Our Knowledge Accumulates as a Result of Learning
People have many memories about their experiences with other people, and they use this information to make predictions about what people will do in the future. This knowledge is gained through learning. The study of learning is closely associated with the behaviorist school of psychology, which includes the psychologists John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner. For behaviorists, the fundamental aspect of learning is the process of conditioning—the ability to connect stimuli (the changes that occur in the environment) with responses (behaviors or other actions). The behaviorists described two types of conditioning that are particularly important in behaviorism: operant conditioning (also known as instrumental conditioning) and classical conditioning (also known as respondent conditioning). When applied to human behavior, these two processes are frequently called, respectively, operant learning and associational learning.
If a child touches a hot radiator, she quickly learns that the radiator is dangerous and is not likely to touch it again. If we have unpleasant experiences with people from a certain state or country, or a positive relationship with a person who has blonde hair or green eyes, we may develop negative or positive attitudes about people with these particular characteristics and attempt to reduce or increase our interactions with them. These changes in our understanding of our environments represent operant learning—the principle that we learn new information as a result of the consequences of our behavior. According to operant learning principles, experiences that are followed by positive emotions (reinforcements or rewards) are likely to be repeated, whereas experiences that are followed by negative emotions (punishments) are less likely to be repeated. With operant conditioning, the person learns from the consequences of his or her own actions.
Although its principles are very simple, operant learning is an important form of human learning. Operant learning occurs when a schoolroom bully threatens his classmates because doing so allows him to get his way, when a child gets good grades because her parents threaten to punish her if she doesn’t, when we begin to like someone who smiles at us frequently, and in hundreds of other cases every day.
The application of operant learning to social psychology is straightforward: How do we know which behaviors are most appropriate in a social situation? We learn, in part, because we have positively reinforced for engaging in the appropriate ones and negatively reinforced for engaging in the inappropriate ones. It does not take us long to learn that Margette is more likely to give us the kiss we have been hoping for if we are nice to her or that our children are more likely to share their toys with others if we reward them for doing it. Operant learning has even been used to explain why some people choose to become criminals. According to this approach, criminal behavior is determined by the reinforcements and punishments that the individual experiences (e.g., with peers and with parents) as a result of his or her behavior (Akers, 1998).
Application of Classical Conditioning or Associational Learning
Associational learning occurs when an object or event comes to be associated with a natural response, such as an automatic behavior or a positive or negative emotion. If you’ve ever become hungry when you drive by one of your favorite pizza stores, it is probably because the sight of the pizzeria has become associated with your experiences of enjoying the pizzas. We may enjoy smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and eating not only because they give us pleasure themselves but also because they have been associated with pleasant social experiences in the past.
Associational learning also influences our knowledge and judgments about other people. For instance, research has shown that people view men and women who are seen alongside other people who are attractive, or who are said to have attractive girlfriends or boyfriends, more favorably than they do the same people who are seen alongside more average-looking others (Sigall & Landy, 1973). This liking is due to associational learning—we have positive feelings toward the people simply because those people are associated with the positive features of the attractive others.
Associational learning has long been, and continues to be, an effective tool in marketing and advertising (Hawkins, Best, & Coney, 1998). The general idea is to create an advertisement that has positive features so that it creates enjoyment in the person exposed to it. Because the product being advertised is mentioned in the ad, it becomes associated with the positive feelings that the ad creates. In the end, if everything has gone well, seeing the product online or in a store will then create a positive response in the buyer, leading him or her to be more likely to purchase the product.
A similar strategy is used by corporations that sponsor teams or events. For instance, if people enjoy watching a college basketball team playing basketball, and if that team is sponsored by a product, such as Pepsi, then people may end up experiencing positive feelings when they view a can of Pepsi. Of course, the sponsor wants to sponsor only good teams and good athletes because these create more pleasurable responses.
Advertisers use a variety of techniques to create positive advertisements, including enjoyable music, cute babies, attractive models, and funny spokespeople. In one study, Gorn (1982) showed research participants pictures of writing pens of different colors, but paired one of the pens with pleasant music and another with unpleasant music. When given a choice as a free gift, more people chose the pen that had been associated with the pleasant music. In another study, Schemer, Matthes, Wirth, and Textor (2008) found that people were more interested in products that had been embedded in music videos of artists that they liked and less likely to be interested when the products were in videos featuring artists that they did not like.
Another type of ad that is based on principles of classical conditioning is one that associates fear with the use of a product or behavior, such as those that show pictures of deadly automobile accidents to encourage seatbelt use or images of lung cancer surgery to discourage smoking. These ads have also been found to be effective (Das, de Wit, & Stroebe, 2003; Perloff, 2003; Witte & Allen, 2000), largely because of conditioning.
Recently, the U.S. government created new negative and graphic images to place on cigarette packs in order to increase an association between negative responses and cigarettes. The idea is that when we see a cigarette and the fear of dying is associated with it, we will be less likely to light up.
Taken together then, research studies provide ample evidence of the utility of associational learning in advertising, in ads using positive stimuli and in those using negative stimuli. This does not mean, however, that we are always influenced by these ads. The likelihood that associational learning will be successful is greater when we do not know much about the products, where the differences between products are relatively minor, and when we do not think too carefully about the choices (Schemer et al., 2008).
Associational learning is also implicated in the development of unfair and unjustified racial prejudices. We may dislike people from certain racial or ethnic groups because we frequently see them portrayed in the media as associated with violence, drug use, or terrorism. And we may avoid people with certain physical characteristics simply because they remind us of other people we do not like.
Lewicki (1985) conducted research that demonstrated the influence of associational learning and how quickly and easily such learning can happen. In his experiment, high school students first had a brief interaction with a female experimenter who had short hair and wore glasses. The study was set up so that the students had to ask the experimenter a question, and (according to random assignment) the experimenter responded in either a negative way or a neutral way toward the participants. Then the students were told to go into a second room in which two experimenters were present and to approach either one of them. The researchers arranged it so that one of the two experimenters looked a lot like the original experimenter and the other one did not (she had longer hair and did not wear glasses). The students were significantly more likely to avoid the experimenter who looked like the original experimenter when that experimenter had been negative to them than when she had treated them neutrally. As a result of associational learning, the negative behavior of the first experimenter unfairly “rubbed off” onto the second.
Donal Carlston and his colleagues (Mae & Carlston, 2005; Skowronski, Carlston, Mae, & Crawford, 1998) discovered still another way that associational learning can occur: When we say good or bad things about another person in public, the people who hear us say these things associate those characteristics with us, such that they like people who say positive things and dislike people who say negative things. The moral is clear—associational learning is powerful, so be careful what you do and say.