social explanations of crime

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You need to cover labelling and the self-fulfilling prophecy to explain crime and anti-social behaviour. Social learning theory is briefly included as well to help with discussion.

Labelling and the self-fulfilling prophecy go together as an explanation of crime and anti-social behaviour – the process of the prophecy is that someone is first labelled and then ‘becomes’ the label

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Labelling involves a majority group considering a minority group as inferior, and using inferior terms when talking about them. There is a negative connotation to being ‘labelled’, though in theory someone can be labelled positively – for example, as ‘bright’. When applied to crime or anti-social behaviour, labelling means referring to someone, for example, as ‘a thief’ or, when applied to education, referring to someone’s ability, for example, as ‘not good at maths’. Labelling links to stereotyping and usually someone stereotypes someone else and the label comes from the stereotype. A label can start from something one person says, rather than from stereotyping.

Labelling is putting a person into a category and the category often has connotations. Labelling can have the purpose of showing a lot about someone by giving them just one label.

Labelling theory

Labelling theory (Becker, 1963) refers to how someone’s view of themselves comes from the terms used to describe them and how self-identity is shaped by how someone is classified in society. Labelling theory explains that deviance is not a ‘thing’ but a label given to minorities by majorities to pigeon hole them and show that their behaviour is outside cultural norms. This is where the negativity of labelling comes from. A stigma is defined as a negative powerful label that affects someone’s selfconcept. Giving someone a ‘negative’ label in terms of criminal or anti-social behaviour is likely to mean there is social stigma attached as it means the extreme disapproval of members of society. You can see that this idea reflects the idea of social constructionism, in suggesting that deviance is constructed by the majority to refer to cultural norms that are different from theirs. Labelling theory is a sociological theory. Becker (1963) came up with the idea of labelling, explaining deviance from social norms, and Goffman (1963) talked about stigma being a behaviour or reputation that discredits someone. Labels are about expectations people have of others. The majority in a social group label the minority as deviant and this puts pressure on someone being given the label to behave in the expected way.

Stigma refers to a reproach or a ‘mark of disgrace’, and it refers to someone’s reputation and their ‘label’, which affects their self-concept. Self-concept is someone’s belief about themselves which is formed by responses of others, which can include labels given by society. Self-identity refers to the characteristics and qualities that people use to define themselves.

The issue with stigma is that it is hard to change the label, even if it is shown not to be true. There is retrospective labelling, which is going back to someone’s past and reinterpreting it in the light of how someone has been labelled. Perhaps someone is labelled a criminal when they reach early adulthood. People who knew the person when they were younger might say things like ‘he was always bad’. This would re-label earlier actions and is retrospective labelling. There is also projective labelling of someone who has been stigmatised. Projective labelling is using a label to say what will happen to that person in the future. People might say something like ‘one of these days he is going to do something really bad’ 

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Besemer et al

Besemer et al. (2013) Besemer et al. (2013) looked at the extent to which children of convicted parents had a higher risk of conviction themselves because of the focus on certain criminal families. The way criminal justice systems like the police focus on certain families is called official bias. You can see that labelling a child of such a family as ‘criminal’ is likely to happen and could influence their development and future. Besemer et al. (2013) looked at bias in terms of a convicted parent, low family income, low family socioeconomic status, poor housing and a poor job record for the father. These are factors that are used to label a family and factors that relate to a ‘criminal’ family, including predicting an increased conviction risk. This is not to say, of course, that all such families are criminal families, just that those factors are used to make such judgements.

