Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Social learning theory and fullapologies.com

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 fullapologies.com 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 fullapologies.com 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.

Originally pulished on everydaysociologyblog.com

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