U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Social Learning, Self-Control, and Substance Abuse by Eighth Grade Students: A Tale of Two Cities

NCJ Number
Journal of Drug Issues Volume: 28 Issue: 2 Dated: Spring 1998 Pages: 539-558
Date Published
20 pages

This study examined the ability of social-learning theory and self-control theory to predict the level of substance abuse reported by two cohorts of eighth grade students, one residing in Phoenix, Ariz., and the other living in Las Cruces, N. Mex., a smaller city.


Social learning theory suggests that basically good children learn to become substance abusers due to such social forces as internalized definitions supportive of delinquent behavior, the influence of delinquent peers, the presence of powerful social reinforcers, and the absence of adequate social punishers. Self- control theory, a more recent theoretical entry, has different views about adolescent misbehavior. Under this theory, children become delinquent owing to inadequate parenting and poorly developed self-controls. Taken together, these two perspectives should provide unique insights into the self-reported substance abuse of eighth grade students in the two cities. The sample in Phoenix consisted of 501 eighth graders, and in Law Cruces the sample numbered 489. The study measured student substance abuse with an index created by Elliott and associates (1985) for the National Youth Survey. The independent variables associated with social-learning constructs were neutralization, guilt, positive reinforcement, and negative punishers. The independent variables associated with self-control were parental monitoring, impulsivity, and risk-taking. Regarding social-learning theory, the differential definitions nearly across the board made significant and important contributions to the regression equations. Feelings of guilt (prosocial) were associated with lower self-reported substance abuse; whereas, neutralizing definitions (antisocial) were associated with higher use. Additionally, the punishers and reinforcers, although showing the predicted type of relationship, failed to contribute significantly to the substance abuse in the Phoenix cohort, but did make such a contribution in the equation for the Las Cruces sample. These differences can be explained in terms of the patterns of youthful socialization in the two very different school systems, one which isolated students in middle-school years, or grades six, seven, and eight, from the often impressionable school children in grades kindergarten through fifth grade. among the self-control variables, only risk-taking propensity provided strong and consistent ties to adolescent substance abuse in the two samples. The findings suggest that at different times in a youth's life, variable sets of psychological and social factors help propel the child toward the assumption of deviant roles. 3 tables, 4 notes, 36 references, and appended study instrument

Date Published: January 1, 1998