Besemer et al. point out that the findings, which showed that children of criminal families are more likely to be convicted, do not show that such families transmit criminal behaviour to their children. The findings mean that such families are paid more attention to and so such children are more likely to be caught and prosecuted, and found guilty, than children from other families. The researchers used data from the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development (CSDD), which is a longitudinal study following male children born in 1953–1954. The children were studied from the age of 8 to the age of 50. Police records of the parents of the 411 male participants were consulted. They found that a convicted parent was the strongest predictor of the child being convicted. Low family income and poor housing predicted the conviction of a child whether or not the parent had been convicted of crime. It seemed that the greatest risk for showing criminal behaviour was a convicted parent and after that it was social circumstances. There are practical factors involved in ‘social circumstances’, such as where someone lives and how likely there is to be a police patrol in that area. It can be concluded from Besemer et al. (2013) that there is at least some effect of having a parent convicted and where someone lives on whether they are convicted of a crime. This can be about official bias in that the police focus on the families of convicted people. However, there seems to be a link unconnected to family, which is social circumstances. With regard to labelling, it is suggested that these factors in someone’s environment can lead to labelling, such as in the environment or at school.  

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Livingstone et al.

Livingstone et al. (2011) Livingstone et al. (2011) looked at ‘forensic’ labelling (referring to crime and being a criminal) and the effect on self-stigma (how someone sees themselves negatively) for those with severe mental illness. The researchers looked at people in the criminal justice system with mental disorder and considered their mental health needs which had to be catered for outside an institution. They looked at people in Canada who had compulsory treatment in the community and at their level of self-stigma. They found from their quantitative data that labelling was not associated more with self-stigma, though self-stigma was associated with how severe their mental disorder was, their history of being in prison and their history of being homeless. However, Livingstone et al. (2011) found from their qualitative data that having the support of forensic mental health services seemed to come at the risk of stigma for the individual. Livingstone et al. (2011) wanted to look at forensic mental health services which were being provided as a separate service to see if this service would bring increased stigma and what its strengths and weaknesses would be.

Livingstone et al. (2011) used four main themes when analysing their qualitative data using thematic analysis:

● The first theme was ‘group of criminals’, which is the participants’ view of how society sees them, and they gave data such as ‘people are afraid of you’. One comment was, ‘My family would label me “mental” ’ and another said, ‘Forensic patients have a double stigma’. These data show that the participants felt perceived as having the ‘negative attributes that characterise the forensic social group to which they belong’.

● The second theme was ‘system designed for criminals’, which showed how forensic patients (offenders with mental health issues) felt the forensic mental health system was ‘a correctional system’. They said things like ‘not really a hospital, more like a jail’.

● A third theme was ‘rejected’, which means they felt discriminated against and excluded.

● A fourth theme was ‘Cadillac service’, which means the way some forensic participants felt the forensic mental health services were better than those offered outside the forensic system. It was felt that the system was good and helpful. A Cadillac is seen as a prestige car in the USA. However, someone said ‘being in forensics was good and helpful but it has a stigma’.

The findings of Livingstone et al. were that, from the quantitative data, it appeared that the forensic mental health services did not bring stigma. However, qualitative data showed that the participants did feel that there was stigma.

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Conclusions about labelling and stigma from labels

Conclusions about labelling and stigma from labels

Besemer et al. (2013) found that there was a link between someone being convicted of a criminal offence and their parent having a criminal record. They also felt that other influences were social circumstances which affected whether someone got a criminal record, unrelated to whether a parent had one. It seems that people can be labelled according to things such as parental behaviour and social circumstances. Though the study was more about official bias, it is useful to show what is likely to be used to label someone a ‘criminal’. Livingstone et al. (2011) looked at stigma that someone might feel when attending compulsory special forensic mental health services. They found people did feel that there was stigma and that they were being judged. If someone is being judged and there is stigma, then that suggests labelling is going on.

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Gender and labelling as an explanation for crimina

Gender and labelling as an explanation for criminal and anti-social behaviour

Labelling seems a general theory that claims that a label can affect someone’s behaviour, and it seems likely that both genders will be affected by labelling given the evidence presented here. There is some new evidence offered here, however, that suggests that labelling may affect the genders differently.

The Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development

The researchers used data from the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development (CSDD), which is a longitudinal study following male children born in 1953–1954. It was interesting that they chose to look at males as this in itself suggests that males are seen as showing delinquent behaviour more than females. Figures have been given in this section backing the idea that aggression related to crime features more in males than in females.

