Criminal behavior explained from learning theories

Criminal behavior explained from learning theories

Learning theories explain the criminal behavior As a learned behavior. In contrast to biological or psychoanalytic theories, the causes of behavior outside the individual. Mainly, they are based on:

  • Classical conditioning
  • Operant conditioning
  • Vicarious Learning

Now, how can crime be explained from these three perspectives and with an almost exclusive basis in factors external to the individual?


  • 1 Classic Conditioning as an explanation of criminal behavior
  • 2 Operative Conditioning as an explanation of criminal behavior
  • 3 The theory of social learning and the explanation of crime

Classic Conditioning as an explanation of criminal behavior

Classic conditioning has been used by Eysenck as the basis for his theory. According to her, the child suffered the punishment for deviating from the norm throughout his childhood by parents, teachers, etc. Therefore:

  • The punishment would act as an unconditioned stimulus
  • The act antisocial as conditioned stimulus
  • And the result of fear, anxiety and guilt, like unconditioned answers

Thus, the mere presence of a thought that had to do with breaking a rule would generate medium, anxiety or guilt. In this way, the possibility of carrying out such behavior would be minimized.

Eysenck's theory highlighted the importance of socialization, as a means to prevent or fall into crime. This left the door open for further elaboration from operant conditioning and social learning.

Operative Conditioning as an explanation of criminal behavior

Other authors have focused on the operant conditioning to explain the shaping and maintenance of criminal behavior. How ?, by differential reinforcement. Be part of that criminal behavior is reinforced so much for positive boosters as negative boosters.

Between the positive enhancers They have been frequently pointed out:

  • Material gains derived from the criminal act
  • Acceptance and prestige within a reference group
  • The increase in self-concept

Joint performance of the reinforcers

These reinforcers will act in many cases together. For example, someone who after a risky act steal a strong Amount of money, is reinforced by the material goods obtained. But at the same time, will raise your self concept, by evaluating himself as more courageous, risky or intelligent than others. Finally, will gain prestige and consideration within your reference group.

The role of negative reinforcement in criminal behavior

In negative reinforcement a behavior is reinforced by its ability to eliminate or reduce an aversive stimulation. This explanation is often given to criminal behaviors associated with a reduction in anxiety, stress and frustration. For example:

  • Sex crimes
  • Injuries
  • Theft and theft

Also, it would explain other frequent acts today such as assaults on pharmacies, gas stations, etc. in which the pursuit of a material gain is not pursued but the elimination of a state of need or lack.

The joint action of positive and negative reinforcement in criminal behavior makes this type of behavior extremely resistant to extinction.

To this we must add the fact that the detention and the arrest occur intermittently giving rise to a program of partial reinforcement whose main characteristic is to make the behaviors thus acquired and / or maintained much more resistant to extinction (something that also occurs with violations of traffic regulations).

There is another fact that from the operant perspective explains the difficulty that all social systems have encountered in reducing or eliminating criminal behavior Among its members.

Why is it so difficult to eradicate crime?

All societies and cultures are protected from individuals who violate the norms through the use of punishment. Thus, when an individual commits an act considered criminal, he is prosecuted and punished for it. For example: fine, jail time, community work, etc.

Nevertheless, one of the characteristics of the punishment, as a method of reducing or eliminating behavior, is that to be effective it must be applied immediately to the issuance of such conduct.

On the contrary, this does not happen except on a few occasions; therefore, its effectiveness is very reduced.

The theory of social learning and the explanation of crime

The theory of social learning has placed its emphasis on modeling. So this would play an important role in the learning and execution of criminal behaviors. The observation of models affects the child in the acquisition of:

  • General and particular behavior habits, as is the case with aggression
  • Norms and moral judgments
  • Self control. This is understood as the ability to tolerate the delay of the reward, the possibility of giving up immediate reinforcement in order to achieve long-term goals. Finally, to the use of self-rewards and autocastigo after the execution of certain behaviors.

The influence of modeling on behavior has been widely studied in relation to aggression. Bandura (1976) points out that the highest rates of aggressive behavior have been found in environments in which aggressive models abound and where aggressiveness is highly valued.

Modeling and crime

Models of aggression can be found in the family and subculture and symbolically in film and television. The observation of models will influence aggressive behavior, through four different processes:

  • Discriminatory role of modeled associations. Through the reinforcements obtained by the acts modeled on different occasions, they end up serving as informative clues so that the observer behaves in a similar manner at the appropriate times
  • Disinhibitory function. Exposure to models that execute violent actions, without any aversive consequences, has disinhibitory effects on observers
  • Instigation function. Under conditions in which a subject is prone to behave aggressively, any source that activates him emotionally can increase aggressive behaviors
  • Stimulation intensification function. The observer will pay attention to the instruments used by the model, being able to use them later, although not necessarily in the same way that he has done so.

In a concrete way we can synthesize this two point orientation:

  • The behavior of the offender is a function of his particular history of learning Social
  • Regulating contingencies of reinforcement and punishmentIn accordance with the principles of social learning, socially adapted behavior can be strengthened and antisocial behavior weakened

This theory has been applied to the imitation of criminal behaviors which has caused the development of training techniques intended for criminals. For example:

  • Token Economy
  • Social Skills Training
  • Troubleshooting Techniques
  • Self control
  • Stress inoculation


  • Bandura, A., & Walters, R. (1976). Theory of social learning and personality development.New York: Editorial alliance.
  • Eysenck, H. J., & Bordas, M. D. (1970).Biological fundamentals of personality. Barcelona: Fontanella.
  • Pavlov, I. P., & Watson, J. (2004). Classical conditioning.Retrieved October.
  • Ribes, E. (1983). Is operant conditioning sufficient to analyze human behavior.Mexican Magazine of Behavior Analysis9(2), 117-130.