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Two Criminal Theories

Updated on September 6, 2012

Basics of the Criminal Mind

There are a multitude of criminal behavior theories that are studied in the Criminal Justice field. Of these, two theories consisting of the Social Learning Theory and the Neurological Theory are discussed in this paper. The objective will be to show the characteristics of each theory, the similarities and differences, and in addition, suggestions for improvements and enhancements are made for consideration. Students in the study of criminal behavior see that in today’s ever-changing world, research and new developments are advancing criminal justice in new directions every day. These two theories are of particular interest due to their cross-over similarities, yet are completely different in their own traits.

In defining the Social Learning Theory, it is “viewed that people learn to be aggressive by observing others acting aggressively to achieve some goal or being rewarded for violent acts,” (Seigel, 2011). This learning occurs when people associate the differential activity of others and situations that occurred during their early childhood years through adulthood. This differential activity association is the most influential aspect of this theory. This is where the behavior is defined, imitated and reinforced through social reinforcement.

In a Huffington Post Online posting on January 11, 2012 it was reported that, “Pentagon officials vowed Wednesday, that a video posted online purportedly showing U.S. Marines in Afghanistan urinating on dead Taliban fighters will be fully investigated,” (Burns, 2012). This example shows how this theory can extend to anyone who associates deviant behaviors with social status or peer pressure. Another aspect of social learning theory is called maintenance.

Maintenance is the reinforcement of differential activity where the parents or close friends demonstrate the same behaviors that are then mirrored and accepted. This is also a stage in social learning theory where reactions, both positive and negative, are recognized and weighed against the rewards or consequences of the deviant behavior. The final aspect of social learning theory is called the definitions. This aspect is where parents, family and friends express neutralizing influences to possibly counter the deviant behaviors. This influence could be manifested by the suggestion of the parent who makes an example of a relative who developed cancer as a result of smoking. The hope is to educate the child about the possible consequences of the deviant behavior. Possible results from the neutralizing education can be acceptance and stopping the behavior, or rejection with the opinion that the tautological definitions of deviance contribute to the overall acceptance of the actual rejection. This is a rewarding action in itself. Other secondary factors that can affect social learning theory are mass media, internet, computer games and other virtual groups. The greater the exposure and frequency to all of these influences the greater the probability that the person will continue to engage in deviant behavior. (Krohn, 1999)

The second theory discussed in this paper is the Neurological Theory, and is defined by the “major premise that criminals and delinquents often suffer brain impairment, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and/or minimal brain dysfunction are related to the antisocial behaviors, (Seigel, 2011). This theory gives weighted explanations of invitational violence and how the person’s environment and personal traits influence behavior. Neurological disorders, ADHD and learning disabilities are not part of the person’s conscious thinking, in that it is not subject to will, motivation or morality, (Admire, 2006)

These disorders are not easily seen by others, and it may not be until a person reaches adulthood before a person recognizes it or is diagnosed. In many instances, the disorder is shielded by other life problems. This disorder affects a person’s ability to store and retrieve information. In addition, due to the inability to quickly retrieve information, a person may be labeled as stupid, slow or develop what appears to be a stuttering problem in vocal communications. Through the inability to communicate effectively, situations can develop that result in unintended consequences. In situations of emergency, a person unable to recall instant information may panic and do something to make a situation more difficult. People with this disorder soon develop phobias of public speaking or any request to express their thoughts and opinions, fearing the humiliation in front of their peers. (Goldstein, 1997)

People with this disability suffer from outbursts, frustration, over-reaction, impulsiveness, impatience and lack of self-expression. In many instances, this creates a gateway into the criminal justice system, and can make it difficult to exit the system due to uncontrolled activities that occur while in police custody, in the court room or in the penal systems. At times, the associated responses in situations are seen as signs of aggression and resistance and can compound into conflicts with authorities. “Impulsive qualities often compel affected individuals to lie, speak their minds, or say anything necessary to get themselves off the hook”, (Goldstein, 1997).