Sutherland (1949): how boys and girls are socialised differently Boys and girls experience different socialisation according to Sutherland (1949) and this can lead to more delinquency in boys. Girls are more supervised and more controlled and boys are encouraged to take more risks and to be aggressive, according to Sutherland. However, the study was done in 1949, so there might be differences in the 2000s.

Parsons (1995): how we learn specific gender roles Parsons (1995) outlines different gender roles in nuclear families, which are ‘traditional’ families with a mother, father and children. The father has leader and provider roles and the mother has the role of providing emotional support. Though these ideas relate well to social learning theory, they can also be related to labelling theory. If boys are seen as taking more risks then ‘risky’ labels such as anti-social behaviour and delinquency might well be attached more to boys than girls. But this is speculation. Some evidence for labelling theory related to violent crime and for there being gender differences in how labelling theory affects individuals is given below.

Carlen (1990): women’s crime is rational and thought out Carlen (1990) gives some evidence for boys and girls being given different labels after interviewing 39 women convicted of offences. Carlen suggests that crime for women is about control and they turn to crime when it makes sense to do so, rather than to go against social norms.

Heidensohn (1985) suggests that women conform to social norms more than men, which again suggests that males will show more criminal and anti-social behaviour and again this social understanding of gender might affect which labels are given to which gender.

Ramoutar and Farrington (2006): labelling is an important variable in violent crime, particularly for females Ramoutar and Farrington (2006) look at gender differences in participation in violent crime and the frequency of violent crime. They look at labelling, social learning and personality theories and use 24 constructs  that can explain participation and frequency of offending. They used 118 male prisoners and 93 female prisoners in Trinidad and carried out interviewing to ask about their participation in property and violent crime and the frequency of this participation. They found that the constructs they considered – in particular, labelling – were more related to participation than to frequency and that they were related to both property and violent crime. There was similarity in gender between the constructs with regard to explaining frequency of crime but there was not so much similarity when looking at male and female participation in crime. They found that impulsivity was related to both participation and frequency and that was the case for both males and females. Gender differences seemed to be found with regard to participation in violent and property crime. However, this was not about impulsivity, which was found in both males and females. Constructs that were considered included various types of reinforcement, such as vicarious reinforcement, from social learning theory. They also included parental approval of violence and parental discipline. They looked at victimisation in the neighbourhood and violence in the home. Importantly for the information required here, they considered both informal and formal labelling as constructs. Informal labelling was measured by asking how far a prisoner thought parents and neighbours had labelled them as deviant, including ‘getting into trouble’, ‘unlikely to succeed’ and ‘doing illegal things’. Formal labelling was measured by what happened when they were first caught by police – ‘labelled’ would mean they were arrested; ‘not labelled’ would mean they were given a warning. Personality factors were also measured, such as impulsivity and low self-control, which relates to Eysenck’s ideas about personality and crime (page 209). Table 3.10 shows the labelling variables/constructs and male- and female-related odds ratios for violent crimes.

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Summary of gender differences in labelling affecti

Summary of gender differences in labelling affecting crime and anti-social behaviour

Ramoutar and Farrington (2006) seem to give strong evidence for gender differences in participation in violent crime and not all their evidence is covered here by any means. What they do show are gender differences in how labelling affected violent crime. Females are much more affected by parental negative labelling than males and are also affected more by formal labelling, though males are affected by informal labelling as well. Carlen (1990) gives some evidence for boys and girls being given different labels, which suggests they might be differently affected. Sutherland (1949) suggested males and females 

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evaluation of labelling

Evaluation of labelling as a theory of criminal and anti-social behaviour


● Labelling theory has support from studies such as Besemer et al. (2013) and Livingstone et al. (2011), even though they do not look directly at labelling. The idea that certain factors like a convicted parent or coming from a ‘criminal’ family link to becoming a criminal is one that people tend to accept and it is from such acceptance that labelling arises. There is some evidence that being in a certain social position links with criminal behaviour and that being in a certain social position brings stigma, and labelling theory is backed by such evidence.

