About Ronald Akers' Social Learning Theory


The social learning theory of human beings was first discussed academically in the 1800s. In the latter half of the 20th century, American professor Ronald Akers applied the theory to the analysis of criminal behavior.

Ronald Akers

  • Born in New Albany, Indiana, in 1939, Ronald Akers is an American criminologist known largely for his social learning theory of crime. He graduated with a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Kentucky in 1966 and taught at several universities, eventually joining the University of Florida in 1980. Akers works as professor of sociology and director of the Center for Studies in Criminology and Law.

    He has served as president of the American Society of Criminology and of the Southern Sociological Society as well as chair of the Criminology Section of the American Sociological Association and coordinator of the Christian Sociological Society.

SLT Origin

  • Social learning theory (SLT) proposes that individuals learn new behavior through reinforcement, punishment or observational learning. Those who observe positive outcomes of behavior are more likely to imitate or adopt that behavior themselves. The concept was first academically proposed by Gabriel Tarde in the 19th century.

Akers' SLT

  • In their 1966 article, "A Differential Association-Reinforcement Theory of Criminal Behavior," Akers and Robert Burgess expanded earlier SLT to better explain deviancy, specifically as it relates to children in their association with peer groups and parents. The reinforcement of behavior, both positive and negative, is a central theme in Akers' theory of social learning.

    This article combined the differential association theory of the sociologist Edwin Sutherland with behavioral psychology's reinforcement, or operant conditioning, theory. In 1973, Akers published the book "Deviant Behavior: A Social Learning Approach."


  • SLT has become a significant method for understanding the nature of criminal development, particularly in youth. It maintains that individuals learn to engage in crime through their association with others. The family and peer group play a large role in encouraging criminal behavior. Akers' social learning theory states that the three primary mechanisms that teach people to engage in crime are differential reinforcement, beliefs and modeling.

Differential Reinforcement

  • The punishments and reinforcement provided for behavior teach others to engage in, or avoid, criminal activity. Criminal behavior is more likely to be repeated when it is frequently reinforced and infrequently punished. The behavior increases as reinforcement, e.g., money, applause, approval or pleasure, is enjoyed in the absence of significant punishment. Both peer groups and parents reinforce crime as an option if misbehavior is tolerated, rewarded or ignored.


  • Other individuals can not only reinforce crime but teach beliefs in favor of it. While most people are taught that crime is wrong and accept this belief, others are surrounded by those whose own beliefs support criminal activity. Individuals who associate with those more tolerant of crime learn to adopt that same model.


  • Individuals will imitate or model the criminal behavior of others, particularly if they like or respect the people engaged in criminal activities. This modeling is heightened if they see those particular people being reinforced, or rewarded, for their illicit behavior.


  • Photo Credit "L.A. Bank Robbery" is Copyrighted by Flickr user: colin.brown (Colin Brown) under the Creative Commons Attribution license.
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