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Criminal Psychology - Social Learning Theory

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

Learning Aims

1. The Social Learning Theory of Criminality:

• identification with role models

• the role of observation and imitation

• the process of vicarious reinforcement

• the role of direct reinforcement and internalisation

• criticisms of the theory including the nature/nurture debate.

2. Social Learning Theory Research Study – Cooper and Mackie (1986): Study into video games and aggression in children.


Violent video games, films and music have been in the news a lot the past decade as a cause of violent behaviour. Head over to the BBC website and type in violent games and see what has been reported in recent years.

Do you think that violent videos games, film or music can cause violent behaviour?

According to the social learning theory, they do.

Below there is a Prezi that explores the whole unit, followed by a brief outline of this theory to draw your attention to the essential information. Then you will watch a number of useful videos and complete some activities to make sure you have a sound understand of social learning theory. This will be followed by an in-depth look at a study completed by Cooper and Mackie (1986). If you are here just for revision then skim through the explanation, watch the videos and write your revision notes.

What is it?

It is a theory of crime that states that behaviour is learned from our social environment.

Individuals observe and imitate the behaviour of others. So, a child that sees others committing a crime and not getting punished may be motivated to commit a crime themselves.

Observational Learning

Simply this is learning by observing others. Children learn to use a knife and fork or to read a book by observing their parents do it, the child remembers and copies the behaviour. When the child copies the behaviour it is called modelling. Not all observed behaviour is modelled but all observed behaviour is learned.

Observational learning involves four steps:

• Attention - paying attention to a role model.

• Memory - being able to remember what we have observed until it is needed.

• Reproduction - being able to act out what we observe (modelling).

• Motivation - the incentive to copy what has been seen.

Key Language

Role Model - the person we watch. We often think of role models as being famous but here they can be anyone.

Identification - we are more likely to model people that are like us or that we look up to. We model their behaviours becoming more like them.

Vicarious Learning - we are more likely to imitate behaviour if we believe that there will be a reward. We learn from the consequences of other peoples behaviour. So, if we see someone being rewarded for telling the truth then we will be more motivated to tell the truth ourselves, vicarious reinforcement. If we see someone being punished for stealing then we will be less motivated to imitate that behaviour, vicarious punishment. See Albert Bandura's Bobo doll experiment below, you need to know about this experiment so pay attention!

Direct Reinforcement - if the imitated behaviour results in a reward the behaviour is reinforced.

Internalisation - if the behaviour is reinforced enough it becomes internalised and may no longer require reinforcement. The behaviour will continue regardless of the results.



1. Bandura's (1961) study found that children do copy aggression.

2. Many tragedies, such as school shootings, have been linked to TV and video game violence.


1. Findings could be because naturally aggressive children watch and play violent games and films rather than the games and films making them aggressive.

2. Many children watch violence but not all children copy it.

3. Watching violent TV and video games can actually lower aggression. This is because it acts as a release for natural aggression.

4. It is difficult to study observational learning because modelling may take place a long time after it has been observed or may never have taken place at all.

5. Cannot explain how first wave of criminals started.

6. Does not explain those who turn to crime without criminal role models.

Violent games and films

Since observational learning of aggression can occur then yes, according to social learning theory, violent video games and films can lead to violent behaviour. It is possible for a child to identify with their favourite characters. If these characters are rewarded for bad behaviour then the child may become motivated to imitate this behaviour. This imitation may lead to aggressive and violent behaviour in children and youths.


Have a good think about this video. What aspects of social learning theory can you find? How did Karl Lokko reverse the internalisation?

2. Bobo Beatdown - Crashcourse

3. The Brain: a Secret History (Bandura) - BBCFour


1. Create a mind map for social learning theory that includes:

  • All the key terms with an explanation and example of each.

  • All the criticisms and strengths of the theory with an example that relates to criminal behaviour.

2. Create a mnemonic for the key terms in social learning theory to help you remember them.








4. Does social learning theory suggest criminal behaviour is caused by nature, biology or nurture, environment? Write a paragraph using all the key terms.

5. Research the term self-efficacy and what it means in the context of social learning theory. How might self-efficacy be used to explain criminal behaviour?

6. You might find it interesting to do some research into crimes that seem to be linked to specific video games to help you get a better understanding of this theory but this task is not essential.

Cooper and Mackie (1986)

Here is a link to a very good summary of the study that you can print out for future reference.

Watch this great interview.

Episode 4 - Violent Video Games' Effects on Children

Next, watch this round up of the study.

OCR GCSE Psychology (9-1) - Criminal - Cooper & Mackie

If you want to know more you can visit this site here.

By now you should have a very good understanding of the study. In a way that is helpful to your learning, for example a mindmap, poster, cartoon strip, flash cards, outline the following key features of the Cooper & Mackie study: the hypothesis, the sample, the method, the independent variable, the dependent variables and a key finding.

Make sure to add all your work to your blog.

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