● Labelling theory has some support from evidence for the self-fulfilling prophecy (see next section), which tends to start with, and is therefore linked to, labelling.


● It is hard to say that all criminal and anti-social behaviour comes from labelling. You have looked at different explanations for crime, including biological explanations, which have supportive evidence, which suggests there is not one explanation.

● It is hard to study labelling and its effect on criminal behaviour because an experiment could not be set up to label some participants and see what they then become. Some experiments have been carried out focusing on the self-fulfilling prophecy but in general it is hard to uncover one aspect of someone’s development, like being labelled, and show that it is an explanation for criminal behaviour. For example, the longitudinal study mentioned that gave data for the Besemer et al. (2013) study found many factors implicated in explaining criminal behaviour, not just labelling. Isolating factors for study is not easy to do in methodological terms.

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Stereotyping means thinking of a whole group as having certain characteristics, usually using evidence from one member of the group and assuming that this evidence is true of all members. Sometimes there is no direct evidence and people stereotype from what they hear about a group. A label derived from the stereotype would involve one or more of those characteristics. The self-fulfilling prophecy develops from a label, which can be positive (such as ‘clever’) or negative (such as ‘violent’).

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Self-fulfilling prophecy

The self-fulfilling prophecy (SFP) can be applied to criminal and other behaviours. The term came mainly from studies in schools that looked at how educational processes work. It has since been applied to other areas, such as crime, and it tends to focus on how children develop. The theory is that, when individuals are labelled in some way, they begin to see themselves in the way the label portrays them and, as they are expected to act according to the label, they do so. The self-fulfilling prophecy claims that people fulfil the expectations of others and become what others think and say they will become. This is good if someone is labelled ‘clever’ but unhelpful and destructive if someone is labelled ‘bad’. This concept of a SFP is also known as the Pygmalion effect.The Pygmalion effect refers to a positive self-fulfilling prophecy, which means someone is expected to succeed and to do well, which is what they do. There is another effect that the self-fulfilling prophecy explains, and that is when someone is expected not to do well or to display criminal behaviour, and that is what they do.

The self-fulfilling prophecy involves various stages. First, there is labelling, then there is treatment of the person based on the label. This is followed by the individual reacting to expectations by behaving according to the label. The individual’s behaviour, therefore, fulfils the expectations, which confirms the label, and so the behaviour continues. The self-fulfilling prophecy predicts that something becomes true just because it has been predicted and not for other reasons. It is because of the expectation that the prophecy comes true. The prophecy fulfils itself because of the feedback after behaviour, which affects someone’s self-belief. Merton (1948) came up with the term ‘selffulfilling prophecy’ and explains it. He says that, first, there has to be a false label for a situation and this false label leads to new behaviour which makes the false label into a true one. You can see how the idea of a selffulfilling prophecy highlights the importance of labelling to explain criminal behaviour.

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The self-defeating prophecy

The self-defeating prophecy

The self-defeating prophecy is the opposite of a selffulfilling prophecy. If someone is given a negative or a positive label and they fulfil the expectation of the label, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they are given a negative or a positive label and they get negative feedback, perhaps, then they may well not fulfil the label and instead do the opposite of what is predicted. This is a self-defeating prophecy because the person defeats and overcomes the expectation and the prediction.

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Rosenthal and Jacobson

Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968)

Probably the best-known study of the self-fulfilling prophecy is not about crime but about education. Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) carried out a study in which, at the start of a school year, they told teachers that certain pupils were ‘about to bloom’ and do well at school, though in fact they chose the pupils at random. The prophecy was not true for all the pupils. They had given all the pupils an IQ test, so the teachers thought the predictions had come from the test, though this was not true. At the end of that teaching year, the researchers tested the pupils again. Those who had been labelled as ‘about to bloom’ had improved in IQ score more (in the case of younger pupils) than the other pupils, and the researchers concluded that they had evidence for a SFP. The teachers must have treated the pupils differently from the rest and, as a result of that additional attention, the pupils did better – or perhaps they gained more confidence because the teachers perceived them to be brighter

Evaluation of Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968)


● This is a well-controlled study in which the teachers did not know the IQ test results and the children said to be ‘about to bloom’ were randomly chosen; this deceit meant that nothing could have affected the children, except for teacher attention, because they were not all ‘about to bloom’.

