Learning theories assume that both deviant and conformal behaviours are learned in interactions with other members of society.
Learning theoretical approaches explain delinquency as behaviours that are processually passed on in groups and communities. Criminal behaviour is thus learned in the same way and through the same mechanisms as any other behaviour. Only the content of what is learned has to be differentiated. This idea can be described as a counter position to a purely static assumption of either criminal being or non-being.
The origin of criminal behaviour lies in the learning of criminal instincts, rationalisations and techniques, but also deviating motives and ideologies. Deviating behaviour therefore also requires prior practice.
Most theories of learning in criminology are similar in the way that learning takes place on the basis of one or more models. Thus, the persons from whom behaviour is learned and the social environment in which these processes take place are crucial.
Learning theories in criminology are historically the result of the Chicago School on the one hand and first findings from psychological research on learning on the other.
As early as the 19th century, Gabriel Tardes’ theory of imitation had led to attempts to explain crime with learning and imitation processes.
Criminal behaviour is learned (as is norm-compliant behaviour). The learning process takes place in social groups, subcultures or through the media. In addition to skills and abilities that make criminal behaviour possible, justification strategies and techniques of neutralisation are also learnt.
It was not until Edwin Sutherland’s Theory of Differential Associations of the 1930s that the theories of social learning 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 their environment. Even more than that, Sutherland strongly opposed the biological view and postulated that criminal behaviour was processually learned and not inherited.
His central thesis (deviant behaviour is learned when attitudes predominate that favour violations of the law) is directly related to the theory of social disorganization, in which there is talk of residential areas in which predominantly criminal attitudes seem to exist. Sutherland thus describes the processes (namely: social learning) that ultimately give rise to delinquent behaviour in disorganised social spaces – but also in other ways.
Over the years, Sutherland’s theory has been extended and changed by himself, by Glaser’s thesis of differential identification, and above all 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 learning and Skinner behaviorism now established in learning psychology into the considerations of crime as a learned phenomenon.
Eysenck’s biosocial theses, on the other hand, include processes of classical conditioning in the search for the emergence of criminal behaviour.