November 07, 2008

Social Learning Theory and Full Apologies

author_brad By Bradley Wright

There are lots of things that we can get from other people—information about a good restaurant, tickets to the game, a cold. To that list, we can add criminal behavior, at least according to social learning theories of crime.

There are several different versions of social learning theory, each with its own emphases on how we learn which social behaviors from whom. The one that I would like to focus on here has been popularized by Ron Akers and Robert Burgess. They explained the social learning of crime in terms of operant conditioning. As you’ll remember if you took an introductory psychology class, operant conditioning occurs when we change our behavior in response to rewards or punishments that we receive. This is why we punish our pet for making a mess of our carpet, or we ground our child who stayed out too late.

Akers and Burgess identified four types of punishments and rewards that affect us. Positive reinforcement is giving someone something pleasant; negative reinforcement is taking away something bad; positive punishment is giving something unpleasant; and negative punishment is the removal of something pleasant.

To give examples of each of these, as related to crime, the money one gets from burglary would be a positive reinforcement. Installing a burglar alarm to reduce the threat of a break-in would be a negative reinforcement. Fining someone for a crime would be a positive punishment. Taking away someone’s freedom by placing them in prison would be a negative punishment (though the difficulties they encounter in prison would be positive punishments).

As I’ve described it so far, social learning doesn’t go much beyond Pavlov's dogs —we gravitate toward reinforcing behavior and away from punishing behavior. What makes this theory social, however, is that we learn not just from our own experiences but also from others. We observe what other people do, and we see what happens to them as a result of their behavior. If their behavior produces a desired outcome, we’re more likely to adopt that behavior as our own. If it produces an undesired outcome, we steer clear of it. This is called imitation.

Imitation doesn’t happen randomly. It’s not like we walk down the street, pick someone we’ve never met, and start trying to learn from them. (Though, now that I think about it, this might not be a bad approach to life). Instead, we learn from the groups we belong to, especially our family groups and peer groups. This accounts, in part, for why young people are so heavily influenced by their friends.

Recently I came across a fascinating and powerful effort to use the principles of imitation and punishment to reduce drunk driving among young people. The clip_image002website takes high school and college students who have been in drunk driving fatalities, and it allows them to apologize to those who have been harmed. Most of the stories revolve around one friend driving, getting into an accident, and killing another friend who is a passenger. The videotaped apologies shown on are nothing short of anguishing. Here’s one of the featured stories/apologies.

A textbox on the website tells the story of what happened to Ashley:

“Ashley was at home when she got a call from her friend, Jen, who wanted to hang out. Jen came over, and without Ashley’s parents knowledge, they spent about six hours drinking beer and watching TV in Ashley’s room. At 4:00 a.m., Ashley got hungry, and the two decided to go to an all-night supermarket. Ashley drove.

One of her front wheels hit the edge of a driveway and came off, which sent the car spinning into a brick barrier, impacting on the passenger side where Jen was riding.

Jen died at the hospital. Afterwards, Ashley didn’t remember that her friend had even been in the car with her.”

Behind this textbox is a video clip of an attractive young woman who has obviously been crying. As the video clip rolls, she is so choked up that she can barely speak. She is utterly despondent, destroyed by what happens. In between gasps, she gives this apology to Jen’s father.

“Mr. Dunlap, I don’t know how else to tell you, what happened to Jen. She was my best friend. I can’t live with myself for what happened to her. I don’t understand why why it was her and not me. I’m the one that deserves to die. I have to live with every day, and every day I can’t face myself. I can’t get out of bed. Why did Jen die? I loved her so much.”

The video clip goes on, but I stopped because, frankly, it was too painful to watch. The video clips serve as a reference group, almost as if a friend was telling you something terrible that happened to them so that you can learn about. After watching them, I had newfound appreciate for the power of imitation in social learning theory.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Social Learning Theory and Full Apologies:


this is a really good example of social learning theory. the main idea behind social learning theory is that we become who we are based on our surroundings, the example of the website is a chilling but powerful way to shape the individuals that are affected by a fatal accident due to drunk driving. i really like how Brad gave a brief review of social learning theory and operant conditioning before introducing the topic. it helped me by immediately drawing my attention to operant conditioning so that when the topic was presented i recognized the aspect of operant conditioning that it gives. the idea is that the taking of the friends life is a form of negative punishment, attempting to deter the idea of drunk driving. rather than just a tragedy that i would picture if not previously reviewed the operant conditioning system.
this truly is a tragic event, but i honestly do hope that is effective in preventing driving under the influence and helps relieve the guilt that Ashley must feel after contributing to the death of her best friend. i personally would never think about getting behind the wheel after having a few beers, but this really should affect the percentage of people who don't think twice about it.

these examples of imitation or strong and get the point across. the story about the two girls that got in an accident involved with drunk driving was a good story about learning from other peoples mistakes. i think that sometimes learning from other people mistakes isn't good enough. some people actually have to have it done to them before they get the picture. some people live in the moment and don't realize what is happening around them. imitation is a big part of our everyday life and sometimes i think that we need to look at it better to understand.
the other part of the article talks about positive punishment and negative punishment. this is also a part of our everyday life and the way we are raised has a lot to do with positive and negative punishment. some parents think that it is necessary to use negative punishment to get the point across, but i think that positive punishment is more affective because the child is getting punished and doesn't realize that he is also getting something out of the situation. now that we are older the type of parenting that our parenting that our parents used makes us the type of people that we are today.

social learning theory and perception learning has much deeper dimensions then most people are willing to research. Online colleges for example will set us into a direction I think will damage us as a society for quite some time.

we can add criminal behavior, at least according to social learning theories of crime.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Real World

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

The Family

Learn More


Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

« President-Elect Obama: The End of Racism? | Main | Sociological Theory and the Economy »