● The study is replicable because it was carefully planned, so it can be tested for reliability. Other studies have found similar results when studying teacher–child interactions, such as Madon et al. (2004), who found that when both parents have false unfavourable beliefs about their child’s likelihood of drinking alcohol, those parents have the strongest self-fulfilling effect. This is evidence that false beliefs can come true through a selffulfilling prophecy.


● The study is artificial and the teachers were given a false belief, which they then acted upon – perhaps they thought they were supposed to act on the information in some way, whereas in another situation, they may not have acted as they did; this is a validity problem.

● Perhaps it is not ethical to ‘choose’ some children, expecting that they will get special attention and ‘bloom’, when other children might not have been given special attention because of the study.

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The SFP and crime

The SFP and crime

The link between crime and being lower class is clear in statistics, and it is possible that a reason for this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a young person is known to come from a poor family, for example, he or she might – through stereotyping – be labelled as ‘bad’. Or the person may come from a family with criminal members, and again could be labelled as ‘bad’. According to the prophecy, such individuals would be treated according to their label, would act as they were treated and eventually fulfil the prophecy. Other family members or others from that area might then also be labelled ‘bad’, and this could account for more criminals being found in the lower classes and poor areas.

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Madon et al

Madon et al. (2003): the self-fulfilling influence of maternal expectations on children’s underage drinking

Aim - To see if a parent’s expectations of their child’s drinking habits would become a reality.

Procedure - Questioned 115 children aged between 12 and 13 and their parents. They were asked to guess how much alcohol their child regularly drank/would drink over the coming year. Then after a year, the children were asked about how much they actually drank.

Results - Madon found that the children who drank the most alcohol were the ones whose parents had predicted a greater use of alcohol. It only took one parent to have a negative opinion about their child’s drinking habits to show a relationship with high levels of drinking. However, the child seemed at greater risk of higher alcohol use if both parents had negative beliefs.  

Conclusion - The study showed that a parent’s prediction of their child’s alcohol use was very accurate. The parent’s expectations were consistent with alcohol use after 12 months. It could be concluded that this is a self for filling prophecy because what the parent expected came true. It may show that a parents beliefs can have a massive influence on a child behaviour.

Strengths Weaknesses Large sample of participants

More valid, true

Parents may not have influenced their child’s behaviour at al - just very accurate at judging their child’s alcohol use Gives strong warning to parents about holding negative beliefs about their children Many other factors influence a child’s drinking behaviour eg. friends and the media It is only a correlation, no solid proof Social desirability bias - children may say they drink more to look tough, parents may say they drink less because it is not acceptable

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Jahoda (1954)

Jahoda (1954):

study of names related to behaviour An interesting study that is useful when considering whether behaviour can arise from a label gives strong evidence of the power of labelling. Gustav Jahoda (1954) studied the Ashanti (a Ghanaian ethnic group) and he noted that boys were named according to the day on which they were born. For example, Monday children were labelled according to the soul for that day (the kra), which would mean the child was quiet and peaceful. The kra for Wednesday, however, would lead to aggressive and quick-tempered characteristics in the child. If there was a SFP at work, then children born on Monday would be quiet and peaceful and children born on Wednesday would be more aggressive. Jahoda discovered from court records that children born on a Wednesday were more likely to be convicted for crimes against the person. There were noticeably fewer Monday children on record as having been convicted.

Evaluation of Jahoda’s study


● Data were valid and came from court records, so this was a naturalistic study where variables were not manipulated.

