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An important strand within contemporary criminological theory combines psychological and sociological approaches in social learning theory. This model is based upon the basic discovery that behavior is often patterned after the observed habits of others. As individuals we observe when others are successful or unsuccessful in meeting their needs and desires. We tend to copy the modeled successful strategies while ignoring the poor choices. As long as our role models are individuals who follow acceptable means of achieving their goals, social learning works to implant positive behavior.

 

However, there are several circumstances that can lead to negative outcomes. Some children are raised in families in which violence is used as a means to achieve desires. Abusive parents model to their children that violent behavior is acceptable. Boys see that males are expected to act aggressively, while girls learn that to be the victim of directed violence is the norm. Similarly, during the teen years youth often substitute peers for parents as their primary role models. As adolescent masculinity is often expressed in action rather than cerebral activities (thus bright boys are labeled as “geeks” and “nerds”), boys often act out and find themselves rewarded by other males and by responses from adolescent girls. As adults, males are expected to channel their aggressive behavior into socially accepted outlets such as work and career, and weekend sports activities.

 

A variation of the social learning model focuses on media depictions serving as role models or teachers rather than real persons. Considerable debate surrounds this topic, and efforts to control media violence continue. One area that has been much discussed is copycat crimes.

 

Copycat Crimes

Does reading about crimes in the newspaper or viewing criminal activity on television news or in Hollywood films produce more crime?

 

Does media exposure of crime inspire copycats? Frequently cited examples include the Tylenol tampering incidents of 1982, the assassination attempt depicted in the 1976 film Taxi Driver, and the availability of the Terrorist Handbook on the Internet both prior to and after the Oklahoma City federal building bombing in 1995. Other anecdotal evidence abounds. A 1993 movie that depicted a teen risking his life by lying down on a busy highway was said to have “inspired” a number of teens to try the same stunt, with several deaths resulting. An MTV Beavis and Butt-Head episode suggesting to kids that they burn down their homes led to a child trying to do just that.

 

The idea that media descriptions and depictions have a strong impact on behavior has been referred to in the media effects literature as the “hypodermic needle” model. Like a drug injection, the ingestion of violent or antisocial conduct impacts the psyche and may lead to repeating the behavior. Typically, however, those favoring censorship of criminal depictions do not believe they are impacted in such a way, but, nevertheless believe that some are. Children, imbeciles, the emotionally vulnerable, the undersocialized, and publicity seekers have been cited as in need of protection from negative media portrayals. Since it is impossible to predict how many might react by repeating the crimes, censorship helps to protect society for the possibility of copycat behavior.

 

Until the 1980s there was little empirical research dealing exclusively with copycat crime. Empirical studies of media influence do not support the anecdotal evidence. For example, an Australian study used a 3-year timeframe to compare police data on bank and other armed robberies with local newspaper stories on robberies during the same period. Robberies were compared for two 7-day periods immediately before and after the date of any newspaper story reporting a successful robbery. There was no evidence of any copycat effect following newspaper stories or after possible word-of-mouth communication about the commission of high-value bank robberies. Research results did not support the idea that newspaper reports of successful bank robberies stimulate copycat robberies of banks or other targets.

 

Ray Surette has done extensive research on copycat crimes since the mid-1980s. He argues that copycat crime is a persistent social phenomenon, common enough to influence the total crime picture, but mainly by influencing crime techniques rather than the motivation to commit a crime or the development of criminal tendencies. A copycat criminal is likely to be a career criminal involved in property offenses rather than a first-time violent offender. The specific relationship between media coverage and the commission of copycat crime is currently unknown, and the social-context factors influencing copycat crimes have not been identified.   

 

Certainly, it can not be proven that a media depiction might stimulate an otherwise ordinary person to commit a crime. Although research has established the media's influence on some deviant behaviors, it has not established a direct causal connection between media stimuli and specific deviant behaviors apart from other variables appearing in combination. Simply because a media depiction is followed by the reoccurrence of a similar event does not indicate a connection. In some cases, alleged copycats have stated they knew nothing of the previous publicized incident. Research is needed in the areas of long-term media effects, media models, and at-risk populations. For example, what is the long-term impact of viewing of thousands of violence acts in cartoons and television shows watched by children as they grow up?

 

Surette also noted that copycat crimes revealed identifiable similarities among incidents. The copycat criminals seemed to fall into at least four groupings with some overlap. “Mode” copiers were those who already intended to commit a crime and who received a method from the media event. For example, a potential car thief copies the techniques seen on a television police drama for breaking into and hot wiring a car. “Group” copiers were those who copied acts in groups. In 1995, a group of Tampa, FL teens bragged to police they stole cars and shoot at robbery victims because earlier in the same week a 12-year-old repeat robber had been granted probation rather than prison. The case had been given major media attention. The other two categories were mentally ill or mentally deficient copiers, and terrorists.  Since terrorism is partially driven by media attention, it is not surprising that terrorists choose to repeat methods that have produced high media ratings in the past. This has led concerned media executives to consider carefully how much attention they focus on terrorist acts.

 

In spite of the fact that the evidence for copycat behavior is inconclusive, pressure groups continue to advocate both voluntary and mandatory controls on media depictions of crime and violence. Hearings were held in the U.S. Congress several times in the 1990s addressing these issues. While some compare the alleged threat similar to the comic book panic of the 1950s, attempts to curb media violence will continue.

 

From: Greek, Cecil. 1997a. Copy-cat crimes. In Rasmussen, R. Kent (ed.). Ready reference: Censorship. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press.

 

All social learning models appear to be somewhat too deterministic, revealing their roots in behaviorism. At worst, such models tend to deanthropromorphize human beings; treating them instead like Pavlov’s dogs of Skinner’s rats. At the very least, reasoning human beings when witnessing the behavior of parents or peers make a decision to copy it or to choose alternative forms of behaving.  Children decide to repeat the parenting practices they themselves were subject to, or do the opposite.

 

The differential association theory of Edwin Sutherland has been used as the basis for modern social learning theory. In comparison to social learning theory’s focus on the immediate family unit and close peers, sociological learning models expand the scope of concern to the larger community and the society as a whole. Sociological models have has been combined with social learning theory by authors such as Ronald Akers (See Deviant Behavior: A Social Learning Approach.  Third Edition, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1985.)

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This page was last modified November 22, 2005
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