Akers Differential Association-Reinforcement Theory Explained

Akers Differential Association-Reinforcement Theory Explained

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There are two theories offered to explain why people behave the way they do: the differential association theory and the differential reinforcement theory. Each theory offers a specific set of circumstances and experiences to create an outcome within an individual. The Akers differential association-reinforcement theory brings both of these ideas underneath the same umbrella.

What Does Differential Association Theory Look Like?

You walk into a grocery store. There in the checkout line, a father is waiting with his children to purchase an entire cart of groceries. The children spot the candy bars that are sitting there. “I want a candy bar!” one child demands.

“No,” the father says.

So the child begins throwing a temper tantrum. There is scream. There might be some foot stomping. And as you watch the father, you see he is become more frustrated with his child. “Knock it off!” he demands. “I told you that you’re not getting a candy bar!”

The screaming gets louder. The foot stomping increases. “I WANT A CANDY BAR!” the child demands again.

“FINE!” the father yells back. “Put the candy bar into the cart. Anything to get you to stop with this childish behavior.”

The tantrum stops. The candy bar goes into the cart.

Then you notice that there is another family behind this father. The child sees that throwing a tantrum worked for that kid, whom he doesn’t know, so maybe it will work for him as well. So he asks for a candy bar. When his mother says no, then that child throws a tantrum as well.

It is the second child observing the success of the first child, then mimicking that behavior, which is an example of differential association. This occurs when an individual bases their personal behaviors by association and interaction with other people.

What Does the Differential Reinforcement Theory Look Like?

You walk into a grocery store. There in the checkout line, a father is waiting with his children to purchase an entire cart of groceries. The children spot the candy bars that are sitting there. “I want a candy bar!” one child demands.
“No,” the father says.

So the child begins throwing a temper tantrum. There is screaming. There might be some foot stomping. And as you watch the father, you see that he is ignoring all of these behaviors. He’s maybe reading through one of the tabloids while all of this is going on.

After a minute or two, the child stops throwing a tantrum. Then the child takes a deep breath. “May I please have a candy bar today?” the child asks.

Then you see the father reply, “Yes. Thank you for asking with your manners. That was a good job. You may add a candy bar to the cart.”

It is sequence of interactions between the father and his child that are an example of differential reinforcement.

What Does This Mean for Personal Behavioral Choices?

Akers differential association-reinforcement theory involves why people decide to make criminal behavior choices. It either comes from observed behaviors that are highly regarded in other people or it comes from a learned behavior that has been influential in that person’s development.

In both theories, there are positive and negative consequences. These consequences are used in a way to modify behavior in some way. Punishments are generally reserved to decrease undesired behaviors, while reinforcements are used to increase desired behaviors.

Choosing criminal behaviors weighs the balance between the positive and the negative within the individual. When the positive of a criminal act outweighs the negative of a criminal act, an individual is more likely to choose an undesired behavior.

How these positives and negatives are applied will depend on the differential theory that is being implemented. Association reinforcement looks to add elements to a person’s environment that will persuade them to make a positive choice. It seeks to make the choice of a criminal act become less favorable by making the consequences of a criminal act as negative as possible.

Differential reinforcements take a different approach. It uses “extinction” to promote positive behavior trends. Instead of increasing the number of consequences that a person may face, it seeks to remove the positive reinforcement that is promoting a criminal act in the first place. When the positive association to an undesired behavior is removed, then it removes the need for the undesired behavior to take place.

How Do We Implement This Theory Every Day?

All of us use the Akers differential-association reinforcement theory every day, although we may not realize this is what we are doing. Parents, as shown in the example above, use this theory as a method of parenting. Any consequence that is offered is a reflection of the association reinforcement theory. Any ignoring of negative behaviors to receive a positive outcome is a reflection of the differential reinforcement theory.

Employees follow these theories at work every day as well. Policies and procedures are in place as a way to use differential association theory to strike a balance between risk and reward. Differential reinforcements are also used, such as the implementation of an awards program or a benefits package, to remove the trigger that is causing an undesired behavior in the first place.

Can We Change Our Behaviors?

This theory looks to explain the reason why we are tempted to offer the world specific behaviors under certain circumstances. Just because the temptation is there to act does not mean a person will act upon their behavioral impulse. All behavior that is based on differential associations or reinforcements is a choice.

We can choose to commit a criminal act. We can choose to disobey an employer. Or we can choose not to do these things.

Although we learn our behaviors, which means we also learn our actions, from the structures and behaviors of others around us, it is up to each person to make that final decision. Do you act on the impulse? Or do you choose not to act on the impulse?

This means we can change our behaviors if we are willing to analyze the associations and reinforcements that are around us. This act of analyzation is also a tool that others can use in order to modify their own behaviors. Even the act of reading this content and recognizing certain patterns in your own choices can be an act of differential association.

And if a friend encouraged you to read this, that could also be an act of differential reinforcement.

We make tens of thousands of choices every day that affect our lives in small ways. We can also make one big decision that can change the course of our lives forever. This is why the balancing and learning process offered by the Akers differential-association reinforcement theory is so important to understand.