Criminal Justice systems have incurred major expenses in dealing with these neurological problems. Training of police and prison security personnel in recognizing these traits and behavior modification techniques have become an ever-increasing expense to the system. This, in turn, pulls money from other city, state and federal programs, and in many instances, it creates additional problems where agencies have to weigh the cost vs. the benefit of this training, (Admire, 2006)

Similarities of these two theories are very few, in that dependence of one theory may overlap to the other. For example, a person who suffers from the traits of the Neurological Theory may find comfort for their societal labeling by expanding their social interaction with persons who have similar traits. In turn, this association tends to lead them to negative activities that may lead them to commissions of crime. This demonstrates the overlapping with the Social Learning Theory.

In an opposing view, a person who fits into this classification of the Social Learning Theory may also have Neurological Theory associated traits. In this case, it is a person who seeks some type of outlet and relief through seeking social associations and finding common ground to be accepted as a friend. Society has driven them out of the mainstream and they are just looking for some type of social interaction.

Differences in the two traits are that one, the Social Learning Theory, can be common ground for anyone. Persons who are influenced by social learning theories are seeking solutions to problems by interacting with other people, but the interactions in many cases are with the wrong people at the wrong time. Social Learning Theory can explain why gangs are so prevalent and growing, and can somewhat explain the ever-increasing problems of substance addiction in youth, and for increases in the ever popular “raves” that young adults commonly participate in.

In comparison, the Neurological Theory is limited to people with problems that stem from comprehension and brain functions that are outside a normal person’s mental capacities. It is estimated that from 3% - 7% of today’s youth suffer from neurological problems. Thus, this shows that the application of this theory is somewhat limited as compared to that of Social Learning Theory. There is a fine line between the two theories; one is the subject of brain abnormalities, the other is the subject of social influences. Cases that have characteristics of both theories are common, since so many of the Neurological Theory traits complement and create a susceptibility to become receptive of the Social Learning Theory.

It is a controversy between agencies as to exactly who is responsible for the discovery, rectification and treatment of individuals who suffer from these two classifications of criminal behavior. Some think that it should be the responsibility of state school programs. State programs already limit the student to teacher ratio. Now, with little addition of funding, it is expected for teachers to recognize these intensive detailed behaviors normally diagnosed by specialized child study doctors. Many of these cases are never diagnosed, because people around the individual draw their own conclusion that this person is stupid or lazy.

My opinion in writing this paper is that it would be well served for much of the money that is tagged for treatment programs in prisons to be refocused in the school system to help recognize these potential problems at an early age. In addition, once these traits are recognized early on, these kids could be placed in special schools, like those for gifted and talented, or programs that are similar to those for kids with learning disabilities. The government already has “head start” programs to help young kids have equal access to health and educational programs. This could be expanded to help kids who exhibit traits that fit into these classifications. In most of these cases, kids desire attention, and often times their behaviors are somewhat justified by labeling or misdiagnosis. Because they are literally swept under the misclassification rug, they are virtually written off and left to fend for their own futures in society. Without the skills to cope and to see a better outlook on their social lives, they tend to give up and blame their behaviors on the lack of parental and role model leadership. These kids need the dedicated leadership out of the cloud of negative social learning and the neurologically disabled.

In today’s ever-changing world, research and new developments are advancing criminal justice in new directions every day. Maybe the system needs to focus on programs affecting developmental years, instead of treating the problem after it is full-blown and out of control.


Admire, J. D. (2006). Learning Disabilities and Attention Deficit Disorder: A New Approach for the Criminal Justice System. Retrieved January 15, 2012, from The Forum on Public Policy:

Burns, R. (2012, January 13). Marines Urinating On Taliban: All 4 Marines Identified. Retrieved January 16, 2012, from Huffington Post:

Goldstein, S. (1997, June). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: Implications for the criminal justice system. Retrieved January 15, 2012, from FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 66.6 pp. 11-16:

Krohn, M. D. (1999, November). Social learning theory: The Continuing Development of a Perspective. Retrieved January 12, 2012, from University of Albany, Department of Sociology:

Seigel, J. L. (2011). Criminology: The core (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.


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    • Ramnovich profile image

      Ramnovich 5 years ago

      nice work. keep it up

      Best wishes to you,