Social learning theory is based on the idea that the same learning processes present in social structure, interaction, and situation produces both conforming and deviant behavior (ASJ, 2021). Ronald Akers expanded upon Edwin Sutherland’s original differential association theory and combined it with general behavioral learning principles. Social learning theory proposes that delinquent behavior is acquired, repeated, and changed by the same process as conforming behavior (ASJ 121). Akers’ theory also has a focus on four major concepts: differential association, definitions, differential reinforcement, and imitation.
Winfree, Sellers, and Clason (1993) explore the connection between social learning and adolescent deviance abstention with a focus on drug use. Although research has been previously conducted on why individuals resort to the use of drugs, little research has been done on the abstention from drugs and the cessation of their use. As a result, the researchers specifically focus on understanding the reasons for initiating, quitting, and avoiding drugs. The researchers propose that cessation and abstention are learned behavior and utilize the social learning variables to test their hypothesis (Winfree et al., 1993). Their goal was to distinguish among abstainers, current users and former users of illicit drugs within a sample of 1688 middle school and high school students in two nonurban communities. The results of their study indicated that the social learning variables clearly distinguish abstainers from current illicit drug users but were not as likely to distinguish between former users and current users or former users from abstainers (Winfree et al., 1993).
The study utilized a survey administered to middle school and high school students from two communities. The independent variables of focus were the personal-biographical characteristics and social learning variables. The social learning variables were divided into three subsets. The differential association concept was measured by questioning how many of the student’s best friends used marijuana, alcohol, or other drugs. The responses could be “(1) I don’t know and none, (2) less than half, (3) about one-half, and (4) more than one-half” (Winfree et al., 1993, p. 109). From this a composite score could be measured which represented the differential peer association. The concept of definitions was measured by personal approval, peer approval, and differential peer definitions. Differential reinforcement and imitation were also measured by asking questions about the reasons for initiating drug use and reasons for abstaining from drug use. The researchers hypothesized that the variables derived from social learning theory would distinguish best between abstainers and current users but not be as clearly defined between abstainers and former users or between current and former users. The results of the study confirmed their expectations. The social learning variables were accurate in predicting abstention and current drug use, which reflected continuous patterns of behavior. However, the cessation of drug use was found to result in a significant behavioral departure that cannot accurately be explained by social leaning variables independently. Social learning theory accounted for the difference in the learning environments of current users and abstainers from drug use. Abstainers were found to be exposed to nondrug using peers with antidrug orientations, whereas current users typically had drug-using friends who approved of drug use. The researchers proposed that the reason it was hard to distinguish between former and current users is due to the fact that they have similar social learning environments which include drug using peers, prodrug orientations, and reinforcers of drug using behavior.
When looking at the results of this study, it would be interesting to see how social learning was affected by the pandemic. For example, students were learning virtually and did not get to experience the normal socialization that goes along with typical learning situations. As a result of this, it would be expected that crime would decrease because individuals were not exposed to situations to learn deviant behavior.
Akers, R. L., Sellers, C. S., & Jennings, W. G. (2021). Criminological Theories: Introduction, Evaluation, and Application (8th ed.). Oxford University Press.
Winfree, L. T., Sellers, C. S., & Clason, D. L. (1993). Social Learning and Adolescent Deviance Abstention: Toward Understanding the Reasons for Initiating, Quitting, and Avoiding Drugs. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 9(1), 101–125. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23365886