Learning theories suggest that both deviant and conformist behaviors are learned through interactions with other members of society.
Learning theories explain delinquency as behaviors that are processually transmitted in groups and communities. Criminal behavior is thus learned in the same way and through the same mechanisms as any other behavior. The only difference is in the content of what is learned. This idea can be described as a counterposition to a purely static assumption of either criminal being or non-being.
The origin of criminal behavior lies in the learning of criminal instincts, rationalizations, and techniques, as well as deviant motives and ideologies. Deviant behavior therefore also requires prior practice.
Most theories of learning in criminology are similar in that learning occurs on the basis of one or more models. Thus, the persons from whom behavior is learned and the social environment in which these processes take place are crucial.
Historically, learning theories in criminology are the result of the Chicago School on the one hand, and the first findings from psychological research on learning on the other.
As early as the 19th century, Gabriel Tardes’ theory of imitation led to attempts to explain crime in terms of learning and imitation processes.
Criminal behavior is learned (as is normative behavior). The learning process takes place in social groups, subcultures, or through the media. In addition to the skills and abilities that make criminal behavior possible, justification strategies and techniques of neutralization are also learned.
It was not until Edwin Sutherland’s theory of differential associations in the 1930s that social learning theories entered the criminological discussion. Sutherland was directly influenced by the socio-ecological considerations of the Chicago School around Park, Burgess, Shaw, McKay and others, who sought the cause of crime not in the biology or personality of the perpetrator, but in his environment. Moreover, Sutherland strongly opposed the biological view and postulated that criminal behavior is processually learned, not inherited.
His central thesis (that deviant behavior is learned when attitudes favoring lawbreaking predominate) is directly related to the theory of social disorganization, which speaks of neighborhoods in which criminal attitudes seem to predominate. Sutherland thus describes the processes (namely, social learning) that ultimately lead to delinquent behavior in disorganized social spaces – but also in other ways.
Over the years, Sutherland’s theory has been extended and modified by himself, by Glaser’s theory of differential identification, and especially by Cloward & Ohlin’s theory of differential opportunities.
Aker’s social learning theory, developed a few decades later, incorporates the concepts of operant conditioning, Bandura’s learning, and Skinner’s behaviorism, now well established in learning psychology, into considerations of crime as a learned phenomenon.