Revisiting the Empirical Status of Social Learning Theory on Substance Use: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

Nathan E. Kruis, Chunghyeon Seo, Bitna Kim

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Background: Despite ample empirical research testing components of Akers’ Social Learning Theory (SLT) on substance use, no research to date has attempted to synthesize the empirical evidence. Objectives: The purpose of this article is to synthesize prior research that has examined the utility of SLT for predicting specific types of substance use, both legal and illegal. Methods: Using a systematic review and meta-analysis, the current study estimated the effect size results from 83 primary studies published between 1974 and 2018 that had empirically tested concepts of Akers’ SLT regarding substance use. In addition, moderator analyses examined variations in effect sizes across measurement constructs and among specific types of substance use. Results: Results indicated medium-sized weighted mean effect size estimates for SLT in relation to substance use. Regarding conceptualization of SLT, measures of Differential Association produced the strongest effect size estimates. Moderator analyses also revealed that mean effect size estimates were largest for soft drugs, for studies conducted in the context of the United States, and for adult samples. Conclusions: The authors conclude that SLT constructs may be better suited for explaining soft drug use than hard drug use. Given the relatively sparse primary research that has controlled for temporal ordering, collected data from multiple differential associates, or considered opportunity effects, caution in the interpretation of synthesis results is warranted.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)666-683
Number of pages18
JournalSubstance Use and Misuse
Issue number4
StatePublished - Feb 17 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Health(social science)
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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