● The difference in name is clear and it is hard to see what other factors could have led to the findings, although other details about the tribe and their practices are not clear; on the face of it, the findings are powerful.


● The study has not been replicated and so it is not certain that data are reliable.

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Jahoda and Dvir et al

Gender and self-fulfilling prophecy as an explanation for criminal and anti-social behaviour

Jahoda (1954) looked at boys when considering how names related to anti-social behaviour, which was interesting as it would be useful to know if the same applied to girls. Some studies looking at the self-fulfilling prophecy do look at gender and have found there to be gender differences both in responding to expectations and in being the person forming the expectations.

Dvir et al. (1995): self-fulfilling prophecy and gender Dvir et al. (1995) claim that all studies that have confirmed the Pygmalion hypothesis have been done using men; there have been a few studies focusing on females but those had methodological issues. Dvir et al. point out that when women make up most of the participants, the Pygmalion effect is not found.

Dvir et al. (1995) carried out two studies to test the Pygmalion hypothesis on women. The Pygmalion hypothesis is about the self-fulfilling prophecy, which means that when an untrue ‘fact’ about someone is planted, it will be fulfilled just because of the label being given. Higher expectations lead to better performance. They used Israel Defence Forces and led leaders to believe that the trainees in the experimental condition, which was the Pygmalion hypothesis condition, had ‘higher than usual potential’.

Experiment One focused on female officer cadets led by women and Experiment Two focused on men and women taking the same course but in separate groups. In Experiment One, where women were led by women, they found that there was an effect from giving the information about high potential. However, there was no evidence of the participants doing better because of expectations.

In Experiment Two, there was a self-fulfilling prophecy in men led by a man and in women led by a man, but not in women led by a woman. It seemed that the Pygmalion effect could be found in women but perhaps not when the expectations come from a woman. They needed to look at women leading men, and that was a suggestion for further study. This study using two experiments suggests that there are gender differences in whether a self-fulfilling prophecy occurs and that the gender of the person ‘expecting’ a certain behaviour is important, perhaps more than the gender of the person ‘fulfilling’ the expectation. This study was not about crime or aggression; it was about how expecting more tends to get more, even when such expectations rest on false assumptions or understanding. 

However, it does give evidence for a self-fulfilling prophecy going in the ‘right’ direction. Crime and anti-social behaviour are not ‘going in the right direction’, however, and that might be a criticism of this study, as it might be of Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) too (page 225). Dvir et al.’s study was valid in the sense that it took place in a natural environment – an officer-training course. 

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Summary of gender differences in self-fulfilling p

Summary of gender differences in self-fulfilling prophecy affecting crime and anti-social behaviour

Jahoda (1954) found that boys expected to have aggressive and violent characters, and named according to that character (which was not going to be a ‘true’ character as it was unlikely that all boys born on Wednesdays would have that character), seemed to be more responsible for violent crime. Girls were not studied. There is a tendency to focus on males when looking at crime and anti-social behaviour. Dvir et al. (1995) found a self-fulfilling prophecy when men were led by a man and when women were led by a man, but not when women were led by a woman. There seems to be a gender effect when considering the person having the expectations.  

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Evaluation of the SFP explanation leading to crime

Evaluation of the SFP explanation leading to crime


● Madon suggests that people with high self-esteem are more likely to be affected by their parents’ predictions and she suggests that social class is not a factor in whether a parent–child relationship leads to a SFP. This shows that there are conditions when a self-fulfilling prophecy might be found; it is not that it works for all labels and all people. Madon et al. (2003) give findings with more detail and depth about the self-fulfilling prophecy. Rosenthal and Jacobson found that a positive false expectation was fulfilled, as did Madon, which strengthens her findings.

● This would further suggest that expectations about former criminals, such as labels applied to them in the local community, will lead to a SFP, in some cases at least, depending on the relationship between those giving the label and the person being labelled. This is useful as it gives the idea a practical application.

●Jahoda’s study gives strong evidence for the effect of labelling.

