If a child touches a hot radiator, he or she quickly learns that the radiator is dangerous and is not likely to touch it again. Through stimulus generalization, the child will also learn that radiators in general are not to be touched. If we have unpleasant experiences with people from a certain city, region, or country, or a positive relationship with a person who has blond 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 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. In operant learning, the person thus learns from the consequences of his or her own actions.
Although its principles are very simple, operant learning is probably the most important form of human learning. For example, operant learning occurs when a schoolroom bully threatens his classmates because doing so allows him to get his way, or when a child gets good grades because her parents threaten to punish her if she doesn’t, or when we begin to like someone who smiles at us frequently, and in hundreds of other cases every day. Operant learning can also be used to help explain how people learn complex behaviors, such as how to read, and to understand complex social behaviors, such as the development of social norms and culture.
The application of operant learning to social psychology can help us to explain how we know which behaviors are most appropriate in a social situation. We learn, in part, because we have been 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 engage in antisocial and criminal behavior. 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).