The Relevance of the Dual Systems Model for Social Learning Theory: Testing for Moderation Effects

AuthorThomas Wojciechowski
Published date01 December 2021
Date01 December 2021
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2021, Vol. 48, No. 12, December 2021, 1788 –1804.
Article reuse guidelines:
© 2021 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
Testing for Moderation Effects
Michigan State University
Social learning theory is one of the most prominent criminological theories of the 20th century. The dual systems model
represents an emerging framework in recent years, which may help to better understand how social learning processes are
influenced by sensation-seeking and impulse control. This study utilized data from all waves of the Pathways to Desistance
study. A series of mixed-effects models were utilized to test for moderating effects of these constructs on offending outcomes.
Impulse control moderated the relationship between deviant peer association and offending frequency, indicating that high
levels of both constructs predicted increased offending frequency. Sensation-seeking moderated the relationship between
deviant peer association and odds of offending, indicating that high levels of both constructs were associated with greater
odds of offending although this moderation effect was only marginally significant.
Keywords: peer influence; self-control; impulsivity; juveniles; longitudinal
One of the most prominent frameworks in criminology for the past several decades has
been Akers’ (1973) social learning theory. This theory asserts that processes associated with
definitions toward crime, reinforcement and punishment of behavior, and differential asso-
ciation with deviant peers help to understand offending risk. Numerous tests of this theory
have been applied and generally support has been found (Boman et al., 2019; Cochran et al.,
2016; Gallupe et al., 2019). While this theory has indicated the relevance of peer processes
for understanding offending, the importance of novel frameworks in this domain cannot be
ignored either. The dual systems model of adolescent risk-taking is one theory of cognitive
development, which is emerging as a relevant paradigm for predicting offending (Steinberg,
2010; Steinberg et al., 2008). This theory posits that peak engagement in risky behavior
AUTHORS’ NOTE: Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Thomas Wojciechowski,
School of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University, 655 Auditorium Road, East Lansing, MI 48824; e-mail:
1017927CJBXXX10.1177/00938548211017927Criminal Justice and BehaviorWojciechowski / Dual Systems Model
Wojciechowski / DUAL SYSTEMS MODEL 1789
during adolescence is due to the brain regions governing the constructs of sensation-seeking
and impulse control developing at varying rates. Although recent research has indicated the
relevance of the dual systems model for understanding offending risk (Burt et al., 2014;
Forrest et al., 2019), there is a dearth of research that has investigated the relevance of this
framework for understanding social learning processes. This is a major omission, as there is
reason to believe that dual systems constructs may interact with social learning concepts to
produce elevated effects on offending risk. This study bridges these gaps in the extant litera-
ture by testing the degree to which that deviant peer association moderates the relationships
between both dual systems constructs and offending risk.
Akers’ (1973) social learning theory understands engagement in criminal behavior as the
result of a complex process involving learning the motivations, rationalizations, techniques,
and drives toward offending. This begins with the provision of definitions favorable or
unfavorable toward offending. These definitions are general attitudes that individuals occu-
pying one’s social sphere hold toward offending. If individuals are exposed to more defini-
tions that are favorable to offending, then that individual will have a higher likelihood of
offending. This is described as the process of differential association, as greater engagement
with deviant others should increase one’s own deviance. It is here that the concept of devi-
ant peer association is relevant. This concept was particularly important for understanding
offending in adolescence, a key period of the life-course focused upon in social learning
theory. Past research has indicated that offending risk generally peaks during adolescence
(Kim & Bushway, 2018; Matthews & Minton, 2018; Moffitt, 1993). Adolescence is also a
period of the life-course when greater autonomy is gained and peer relationships supplant
familial ties as being the most salient influences on behavior (Warr, 2002). For this reason,
it was theorized that greater levels of association with deviant peers would result in more
definitions favorable toward offending being provided to an individual, thus, increasing
offending risk among adolescents.
Beyond definitions, social learning theory also focused on the role that reinforcement/
punishment played in increasing risk for perpetuation of offending behaviors. Reinforcement
refers to any perceived reward resulting from or that may result from engagement in a given
behavior that increases the likelihood of engagement in said behavior. In terms of offend-
ing, reinforcement may include things like praise from deviant peers, money gained through
theft, and enjoying the high felt from smoking marijuana. Punishment is just the opposite in
that experiencing it should decrease the likelihood of offending (e.g., being grounded by
parents for stealing). These processes are also delineated into social and direct subtypes,
with social reinforcement/punishment relating to rewards/sanctions experienced through
interaction with others (e.g., being yelled at by parents, getting a high five from friends) and
direct reinforcement/punishment relating to experiences inherent to engagement in a behav-
ior (e.g., taking drugs and getting high and having fun at a party, feeling hungover the night
after drinking too much). In these ways, differential association with deviant peers in a
socialization process increases offending risk that not only functions through exposure to
definitions favorable toward offending, but also through processes of reinforcement that
perpetuate involvement in criminal behavior. However, whereas reinforcement remains a
key concept in social learning theory, Akers’ (1998) own research has yielded less empirical

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