When ordinary folks turn into crooks and criminals, it’s sometimes because they learn from the wrong crowds. Edwin Sutherland’s pioneering work in criminology greatly expanded our understanding of how this happens exactly. His theory of “differential association” suggests that there are 9 tenets to learning criminal behavior — and that we learn it almost like we learn anything else.
the full story
When people socialize with the wrong crowd, bad things can happen. They may form questionable values and develop poor attitudes towards law and order. And if their friends are criminals, they naturally learn from them and over time adopt their way of life. Psychologically, this process is known as differential association.
Differential association theory is the work of Edwin Sutherland, who spent his life studying principles of criminology, and found 9 distinct precepts. To learn how this works in real life, let’s see how Robbin, a shy 14 year old boy, ends up in jail.
9 precepts of differential association
Criminal behavior is learned. Robbin learns it after meeting a new friend.
It is learned through interaction and conversation with others, often supported by storytelling.
This learning process takes place primarily in small and intimate groups. Books, video games, and mass media have little impact.
The learning of criminal behavior includes sharing insights and techniques as well as reasons and attitudes that favor criminal actions.
Motives are learned by dividing the legal system into good laws and bad laws. Robbin learns that the laws protecting poor people’s property are good, while the laws protecting rich people’s property are bad.
We become delinquent once our rationale for breaking the law outweighs our rationale for respecting it. Robbin steals once he believes that he needs to take from the rich to give to the poor.
Our learning experiences vary in frequency, duration, the priority we give them, and how intense they are. Robbin’s time as a criminal is over when he and his friends all get arrested.
Learning criminal behavior is like learning anything else. Robbin learns this just like his sister learns math — the same mechanisms are involved.
Although criminal behavior is an expression of one’s needs and values, it is not explained by them. Non-criminal behavior can also stem from the exact same needs and values.
Edwin sutherland’s theory
Edwin Sutherland was an American sociologist whose work had a big impact on criminal policy. His theory recognizes that criminal attitudes can be learnt socially. Consequently, they can also be unlearned. In other words, Sutherland helped us understand that kids like Robbin can be rehabilitated.
what do you think?
What do you think? How can we help keep society free from crimes that happen, on the street and in the top floors of big corporations? And if Sutherland was right, is jail the right place for young offenders? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
- Edwin Sutherland – Wikipedia
- Differential association – Wikipedia
- Differential association – Sciencedirect.com
- White collar crime – Wikipedia
- Sutherland, E. H. (1940). White-Collar Criminality. American Sociological Review, 5(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.2307/2083937
- Differential association theory (Sutherland) – By Christian Wickert
- Charles Whitman – Wikipedia
- Brain and the amygdala – Wikipedia
- Today we know that we are also influenced by genetic factors, hormones and special circumstances. Watch Robert Sapolsky explains the McNaughton rule and how brain damage can explain criminal behavior.
- Read the tragic case of Charles Whitman who, on August 1 1966, took the life of his mother, his wife and many innocent others, before he was executed. In a letter he wrote before the tragedy unfolded, he asked to check on his brain stating that something must have gone terribly wrong inside it. An autopsy after his death revealed a large tumor inside his head. His story, if true, is testimony that not only the environment, but also biological causes may be responsible for crimes that happen.
- Watch Asch’s Conformity Experiment to understand how easy people conform to group behavior.
- Learn more about social learning theory or watch our video on Bandura’s Bobo Beatdown Experiments
Read and discuss Sutherlands work on white collar crime, and come up with ideas how his principles of differential association functions in the modern corporate world. Then come up with ideas how we can stop criminal behavior in the workplace.
Today we know that we are also influenced by genetic factors, hormones and special circumstances. After watching the video you may also want to discuss the theory of the dark triad of personality traits and check whether your solutions to the problems also work for people who score high on these three traits.
In addition you may want your students to learn about the tragic case of Charles Whitman who, on August 1 1966, took the life of his mother, his wife and many innocent others, before he was executed. In a letter he wrote before the tragedy unfolded, he asked to check on his brain stating that something must have gone terribly wrong inside it. An autopsy after his death revealed a large tumor inside his head. His story, if true, is testimony that not only the environment, but also biological causes may be responsible for crimes that happen.
- Script: Jonas Koblin
- Artist: Pascal Gaggelli
- Voice: Mithril
- Coloring: Nalin
- Editing: Peera Lertsukittipongsa
- Production: Selina Bador
- Sound Design: Miguel Ojeda