and verbally aggressive manner towards an inflatable doll. Some of the children observed the 'model' being admonished, while others saw the 'models' behaviour reinforced with praise and the remainder of the group observed neither reinforcement nor praise of the model.

As might have been expected, when the children were allowed access to the doll, their behaviours replicated those of the unchastised model which suggests that the observer internalises the values and behaviours of the model when no sanctions are applied (Putwain and Sammons 2002). The Bobo Doll experiment has however, been critiqued on the basis that it lacks ecological validity due to the controlled environment in which it was conducted.

While Social Learning Theory can be credited with increasing the understanding of 'social information processing', critics have challenged the theory for placing much emphasis upon responses to individual and direct experience of social factors whilst failing to consider the effects of social factors which influence wider society (Hollin, 2002). Furthermore, it is suggested that the theory fails to appreciate cognitive factors and makes the assumption that all offending behaviour is learned; thus denying the individual any level of autonomy and rational-choice (Putwain and Sammons, 2002).

The usefulness of Social Learning Theory explanations of offending behaviour might be evaluated by considering the extent to which it has influenced and been incorporated into the policy and practice of the various criminal justice agencies. Many practitioners incorporate their knowledge of Social Learning Theory into the development and delivery of interventions which aim to prevent or address offending behaviour, which might include an early intervention programme focussing upon parenting or peer associations.

Existing interventions have been developed around a problem-solving model, which in the case of young offenders, addresses other issues as well as those specific to the offence and encompasses social welfare in order to reduce recidivism; drawing upon Bandura's Social Learning Theory (Smith, 2007). Certain criticisms have been levied at the continuous effort to identify the antecedents of offending behaviour and the provision of early-intervention programmes for those deemed at risk of offending on the basis that there is a risk of over-prediction of criminality and that those labelled as possible future offenders may go on to fulfil that expectation (Smith, 2007).

In conclusion therefore, while sentencing policy is developed around the assumption that the offender is an autonomous being, possessing sufficient agency to be considered fully responsible for their own actions (Putwain and Sammons, 2002), Social Learning Theory runs counter to this understanding. Having originated from sociological knowledge, in particular that of Sutherland, Social Learning Theory identifies the key causal variables of offending behaviour to be deterministic The concept of the 'model' is central to Social Learning Theory; Bandura reasoned that offending behaviour is developed through the observation of the imposition of rewards and sanctions for particular behaviours, thus leading the observer to internalise the values and behaviours that they observe.

Critiqued for denying the offender with any significant level of autonomy, Social Learning Theory has nevertheless filtered through into the practice of criminal justice practitioners; in particular those developing and delivering early intervention provisions and parenting interventions, and in the development of risk focussed diagnostic assessment tools. The utilisation of Social Learning Theory in the psychological study of criminality has aided the formulation of provisions which challenge the thought processes and cultural values of the offender; thereby working to improve social comprehension and increasing the range of available opportunity.


Hollin, R. (2002) Criminological Psychology, in Maguire, M. et al (2002) 'The Oxford Handbook of Criminology', 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press.

Hollin, R. (2003) 'Social Learning Theory' in McLaughlin, E. and Muncie, J. (2003) 'The Sage Dictionary of Criminology'. Sage Publications.

Howitt, D. (2006) 'Forensic and Criminal Psychology'. Pearson.

Muncie, J. (2001) 'Youth and Crime: A Critical Introduction'. Sage Publications..