Social Learning Theory vs. Rational Choice Theory in Criminology

Paper Type:  Argumentative essay
Pages:  6
Wordcount:  1632 Words
Date:  2022-02-17

Theories are helpful tools that are essential in explaining the world around us. For example, in criminology, various theories have been put forward to help in understanding the functioning of the criminal justice system and the people committing the crimes. In regards to burglary, classical approaches commonly used are the social learning theory and rational choice theory. Based on rational choice theory, people have the liberty to decide whether to oblige to the law or violate it (Schmalleger, 2014). Different punishments have been put in place to deter individuals from committing burglary. Since committing a criminal offense like burglary has got a certain amount of pleasure, having punishment carrying pain that outweighs the pleasure, deter people from stealing. Social learning theory suggests that both criminal activities like burglary and related behaviors are acquired, modified, and adopted as people interact with one another (Akers, 2017). In other words, a person's behavior is determined by social structural factors.

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Social learning theory encompasses both negative and positive punishment as well as both positive and negative reinforcement. In as much as deterrence plays an essential role in discouraging people from burglary, in most cases, it is not the deciding factor. The majority of people will decide not to steal from other people, not because they fear the punishment that will follow, but because they have been brought up to adhere to the norms of the society (Schmalleger, 2014). Nonetheless, rational choice/deterrence theory is central to the criminal justice system and is the foundation for the strict punishments and prison sentences.

Social learning theory entails the process through which a person justifies, evaluates, and consigns, right and wrong (Akers, 2017). The argument is essential in explaining how criminal behavior, in this case, burglary is transmitted from one person to the next. Commonly, positive behaviors nature positive reactions, while negative behaviors reinforce deviant responses like stealing (Schmalleger, 2014). A person with defiant friends will most certainly get involved in criminal activities and drug abuse as opposed to an individual surrounded by positively minded peers. Burglary is an unlawful behavior, and just like any other behavior in life, it is a learned activity.

Based on rational theory, before an individual sets out to commit a crime like a burglary, they first think about the strategies they are going to apply (Clarke & Cornish, 2013). They have to compare the pros and cons of committing such a crime, and whether the risk is worth it. This is why the rational theory is well suited for the explanation of why people steal. The theory explains that individuals do not just go around stealing from others for the sake of it or pleasure. Rather, they do so to get money to survive in this cruel world. In their opinion, they see burglary as the only option available to get what they need.

Rationally, the criminal offenders have no source of income or are being underpaid, yet they need sufficient money to cater to their needs (Loughran, Paternoster, Chalfin, & Wilson, 2016). Additionally, they may be lacking skills to get a well-paying job and therefore end up getting unskilled, underpaying jobs. Most often than not, burglars are lazy or uneducated. The little money they have is spent on buying drugs and are left with nothing to buy the necessities. In this regard, the rational theory is well-suited in explaining why burglary takes place. The rational choice theory proposes that "criminality is largely the result of conscious choices that people make" (Schmalleger, 2014, p. 82). It, therefore, implies that before an individual commits a criminal offense, they will first weigh if committing the crime outweighs the punishment related to it, and if it is profitable, they will then go ahead and do it. In this regard, the burglars apply rational thinking and logic in deciding whether to commit the crime or adhere to the law.

Furthermore, the rational choice theory offers insight into why even law-abiding citizens would decide to commit a crime (Loughran et al., 2016). Majority of individuals do not burglarize just because they are looking for a specific property in the victim's home, nor do they steal to save the money for the future. Instead, they burglarize because they require cash urgently to buy food, clothes, and pay off bills. If they had a choice, they would turn to honest ways of earning income. However, McShane (2013) showed that people accustomed to burglary even if they switch to legitimate means of making money, the earned wages would not meet their immediate demand for cash nor will it sustain their lifestyles. Therefore, their rational choice is to burglarize only when they are urgently or desperately need money. In other words, they have personally chosen burglary as their form of income.

