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Criminology and Social Learning Theories

            Social learning theory is a psychological theory that argues that children may learn hostile and aggressive attitudes through observation. Originally hypothesized by Albert Bandura, it demonstrates the effects of how easily a child's mind can be molded based on what that child observes. Robert L. Burgess and Ronald L. Akers apply this theory to criminology with their own social learning theory. According to their theory, the same process occurs to adolescents who conform to society's norms and to those who resist them, meaning that social learning theory seeks to not only explain reasons for deviance, but also reasons for non-deviance. Akers and Burgess propose that through differential association, differential reinforcement, imitation, and cognitive definitions, young minds learn to either avoid or repeat deviant or delinquent behaviors. Differential association is defined as any interaction with others. Through these interactions, individuals observe the way others act and model their own behaviors through what they see. Although individuals may interact directly or indirectly with numerous persons on a daily basis, interactions with peers create the strongest associations. Differential reinforcement is characterized as either reinforcements or punishments of a given behavior. Reinforcements of a behavior will cause an individual to repeat that behavior and punishments will do the opposite. Acceptance into a social group because of the use of an illicit substance is a common type of differential reinforcement amongst today's youth. Akers and Burgess's third mechanism of the social learning process is imitation. Individuals who watch others act in a certain way, deviant or not, will be more likely to repeat that behavior because all behaviors are learned. Bandura's social learning experiment involved young children watching adults either beat or play "nicely" with a Bobo Doll.

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