Social Learning Theory: An Exploration into the Psychological Training of a Serial Killer


Ramirez in San Quentin 2007
by Elizabeth Hall

Developed in the late 1970’s by Albert Bandura, Social Learning Theory, based on the premise of behavioral learning, is a great theory to explain the phenomenon of serial murder. The theory bases its assumptions on the principal that if we as people do not learn from each other, by example, we would never learn or accomplish anything.
The theory asserts that behavior is a thing that we learn through our experiences and the system of rewards or punishments that come with our particular lifestyles. We ultimately are a product of our environment and lifestyles, because it is through these interactions with others, that we form our own individuality. Babies begin learning at birth, if not before. When they reach conscious awareness, which happens around 12 months, babies can see and understand most human emotions and begin developing social skills as toddlers (Kids’ Development, 2010). From this point, toddlers are constantly learning behavior throughout the rest of their developmental years, until roughly the age of 18, modeling their behavior upon the behavior they see their idols, mentors, and family members emulating.

The Social Learning Theory asserts that if the behavior learned from these idols, mentors, and family members through the process of behavior modeling, is of a violent nature, a person will model their behavior on that violence. This is in order to receive praise or reward from the teacher, or to act like the media figure they follow, in order to seem more like them, or to receive the perceived reward they see in the media representation (Siegel, 2010). Bandura’s BoBo Doll Experiment is proof that the theory does hold merit (Isom, 1998). Other examples of observed behavior include idolizing violent media figures, watching your father physically or mentally abusing your mother repeatedly, or mentoring under a person who establishes that violent behavior is good. The theory also asserts that because human behavior, derived from a reward and punishment standpoint of social corroboration, that violence spawns more violence. In the case of serial killers, most of them have come from abusive dysfunctional homes. For the purposes of this paper, we will look at one serial killer, Richard Ramirez, and the psychological journey that molded him from a likeable child into one of America’s most notorious serial killers.

Social Learning- The theory

In the late 1970’s Albert Bandura developed the Social Learning Theory, which supports that aggression, learned from watching other people as they receive rewards for aggressive behavior (Siegel, 2010). The actions that are taken by human beings are derived from knowledge gained from experiences in their own lives. Behavior is maintained when rewarded, and negated when chastisement occurs, aggression is viewed as learned reactions to situations experienced in life, and that people are not born violent, but gain violent tendencies through the direct viewing of violence, or by viewing violence in the mass media. The main contributing factors to crime causation include an environment laden with violence, mass media, and negative family interaction. Because babies learn at an early age to interpret emotions (Kids’ Development, 2010), violence and negative behavior, also observed and understood at an early age can be the beginning of the making of a criminal (Isom, 1998.). In applying social learning, there are four processes that are involved, which begin in the early stages of life. These processes are: attention- gaining focus of learner by sensory function, past corroboration, or levels of arousal. Retention- learner retrieves representative coding for actions, which provide interest to them. Motivation- is the self-bolstering of motivation or sensational motivation through vicarious means. The last is Motor Reproduction- learner physically reproduces the learned actions. The person is more likely to adapt the behavior of the teacher, if the activity, or the teacher, is admired by the learner. Examples of this include the little girl who walks around in her mother’s high-heeled shoes, the little boy who is fascinated with tools because their father is a handyman, and the new employee learning their job by training with their boss. (Siegel, 2008)

Social Learning- The Experiment

It is through our social and familial interactions that our individuality forms, and serves as an explanation for why, not everyone who grows up in a negative environment turns to crime later in life. Bandura and his BoBo Doll Experiment provide some solid proof to the Social Learning Theory. This is particularly a good theory to explain most serial murderers, since almost the entire American version of these criminals has grown up in dysfunctional homes, with abuse, neglect, or criminality within their families. The experiment begins with children observing videos of adults hitting, kicking, punching, and pummeling a plastic BoBo doll with a mallet without receiving punishment for this behavior. After watching the video, Bandura placed the children in a room with toys that would have been age appropriate for attractiveness, and told not to touch the toys. When the children had become frustrated because of the restrictions on the toys, they were then lead to another room, with BoBo dolls like the ones in the video. The children frustrated because of the previous room, began imitating the aggression that they witnessed in the video by the adults. In another controlled group, after viewing the video, the children watched a different segment, which shows the adults receiving reprimands for the aggressive behavior. This group did not repeat the aggressive behavior witnessed on the video, when put in the room with the BoBo dolls even after being placed in the room with the toys they could not play with. (Isom, 1998)

Social Learning Theory Applied to Serial Killer Richard Ramirez 

   Bandura’s Social Learning Theory applies to serial murderers because of the principals of the theory that state: children learn aggressive behavior through observing family, role models, or the mass media, parents that abuse their spouses teach their children to be abusers, and criminals with criminal family members learn criminality (Siegel, 2008). In this paper, we will discuss one particular serial murderer. How Richard Ramirez’s, life relates to Social Learning Theory becomes evident upon discussing his life as a child, his developmental years, and the tenets of his adult life. We will explore how this likeable boy grew up to become one of America’s most prolific serial murderers.

