Gangs and Social Learning Theory Relationship


Learning is an important aspect of human life as it helps one acquire knowledge and skills required for survival. Lin & Chen (2017) describe learning as the process of gaining new information, skills, beliefs, dispositions, and interests. Learning can be self-taught or done through the observation of others. This tendency of observing and imitating others can greatly influence one’s behavior. People should be cautious of their surroundings as the social interactions developed in these environments could affect their behavior patterns.

History and Origin of Social Learning Theory

To better understand a concept, it is important to first understand its origin. The social learning theory was developed in 1977 by Albert Bandura who is a Canadian-American psychologist (Bandura & Hall, 2018). Akers (2017) argues that the origins of the theory can be traced back to Sutherland’s differential association theory. In context, Bandura developed the social learning theory to improve on Southerland’s differential theory (Akers 2017). Bandura built the theory in acknowledgment that the impact of reinforcement and punishment can be observed rather than having to be experienced directly, as argued by Southerland’s differential theory.

The Gang Relationship to Social Learning Theory

A relationship exists between gang formation and the social learning theory. The social learning theory states that human behaviors are learned through seeing and emulating the actions of others (Bandura & Hall, 2018). A gang is defined as an organization of people who may be acquaintances or relatives governed by a defined leadership and prides in an internal organization that they identify with (Osman & Wood, 2018). This group of people claim authority over territory in communities and participate in criminal activities, either individually or collectively.

People are born innocent with no knowledge of crime or groups. With time, they start learning things through observation of behaviors of others and repercussions of actions which could either be rewarding or punishing. Bandura & Hall (2018) argue that incentives of actions are learned and reinforced through broader societal, emotional, and cognitive learning techniques. This is evident when children learn behavioral patterns via their social groups, which include their families, schools, churches, and peers (Tomasello, 2016). Whether the outcome is prosocial or problematic conduct, basic socialization maintains the same social learning processes. Tomasello (2016) further argues that socialization occurs through processes that regard the encouragement arising from participation in the activities and interactions. During the processes, a social link forms between the subject individual and the socializing agent, organization, or entity, especially when rewards are given to the subject individual for participation. This patently explains why people get affiliated with certain gang groups.

The social learning theory explains how ill behavioral patterns are acquired, as well as the processes by which these patterns develop. Additionally, when socialization interactions and involvements are gratifying, they foster the formation of ties with prosocial individuals and this creates commitment (Bandura & Hall, 2018). Conversely, if participation and interactions with people who participate in antisocial behaviors are rewarding, it reinforces the formation of relationships with the antisocial people in the belief that antisocial conduct will be rewarded (Bandura & Hall, 2018). This means that individuals join gangs due to the reinforcements that accompany the affiliation with such groups.

The Relationship of Social Learning Theory to Crime and Violence

The social learning theory explains that people commit crimes because they are associated with others who commit crimes. This is especially heightened when the illegal behavior is rewarded since the individuals end up developing pro-crime attitudes (Rhodes & Conly 2017). The individuals have criminal models with which they are associated. As a result, some individuals begin to see crime as pleasant, or at the very least justified in certain circumstances. Attributing to the basics of the social learning theory, criminal behavior is learned in the same way that conventional behavior is learned: via interaction with and observation of others (Bandura & Hall, 2018). Apart from previous criminality, affiliation with criminal associates is the strongest indicator of delinquent behavior.

People learn to commit crimes through three methods, according to the social learning theory: differential reinforcement, beliefs, and imitation. In differential reinforcement, individuals can train others to commit crimes by encouraging and penalizing particular actions (Vollmer et al., 2020). It means that crime is likely to occur when it is regularly rewarded and seldom penalized. Another cause of crime is if it results in substantial quantities of reward with a minimal penalty (Vollmer et al., 2020). These rewards can be in the form of money, social approval, or pleasure. Additionally, a crime will possibly occur if it is likely to be rewarded more than alternative actions (Wikström & Treiber, 2016). People who are incentivized for their atrocities are more inclined to commit more crimes in the future (Vollmer et al., 2020). Additionally, repeat offenses are more likely to be repeated when the settings of the offense to be committed are similar to the ones in which the assailants were rewarded in the past.

In the beliefs that are favorable to committing a crime, people can teach other beliefs that favor criminal activity. According to surveys and conversations with offenders, these individuals feel that while crime is generally immoral, some criminal activities are justified or even beneficial in specific circumstances (Yuzikova et al., 2021). Additionally, some individuals have overall beliefs that are more favorable to crime, making it look like a crime is occasionally a more appealing option than other actions (Yuzikova et al., 2021). This is true for those individuals who for instance, despise hard work but want quick money. These people may perceive crime as a more favorable option than hard work.

