Modeling vs. Strain Theory as Crime Explanation

Subject: Law
Pages: 6
Words: 1629
Reading time:
6 min
Study level: College


Crime has remained a major problem throughout human history. This has generated significant concern in the United States and other parts of the world. Due to the wide range of effects emanating from crime, most researchers have spent their time and resources studying the nature of crime and its major causes in society. Through these research approaches, different explanations have been put forth, explaining crime in the context of its causes, structure, and impact in society. Importantly, these findings were used to develop theories, which have remained to be crucial tools in explaining the causes of crime and in the understanding of human behavior, about their surroundings. Modeling and strain theories are commonly used to describe criminal behavior in society, based on how they were proposed by their pioneers, who endeavored to unravel the mystery behind crime and violence in the world. This paper discusses the two theories, which are closely related, and seeks to explain existing differences and similarities.

Modeling theory

In understanding the modeling theory of crime, it is essential to underscore the fact that human behavior is shaped by a wide range of factors, including the impact of their actions and what they see. In other words, part of human behavior is developed through modeling, where members of the society observe trends, which form part of their behavior, by influencing their actions and how they respond to a given situation in life (Schmalleger, 2011). This theory of social learning has been used for decades to explain human behavior toward other members of society.

Throughout history, Albert Bandura has been acknowledged for his contributions, based on his arguments, explaining human behavior and how certain traits are learned in society. The basis of this theory is the fact that human beings can learn from others through observations. This is common in cases where young people consider the elderly in society as role models and tend to emulate their behaviors and how they respond to different situations through actions (Schmalleger, 2011). Besides learning behavior from members of society, this theory also acknowledges the role of internal states of the mind in defining a person’s behavior. In other words, what is observed is connected to one’s mental functions before an action is taken. The last aspect of this theory, which is equally important, clarifies the fact that behavior is not automatically learned from what people observe in life. This is to say that one can learn something from other members of society without altering their behavior in any way.

Observational learning is commonly observed in children, who are largely influenced by older members of the family to behave in a particular way through imitation. According to Bandura, children’s actions may be influenced by what they have observed before or may apply the tactics, which another person employed when faced with a similar situation. For example, he carried out the Bobo doll experiment in which children were allowed to watch an adult harassing the doll (Schmalleger, 2011). This significantly affected these children because they equally reacted violently towards the doll when they were allowed to interact with it, explaining how behavior and actions can be learned from other people through observations.

As mentioned before, learning new behavior does not solely rely on what is observed physically within one’s environment, but is also influenced by the mental status of the person making the observations. Modeling theory identifies intrinsic reinforcement and the role of the mind in determining the effectiveness of observed actions in shaping the behavior of an individual (Schmalleger, 2011). In other words, factors like pride and internal satisfaction may come into play in determining behavior change. This argument has been used widely to create a link between human behavior and cognitive theories of development.

Moreover, new information can be acquired through learning, without interfering with one’s behavior. The modeling process explains the stages, which are involved when observing some actions being performed by an individual and their impact on the behavior of the victim. In other words, there are other factors, which come into play in shaping the behavior of a person through observational learning. Firstly, learning can only take place when there is attention, to allow concentration and proper internalizing of new ideas being observed (Siegel, 2012). In the presence of other elements, which are likely to cause destruction, learning cannot effectively take place. Additionally, people can be influenced by what they observe in life if they have the mental capacity to store and use this information later. This means that a child would not become violent if he or she cannot recall previous scenes observed. On the other hand, those that have this ability are likely to act violently and demonstrate the impact of the observed behavior.

In relating observed actions with the change of behavior, the modeling theory of crime connects the effectiveness of this link with the ability of the person to actualize observed actions through practice. In the same line of thought, the perfection of these actions can only be realized when one has the urge to polish the skills and advance them. While these factors are important in the modeling process, no new behavior might be learned in the absence of motivation from society and the surrounding. Motivation allows one to improve observed ideas through actions and continuous practice. However, reinforcement and retribution play a major role in either motivating or discouraging a given behavior respectively (Siegel, 2012). If a child commits a crime and is encouraged through acknowledgment, such behavior is likely to reoccur as compared to that one who is punished and warned against such behavior. This, therefore, means that society’s view and response to crime equally play a significant role in either ending the vice or promoting the same behavior through reinforcement.

Strain Theory

This theory has been advanced by several theorists, to establish an understanding of crime in society and how various organs of the society can be involved in dealing with the problem. Robert Agnew revised the theory, which had been developed by other experts, by addressing some of the weaknesses that had been observed. This was possible by expanding the range of the theory by addressing issues to do with the social class, goals, and future expectations (Siegel, 2012).

While modeling theory focuses on the ability of a person to make observations and transform his or her behavior, strain theory focuses on the connection between crime and failed ambitions in society. It is important to note that human behavior can be influenced by different strains, which exist. For example, strain exists when the amount of money required to meet one’s needs cannot be met through lawful means (Schmalleger, 2011). Most delinquents are usually driven by the urge to acquire money to meet their needs.

Criminal behavior is equally demonstrated as a way of exerting a person’s, power, status, and respect. It has been widely observed that some people prove their masculinity to society by engaging in criminal activities. Through this approach, one can be recognized negatively in society by going against societal norms, values, and ethics. Strain can also emanate from one’s desire to achieve respect in society through unlawful means (Schmalleger, 2011). Although it does not cut across cultures, the passion to have a masculine status has been observed to be common among men. As a result, certain masculine behaviors are demonstrated through activities that trigger violence or are against the law, since they are criminal. This is largely witnessed in communities, which promote gender imbalance, such that men are considered to be more powerful than women.

Strain theory also explains how people engage in crime by addressing the impact of failed autonomy in society. While most people prefer controlling power, adolescents and members of the lower class in society experience strain, which is triggered by autonomy (Vito & Maahs, 2011). In other words, the poor may try to assert power and quell their daily frustrations by attacking members of the upper class, by assuming that they have denied them a chance to exercise autonomy in society. While the modeling theory deals with how information learned by individuals can promote criminal behavior, strain theory views the role of failure in life, and how members of society resort to violence in compensating for their failed aspirations.

Similarly, strain, which emanates from one’s external environment, has the potential of triggering a wide range of negative feelings, including but not limited to defeat anger and despair. Nevertheless, anger is known to cause crime in society more than any other feelings, which develop as a result of strain. According to Agnew, most people become angry as a result of blaming existing negative situations and their social link with other members of society (Vito & Maahs, 2011). Anger is generally known to ignite action and revenge, coupled with a lower possibility of reversing the mind. Importantly, repetitive strain exposes a person to higher chances of committing a crime due to high levels of accumulated anger. Such individuals may also become hostile, making it hard for other members of the society to offer relevant help to deal with the situation. This negative arousal may therefore promote negative social life.


While strain and modeling theories make a good mix in explaining criminal behavior in society, the two schools of thought address the issue of crime in society from varying perspectives. Modeling mainly emphasizes the role of what is learned in transforming one’s behavior, even though some information may not influence behavior. On the other hand, strain theory focuses on how people change behavior because of unattained goals and targets in life. These strains, which emanate arouse anger due to frustrations and limit a person’s ability to exercise self-control. Despite these differences, the two theories explain factors, which promote criminal behavior in society.


Schmalleger, F. (2011). Criminology: A Brief Introduction. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Siegel, L. (2012). Criminology: Theories, Patterns, and Typologies. Connecticut: Cengage Learning.

Vito, G., & Maahs, J. (2011). Criminology: Theory, Research, and Policy. Massachusetts: Jones & Bartlett Publishers.