The learning theory: application to John Wayne Gacy case

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Many people in the society pick up some traits from the environment they were born and raised in when children and young adults. In localities where crime activities and drug usage is rampant, one would expect to see children in that area growing up to be criminals and drug addicts. The same case is with serial killers. These individuals who kill people in secret do so because of some of the environmental factors that surround them. In most of the cases where these killers are interviewed, they always tend to blame their surroundings for their actions. To understand how serial killers operate and some of the forces behind their actions, this essay will analyze how the social learning theory fits in the case of John Wayne Gacy.

Gacy’s Background Information

John Wayne Gacy was a rapist and a serial killer. It is reported that Gacy secretly raped and murdered at least 30 teenage boys between the 1972 and 1978. Gacy carried out his operations in Cook County, Illinois. At home, Gacy was the only son to the former World War 1 veteran, Gacy Sr. and his wife, Marion Robinson. He was of Danish and Polish ancestry. When growing up, Gacy had a struggled relationship with his father but was very close to his mother and sisters who were also being abused by their father. At school, Gacy never took part in any sporting activities due to his heart condition and was also overweight. Due to this heart and weight condition, Gacy always found himself as the center of attraction for bullying from other students in the school.

In his entire life, Gacy always tried his best to make his father proud and gain approval before he could take any action in any circumstance in life. This friction that existed between him and his father was spread right from his childhood to his immature adult stage. For instance, when he was four, Gacy’s dad once beat him so bad for disarranging the components of his car engine he had just finished arranging. At another point in life, his father hit him on the head with a stick, and this beating rendered Gacy unconscious for some time. On a regular basis, his father belittled him and favored his sisters more than the young Gacy (Miller, 2014). Although one would always expect Gacy to hate his dad, Gacy, in various interviews, always denied cursing his father for mistreating him as a child.

On several occasions, as a child, Gacy was also a victim of sexual abuse and molestation (Miller, 2014). One of the family’s friend at one time molested the young boy after taking rides with his in his truck. However, the young boy never told his father about this sexual harassment for being afraid of his father ending up blaming him. His father was known for blaming Gacy for everything, at one time when Gacy was in a hospital, his father blamed him for faking his sickness so he could gain sympathy from him.

The Social Learning Theory

Albert Bandura is the sociologist who coined the Social Learning Theory. Bandura et al., (1977) in their theory explain that learning is a cognitive process which involuntarily takes place through direct instructions and observations. This learning process takes place in a social context. According to Bandura and Walters, the fundamental pillars of the theory lies in learning as being a cognitive process (rather than purely behavioral), learning could occur by observing a behavior and knowing its consequences, learning could occur through observing a behavior and making decisions from the practice, and learning is not a passive recipient of any information rather (Bandura et al., 1977).

Application of the Social Theory to the Case of John Wayne Gacy

As one of the pillars of the theory states, the learning process is entire cognitive and not purely behavioral and takes place in a social context. Growing up, the environment in which Gacy grew up allowed him to change his way of thinking and to see things. Coming from a family where his father never appreciated him and going to a school where his schoolmates would bully him, he grew up into an adult who was never mindful of other people’s feelings. This change in Gacy’s mentality led him into believing that everyone in the society deserves to go through some sort of pain (Parke, 2014). For this reason, Gacy found himself putting his victims through torture before killing them by strangulation or asphyxiation.

The other pillar of the social learning theory is the vicarious reinforcement. Through this theoritical frame, the theory suggests that an individual can learn something through observing a behavior of other people and learning about their consequences. Before carrying out the murders of his male victims, Gacy would force them into having sex with him. When growing up, Gacy was a victim of child sexual abuse. In two accounts, he was sexually molested as a child. In the first account, Gacy was molested by a male relative, while on the second occasion he was molested by his father’s male friend. Through these sexual molestation incidents, Gacy came to know of the consequences sexual molestation had on its victims (Parke, 2014). This consequence was a lifetime trauma, depression, and a feeling of rejection. By sexually molesting his victims, I argue that Gacy always had the intentions of making his victims go through the same case he went through and face the same emotional battle he faced as a child.

The other pillar of the theory states that cognition, the environment, and the behavior mutually have an influence on each other. From the case of Gacy, both his environment at school and at home had an impact on what he grew up to become. At one point, he even worked as a mortuary attendant after running away from home. When working as a mortuary attendant, Gacy would sleep behind the body embalming room. Gacy even, at one time, climbed into a coffin of a dead teenage man embraced and caressed his body (Miller, 2014). From these cases, we see how Gacy’s interaction with dead bodies at a morgue made him get used to dead bodies, hence becoming a serial killer. On the other hand, the sexual harassment he went through as a child, by the male grown-ups, made him fond of having sex with men, even the dead male. From these accounts, it is evident to see how the behavior, the environment, and cognition work hand in hand to change a person into something different than he was when he was a baby.


The behaviors of the people around an individual have the ability to change and molding the individual into a very different person. When a child is regularly abused back at home and in school without any interventions from the adults in the extended family or even the teachers, the child stands a chance of becoming someone with so much anger and hate inside him. As in the case of Gacy, he grew up with so much anger and hate that led him into becoming a serial killer and someone who loves to put other people through pain. To conclude, I would ask the adults in the society to be mindful of their behaviors and actions because children grow up to be a reflection of what they see in the community when growing.

Did you like this sample?
  1. Bandura, A., & Walters, R. H. (1977). Social learning theory.
  2. Miller, L. (2014). Serial killers: I. Subtypes, patterns, and motives. Aggression and violent behavior, 19(1), 1-11.
  3. Parke, R. D. (Ed.). (2014). Recent trends in social learning theory. Academic Press.
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