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Crime As A Learnt Behaviour In Relation To Domestic Violence

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Crime is an omission that is punishable by the law and is a behaviour that can be learnt. In 1939, the theory of differential association by Edwin H. Sutherland suggested that criminal behaviour is learned by one associating with others who have criminal attitudes and norms (Jefferey, 1965). Modern learning theory revolves around the notion of conditioning, and the fact that behaviour is related to the environment in which it occurs (Jefferey, 1965). This essay aims to discuss the way in which crime is a learnt behaviour, particularly focusing on domestic violence, and providing examples and evidence of this. This will be achieved by reviewing Andersson’s (2017) and Jefferey’s (1965) papers and will be supported by using other sources focusing on domestic violence, including Bevan and Higgins’ (2002) paper. Finally, a conclusion will be drawn as to how crime is a learnt behaviour, the ways in which it is taught and how this is depicted through domestic violence.

Crime is a learnt behaviour

Criminal conduct is an operant behaviour; being that it is maintained by the changes it creates on a situation. For example, most crimes are property offenses and therefore have a reinforcing stimulus; such as money or cars (Jefferey, 1965). Burgess and Aker’s (1966) theory of Differential Association-Reinforcement states that a criminal act occurs in an environment in which the offender has previously been reinforced for this behaviour, and the consequences have not been taught in a way that prevent or discourage it. Suggesting, that criminal behaviour is under the control of the reinforcing incentives. However, if the criminal thought about the consequences of his actions as negative; the behaviour would not occur. It is assumed in this theory that the reinforcing quality of different stimuli varies between offenders, depending on the past conditioning of each person (Jefferey, 1965). Burgess and Aker’s (1966) amend Sutherland’s learning theory and more specifically state that “Criminal behaviour is learned, according to the principles of operant conditioning” (Burgess and Akers, 1966, p. 137).

Sigmund Frued’s Psychodynamic Theory argues that people commit crime due to experiencing trauma during their childhood. This theory states that criminal behaviour is a product of unusual personality structures from early on in one’s life; in turn creating malformed behavioural choices later (Andersson, 2017). Similarly, Albert Bandura’s 1977 Social Learning Theory postulates that individuals model their behaviour based on the reaction they get from authoritative figures; such as children and their parents. If children see that their aggressive behaviour is approved, they gain the understanding that such conduct is acceptable (Andersson, 2017). Correspondingly, children who grow up in an environment where aggression and violence is present, are more likely to perceive these behaviours as normal. This results in children having the desire to model the behaviours conducted by their parents, showing that violence and crime are likely to have been learned (Andersson, 2017).

Domestic violence is a learnt behaviour

Domestic violence is a criminal behaviour; one that can be learnt from experiencing it at a young age. Prather and Golden’s (2009) paper examines Social Learning Theory and the way in which significant models in a child’s life, play a major role in teaching them criminal or antisocial behaviour. The paper focuses understanding the affect that abuse and domestic violence can have on the quality of one’s relationships and behaviour. After an increase of 3.4% in juvenile delinquency in USA from 2005 to 2006, researchers argue the importance of exploring the nature of the relationship between the juvenile and their parents (Prather and Golden, 2009, p. 80). The social learning theory expects that learning occurs through interaction and observation. Findings from recent studies of violent juveniles, particularly those who commit murder, indicate that the offender has a history of severe abuse and has witnessed family domestic violence. Additionally, research found that parents of delinquent youths also have a history of domestic violence, therefore often have an underlying psychiatric disorder and are more likely to engage in inconsistent parenting practices. Research suggests that a history of abuse and neglect is an important factor of juvenile delinquency (Prather and Golden, 2009, p. 80), reiterating that crime; particularly domestic violence can be a learnt behaviour.

