Social Schematic Theory

Over the past several years, Ron Simons and I have been developing a perspective on human development that guides my research. This perspective, which we have developed into a social schematic theory of crime, was presented and tested in a recent Criminology piece (Simons & Burt 2011). The social schematic theory is a life-course learning theory that integrates recent findings in criminology and allied disciplines and recasts them into a new learning framework, which is inherently integrative and interdisciplinary. The theory’s focus is on elucidating the individual mechanisms through which social-environmental adversities and supports influence individual differences in social behaviors.

At the core of this theory and my research is the assumption that humans adapt to their social environments not in the sense of promoting “success” in Western cultural terms but in the sense of promoting survival. Thus, SST starts from the assumption, consistent with a growing body of research on human morality, that individuals are born with innate capacities to be fair, cooperative, and sympathetic as well as to be egoistic, coercive, and sometimes aggressive. Rather than being born good, bad, or empty vessels into which society pours its definitions of morality, SST assumes that we are born with the capacity (the wiring) to adapt our orientations to fit our environments.

Humans have evolved to survive in a variety of contexts, which vary in the degree to which they are supportive and predictable versus hostile and dangerous, and, thus, require different competencies. The emphasis is on the fact that individuals adapt to survive, not necessarily to thrive especially in any Western cultural sense, in the contexts in which they find themselves, and that criminal behavior can be incited by such adaptations. In general, the theory proposes that individuals reared and situated in supportive environments often adapt by developing worldviews of others as trustworthy and fair and conventional norms as worthy of respect and commitment, while those reared in dangerous, harsh environments may develop social schemas of others as hostile, unfair, and unpredictable as a result of their adverse experiences. The latter worldview is conducive to situational definitions requiring or justifying crime and risky behaviors.

In a more recent article, we extended the theory’s treatment of the role of environments not only as contexts for development but also as contexts for action, thereby incorporating the role of selection into risky and criminogenic settings as a causal force in shaping the likelihood of criminal events (Simons, Burt, et al., Criminology 2014). In a current piece, I further develop the theory, including its logical foundation, assumptions, and grounding in evidence of individuals’ remarkable degree of adaptive developmental plasticity (Burt, in progress).

Although I have and will continue to test, develop, and elaborate the social schematic theory over the next several years, this perspective frames my research in my substantive areas of expertise related to crime and deviance: racial discrimination/racial socialization and self-control. In particular, my research in these substantive domains is undergirded by the developmental assumptions central to the social schematic theory: humans adapt to social-environmental conditions, and although parenting practices and other rearing environments in early childhood are crucial for calibrating the processes involved in such adaptations, we remain malleable and responsive to social-environmental conditions over the life course.