In imitation as a method of learning crime, a person’s behavior is not solely a result of their ideas and the rewards or penalties they get. It is also a result of the actions of others in their immediate environment. People frequently emulate the behavior of others, particularly if the person is someone they look up to or adore (Horsburgh & Ippolito, 2018). It means that if an individual sees the person they look up to committing a crime, and they see them get rewarded for it, the observer is likely to commit the same crime.

The Relationship of Social Learning Theory to Adolescents and Gang Affiliations

As previously discussed, in the social learning theory, people commit crimes because they are associated with others who commit crimes. Adolescents are still in the developmental stage and have not yet attained maturity (Cheung et al., 2018). It means that whoever they interact with, or whatever they see other people doing, they are likely to imitate the behavior. Such imitations will occur especially when the delinquent behaviors result in rewarding experiences. Adults have the maturity to see beyond the icing on the cake presented to them by the rewards of crimes (Cheung et al., 2018). That is, an adult understands that there are repercussions to behaviors and even though they witness the pros of crime, they are likely to have a second thought before committing a crime. Adolescents, on the other hand, lack this type of maturity and this makes them prone to engaging in crimes.

Adolescents are also prone to peer pressure and the need for approval from their friends. It translates to them abiding by whichever rules these peer groups have set, regardless of the outcomes. As described in the social learning theory, socialization occurs through processes that regard the encouragement arising from participation in activities and interactions (Ely & Gleason, 2017). During the processes, a social link forms between the subject individual and the socializing agent, organization, or entity (Bandura & Hall, 2018). From this, adolescents are likely to be recruited into joining gangs of the people they associate with, and the socialization makes them form a connection with these groups.

The Overall Impact of Social Learning Theory on Racial and Ethnicity Groups

The social learning theory proves that people tend to associate with individuals who are close to them. These associations make them develop links and a sense of belonging to a particular group (Bandura & Hall, 2018). In the racial structure, for instance, people of color may tend to associate more with people who have the same color as them. In this regard, as they interact, they are likely to copy the behaviors of their group members. It leads to stereotyping as the social learning theory suggests that the behaviors of individuals are likely to be influenced by the people around them (Anton & Lawrence, 2016). If a certain ethnic group has some individuals who are criminals, for instance, the entire ethnic group is likely to be linked to the crime. It explains why some races have been stereotyped and discriminated against. In today’s environment, intergroup bias is still a potent and damaging force and stereotyped people tend to face prejudice and unfair treatment.

How Social Learning Theory Plays into Recruitment of New Gang Members

Power struggles and supremacy battles rise as the number of gangs expands. In ensuring dominance over territory, new member recruitment is critical as it additionally guarantees the continuity of a gang’s existence (Benavides et al.,2016). Individuals frequently join gangs through recruitments by other members of the gang. The willingness to join such members is influenced by what individuals observe from people they see in the gangs. These are members of the society, that we live with and if they seem to get rewarded for criminal behavior as gang members, it may influence more individuals to join such gangs. This is attributed to the imitation method of learning crime as discussed earlier. Conversely, individuals may join gangs to gain the rewards that come with being affiliated with such groups (Benavides et al., 2016). Additionally, the environments that people live in greatly impact their lives. It is therefore important that people take caution about the type of individuals they associate with as it can either positively or negatively impact their behaviors, according to social learning theory.


Learning refers to the process of gaining new information, skills, beliefs, dispositions, and interests. Individuals can learn by observing the actions of reinforcement and punishment, as this is the foundation of the social learning culture. Socialization occurs as a result of encouragement arising from participation in the activities and interactions of a certain group. It creates a sense of belonging to the group as the individuals in the group tend to identify with the group. When individuals identify themselves with criminal groups, it leads to the formation of gangs since members of a group tend to learn from each other by observing their actions and the repercussions of such actions. The social learning theory explains gang formations and allegiance to certain social groups. By interacting with certain groups of people and learning their behaviors, crimes are born and individuals tend to justify crime with the reward that accompanies criminal activities.

Adolescents are vulnerable to peer influence because they lack the emotional maturity to understand the consequences resulting from crime despite the rewards seen from the gang members. It explains why most gang members are likely to be young people. Additionally, the social learning theory explains the formation of groups such as ethnic groups and racial groups. It however impacts such groups negatively as they are prone to stereotyping as a result o a single bad member. This has led to discrimination against certain ethnic communities and races. Also, the need to remain relevant or have authority and dominance over a territory leads to a rise in new member gang recruitments. These recruitments target people who interact with the gang members. This means that transgenerational gang culture does have a lot to do with locality or social structure. This gang culture also owes much to differential social organization, as well as the learning of crime. For this reason, individuals need to be careful of the environments in which they exist, and the type of people they interact with.


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