Just the same way, no single causation theory can explain why people commit all the crimes; the rational choice theory cannot be entirely used to demonstrate the causation of all the burglaries (Schmalleger, 2014). Those opposing rational choice theory argue that criminal offenders often do not think before their act, because in some cases, they are unable to reason due to the challenges they are facing. The cons of the theory call upon other approaches such as social learning theory to be used in explaining the causation of burglary, in cases where rationality is not involved.

Social learning theory is based on the observational learning and operant conditioning (McShane, 2013). Operant conditioning involves the reinforcements and punishments. Positive reinforcement refers to being rewarded for a particular action, hence encourages the behavior. In this case, a burglar will get material gain from burglary and therefore will more likely repeat the crime for the same reward. The negative reinforcement entails the removal of a burden following a criminal offense which will again reinforce the repetition of that behavior. For example, a person stealing because of financial burden may have the burden removed, but he or she will continue stealing. Based on the principles, the social learning theory expects a person who has started burglary to stay with the same irrespective of the intervention (Akers, 2017). In regards to the observational learning, although the behaviors are learned through the reinforcement, it is accelerated by observing others getting punished or rewarded appropriately. For example, when an individual sees a friend being jailed for a lifetime due to burglary, he or she is less likely to commit that offense, however, if a criminal friend makes a lot of money from burglary, he or she will do the same to get as much money as well.

Social learning theory is based on modeling, in which an individual has to identify with another person in the same way (McShane, 2013). In this case, the person will be their role model, and such a person is more likely to be in a position of power and famous. There must be some form of motivation for the observer to imitate the role model (burglar). If the burglar is caught stealing and is punished, the individual is less likely to copy the individual. However, if the model commits a burglary offense and goes unpunished, the observer will perceive the crime as victimless and is more likely to copy it because of the reward and no punishment. The theory operates on the basis that criminal behaviors that are rewarded are more likely to be repeated, but those that are punished are less likely to be imitated.

Even though social learning theory provides some insightful suggestions regarding the causation of burglary, the rational choice theory is more useful. It is true that behaviors indeed get imitated, but it is upon the decision of the observer whether to go head to commit burglary. In this regard, the rational choice theory outweighs social learning theory. Additionally, the social learning theory does not consider individual differences, but only focuses on how social factors affect the individual. Rational choice theory, on the other hand, is based on an individual's reasoning, and not peer pressure, which I tend to agree with. The theory insists that individuals who choose to burglarize and those who do not, have varied reasons and is not pinned on the social observation.

Various policy responses can be put in place to reduce burglary cases, which are currently on the rise. One of the measures will be to increase the intensity of the punishment to deter the behavior (Loughran et al., 2016). Once individuals see that the punishment outweighs the reward, they will less likely commit burglary. Moreover, other processes like socialization and embeddedness in institutions can be effective policy interventions. School programs should as much as possible create awareness among students that crime is not admirable. Additionally, there is a need to increase human capital and recreational programs to absorb youths with strong preferences for excitement and risk.


In conclusion, various theories have been put forward to explain why crimes are committed. In the case of burglary, social learning theory and rational choice theory are well-suited in explaining the causation of the crime. Rational choice theory suggests that people contemplate what they are going to do, before committing the crime. In other words, it is a matter of choice. On the other hand, social learning theory proposes that behavior is learned, and since burglary is a behavior, it can be learned and imitated as well.


Akers, R. (2017). Social learning and social structure: A general theory of crime and deviance. Milton: Taylor & Francis.

Clarke, R. V., & Cornish, D. B. (2013). The rational choice perspective. In R. Wortley & L. Mazerolle (Eds.), Environmental criminology and crime analysis (pp. 43-69). New York: Routledge.

Loughran, T. A., Paternoster, R., Chalfin, A., & Wilson, T. (2016). Can rational choice be considered a general theory of crime? Evidence from individuallevel panel data. Criminology, 54(1), 86-112.

McShane, M. (2013). An Introduction to Criminological Theory. Routledge.

Schmalleger, F. (2014). Criminal justice today. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

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Social Learning Theory vs. Rational Choice Theory in Criminology. (2022, Feb 17). Retrieved from

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