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Evaluation of the SFP explanation leading to crime

Evaluation of the SFP explanation leading to crime - weaknesses 

● Much of the research into the SFP has been in education, the teacher–child relationship being a special one where expectations might be fulfilled. However, other relationships might not have this effect.

● The problem with studying the effects of labelling at an individual level is finding a false belief, as Madon has explained. This is probably why there are few psychological studies of labelling and the SFP.

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The social learning explanation of crime/anti-soci

The social learning explanation of crime/anti-social behaviour

The social learning explanation is briefly looked at here as it is helpful as an alternative theory and, since you have covered the theory before, it is worth seeing how it relates to crime. However, for your course, you only need to study labelling and the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Role models, social learning theory and crime

Social learning theory suggests that behaviour, to an extent at least, comes from observing role models and imitating their behaviour. This is known as observational learning. Role models are those with whom people identify in some way – often someone they look up to. Thus people tend to imitate those of the same gender, possibly of a similar age, or people they see as powerful or having something to be achieved, such as celebrities. Bandura, Ross and Ross (1961), for example, showed that children imitated an adult model who was aggressive. They found that boys imitated physical aggression more than girls, who showed more verbal aggression than physical aggression. They also discovered that both girls and boys were more likely to imitate the adult male model than the female model. This suggests that there is also an element of expectation involved, such as that males are imitated more if they are aggressive, because it is expected that aggression is found more in males. There are some complex issues involved, but the basic idea is that behaviour can come from imitation of role models.

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The role of reinforcement in social learning theor

The role of reinforcement in social learning theory and crime

Social learning theory suggests that people commit crimes because of an association with others. Not only is it possible to be exposed to criminal models, it is also possible to be ‘reinforced’ for crime. Crime becomes not only acceptable but also desirable. Reinforcement of criminal behaviour can be positive or negative. Positive reinforcement might come from financial or material gain from the crime, or approval from one’s peers. Negative reinforcement might come from the removal of something unpleasant by committing the crime, such as removing disapproval from peers or removing financial hardship. Social learning theory would predict that, if someone commits a second crime, it is likely to be the same as, or similar to, the first crime, since that would match the patterns of reinforcement. Punishment is likely to deter criminal behaviour. These are the principles of operant conditioning, and social learning theory adopts these principles as well as the idea of observational learning.

Positive reinforcement encourages behaviour because something pleasant happens in response to the behaviour. Negative reinforcement encourages behaviour because something unpleasant is avoided in response to the behaviour.

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Gender and social learning as an explanation for c

Gender and social learning as an explanation for criminal and anti-social behaviour

Social learning theory is backed by evidence from Bandura’s studies in the 1960s. One study (Bandura, Ross and Ross, 1961) found that gender was an important variable when children observe aggression acted out by adults. Boys seemed to show more physical aggression than girls but girls did show similar verbal aggression to boys. Girls showed more physical aggression if the model was male and more verbal aggression if the model was female. The gender of the model showing the aggression was also important, with the male model being imitated more, for example, and boys tended to imitate the model of their own gender, though this was less pronounced in girls. You can see just from this one study that gender has an impact on what is imitated. The study reported here focused on aggression, so is relevant when looking at crime and antisocial behaviour, though this was modelled aggression in an unnatural situation so there might have been a lack of validity in the results, which should be borne in mind.

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Evaluation of social learning theory as an explana

Evaluation of social learning theory as an explanation of criminal behaviour


● There is a lot of experimental evidence to show that behaviour is imitated, including aggressive behaviour; some of this evidence is explained later in this section when looking at the role of the media.

● The theory has a practical application and can help to rehabilitate offenders, as appropriate role models can be used to help learn appropriate behaviour, alongside appropriate reinforcements.


● The theory does not look at individual differences, only at how an individual is influenced by social factors; therefore, biological aspects are not considered.

● The theory does not account for criminal behaviour that is opportunistic and has not been observed first – it tends to account more for stealing, aggression and other crimes that are reasonably easily observed in society, rather than murders. Therefore, the theory does not account for all crime

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