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Domestic violence has repercussions for the health of everyone involved. Living in an environment where such violence is present, children suffer serious damage to the construction of their personality. The United Nation’s Children Fund estimates that a child or adolescent dies from domestic violence once every seven minutes. However, despite the rate of death, the specific number of children and adolescents experiencing domestic violence is unknown (Gonçalves dos Santos Lírio, J., et al., 2018). Goncalves’ (2018) paper defines any means of abuse directed at a child by anyone who is considered family, even if they are not blood related, as ‘intrafamilial’. In 2015, a qualitative research project was conducted, with 23 male defendants who had been criminally prosecuted of domestic violence. Three origin ideas were put forward: lack of affection, being the victim of domestic violence or witnessing it as a child (Gonçalves dos Santos Lírio, J., et al., 2018). Results presented that the men have suffered and continue to suffer emotionally, socially and cognitively after being exposed to domestic violence. With this information, the paper highlighted that children assume this type of behaviour is natural; replicating it as an adult, making domestic violence ‘intergenerational’ (Gonçalves dos Santos Lírio, J., et al., 2018).

The Australian Institute of Criminology released a publication in 2001, focusing on young Australians and domestic violence. The author, David Indermaur, explores a survey which was conducted in 1998 and 1999 by the Crime Research Centre at The University of Western Australia and Donovan Research. 5,000 Australians, aged between 12 and 20 years old from all territories and states of Australia, were interviewed. This survey found that up to one quarter of young Australians have witnessed domestic violence against their mothers specifically. Research also suggests that the type and severity of domestic violence can depend on the living situation, culture and socioeconomic status of the young person and their family (Indermaur, 2011). For example, 14% of male to female parental violence cases occur when the young person lives with both parents, as opposed to 41% when living with their mother and her partner (Indermaur, 2011). In relation to the effect this has on a young person, the outcome of the survey supports the thesis that witnessing parental domestic violence as a child, has a strong influence on the likelihood of perpetrating this behaviour in their own intimate relationships as an adult. To summarise, while the idea is supported, Indermaur highlights that witnessing this behaviour can increase the probability of perpetration, rather than it simply just being fate. Majority of those who grow up in violent homes do not continue this behaviour, but for those who do, the link between witnessing and perpetrating is complex. (Indermaur, 2011).

Most research commonly explores direct links between exposure to domestic violence as a child, and re-enactment as an adult. However, Bevan’s and Higgins’ (2002) paper questions whether domestic violence is in fact learned, or if the progression is actually far more complicated. With majority of research focusing on the heightened risk of perpetration of domestic violence if the offender has experienced it as a child, Bevan and Higgins explore spouse abuse and the factors involved in men partaking in this behaviour. Other contributing factors that were assessed in this study include low socioeconomic status in adulthood and alcohol abuse (Bevan and Higgins, 2002, p. 226). These factors do have influence on the behaviour, however exposure to domestic violence is the most common link. A few mechanisms to support this are investigated in the paper and include: identifying the aggressor, observational learning and positive reinforcement (Bevan and Higgins, 2002, p. 225). Substantial evidence has been found for the association between male perpetration of violence, and the exposure to physical abuse. For example, a sample was comprised of 36 men who attended counselling between 1996-1999. Respondents score the frequency in which they believed they were subject to or witnessed domestic violence as a child. The mean was 2.75 with scores ranging from 0-8 (Bevan and Higgins, p. 232). Increased aggression in men has been found to be a long-term effect of not only exposure to physical violence, but also psychological maltreatment and childhood neglect. Research reiterates that experiencing multiple forms of maltreatment as a child is associated with greater long-term issues, and the coexistence of these heighten the level of dysfunction as an adult (Bevan and Higgins, 2002, p. 227).

As discussed above, crime, specifically domestic violence, can be a learnt behaviour. The process of this is complex, and is ultimately a result of multiple factors. Victims suffer in more ways than one and react differently based on their personal situation. While this is not the case in every situation, studies have shown that the likelihood of someone perpetrating domestic violence is significantly higher if they have been a victim themselves. With this evidence, it has been proven that the behaviour is often intergenerational and has been learnt.

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Crime As A Learnt Behaviour In Relation To Domestic Violence. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 25, 2023, from
“Crime As A Learnt Behaviour In Relation To Domestic Violence.” Edubirdie, 09 Jun. 2022,
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