The last child born into a family of immigrant, hard working, religious parents, Richard made his way into our world on February 29, 1960. He has three older brothers, and one older sister. To make ends meet, and to have a better life for their family, Julian and Mercedes Ramirez often worked long hours keeping them away from the home. Julian, Ramirez’s, father had a very bad temper. Because his parents were rarely, home Richard, left in the care of his older siblings idolized his brothers. His brothers’ favorite pastime unfortunately happens to be burglarizing neighborhood homes. Richard, following their example, learns the trade and performs tasks such as looking out while they entered the houses. Richard also has a lot of contact with his cousin Mike, a disturbed Vietnam veteran, whom Richard idolizes above everyone else. (Bruno, 2010) 

Cousin Mike spent hours with Richard, discussing how he violently raped women in Vietnam. They spent time riding around in Mike’s car smoking pot, or in his garage where he kept pictures of the disturbing deeds that he committed while in the military in Vietnam. The topic of discussion was always about sex and violence. Richard’s first thoughts about sex were developing during these conversations. Mike had changed so much because of his experiences in Vietnam, that upon his return, he and his wife seldom got along, and the couple argues frequently. One day when Richard was 11, they got into an argument, and Mike shot her in the face right in front of Richard and his own two kids. Later, Richard’s father took him back to the scene to collect some personal items, and the blood evidence was still present. (Bruno, 2010) 

When Richard was 17, his mother, who was fed up with his marijuana use, rock music, and getting in trouble with his brothers, kicked him out of the house. At 18, disillusioned and atheistic, he left his hometown of El Paso Texas, for California where he would later be arrested for burglary crimes. While in jail, he learned about Satanism from his cellmate. He figured that instead of worshiping God who did not condone his actions, he should be worshiping Satan who most certainly condoned his actions and thoughts. His first murder was actually intended to be a burglary. Jennie Vincow was the victim. When Richard entered her apartment, and found nothing worth stealing, he got angry and decided to take the most valuable thing she had- her life. This was in June of 1984. The following year in 1985 he went on to murder 12 more people by strangulation, stabbing, shooting them, slashing their throats, or simply beating them to death. He aspired to be the best serial killer there ever was, thinking that it would earn him an elevated spot in hell at Lucifer's side, however he was caught before he could fulfill that fantasy. When he was caught, he was charged with 63 crimes – thirteen murder charges, and the rest comprised of attempted murder charges, rape charges, and sexual assault charges. (Murdersdatabase, n.d.) 

In relating Social Learning Theory to Ramirez, one must look at his history. Richard grew up with a father known to have a violent temper. His role model was a disturbed Vietnam veteran, who spent his time raping and killing women during his military career and went on to murder his wife. Clearly, he learned general violence from his father, and learned sexual violence from his cousin. Pairing these behaviors with the breaking and entering experience he retained from his brothers, the “Nightstalker” that he became, begins to emerge. Abandoned by his mother, when told to leave, Richard ends up in California. During his years in jail while living in California, he learned about Satanism, which was the final stage of Richard’s learning experience. The Nightstalker was born. When faced with the choice with Mrs.Vincow, he chose to act out his fantasies seeded so long ago by Mike, who was in essence, Richard’s mentor. 
Richard Ramírez
1984 police photo of Ramírez
Background information
Birth name: Ricardo Muñoz Ramírez
Also known as: The Night Stalker
Born: February 28, 1960 (age 51)
Span of killings: April 10, 1984[2]–August 24, 1985
Country: United States
State(s): California
Date apprehended: August 31, 1985


Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, emphasizes that we as human beings learn from each other, and that we learn the most by larger than life public figures, and those who are closest to us such as family and friends. Infants begin interpreting and learning behavior around the age of twelve months (Kids’ Development, 2010), and often idolize their parents. Because we are all products of our environment and lifestyles, and humans are impressionable from birth until adulthood (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2005), we model ourselves on those we admire most. If our environment and lifestyle condone violence and negativity, the notion that violence spawns violence promoted within this theory that a person would learn to be violent. Bandura proves this with his BoBo doll experiment, and the way children learn aggression. (Isom, 1998). Most American serial killers have come from neglecting or abusing dysfunctional family environments. When looking at the history of serial murderer Richard Ramirez, the Social Learning Process pattern is clear and easy to pick out. The Social Learning Theory is the best criminological theory to explain why Ramirez became one of America’s most notorious serial killers. 


Bruno, A. (2010) The Night Stalker: Serial Killer Richard Ramirez. Tru TV. 

Retrieved from: http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/serial_killers/ notorious/ramirez/terror_1.html 

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2005). Serial Murder: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives for Investigators. Retrieved from: http://www.fbi.gov/publications/serial_murder.pdf

Isom, M.D. (1998). Social Learning Theory. Retrieved from http://www.criminology.fsu.edu/crimtheory/bandura.htm 

Kids’ Development. (2010). What Babies See. Retrieved From http://www.kidsdevelopment.co.uk/BabiesVision.html

Murdersdatabase, (n.d.) Richard Ramirez. Retrieved from: 

Siegel, L. J. (2008). Criminology: The Core. Third Edition. Belmont, Ca. Cengage Learning 

Siegel, L.J. (2010). Criminology: Theories, Patterns, and Typologies. Tenth Edition. Belmont: 

Wadsworth Cengage Learning. 

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