You are here

Associational Learning

15 February, 2016 - 10:55

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 have 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 judgment about other people. For instance, research has shown that people more favorably view men and women who are seen alongside other people who are attractive, or who are said to have attractive girlfriends or boyfriends, 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.


Funny Commercials uploaded by no name

Figure 2.2

Can you determine how associational learning is being used in these ads?

A similar strategy is used by corporations that sponsor teams or events. For instance, if people enjoy watching a particular sports team, and if that team is sponsored by a product, such as Pepsi, then people may end up experiencing the positive feelings they have for their team when they view a can of Pepsi.

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 different colored writing pens, 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. Indeed, many governments around the world have recently created 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. These ads have also been found to be effective largely because of conditioning (Das, de Wit, & Stroebe, 2003; Perloff, 2003; Witte & Allen, 2000).

Figure 2.3 The goal of these images is to associate the fear of dying with cigarette smoking. 

Taken together then, research studies provide ample evidence of the utility of associational learning in advertising. 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, Matthes, Wirth, & Textor, 2008).

Associational learning has also been 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. For example, Lewicki (1985) conducted an experiment where 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.

Figure 2.4 Are your beliefs about people from different social groups influenced by associational learning? 

Donal Carlston and his colleagues 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 (Mae & Carlston, 2005; Skowronski, Carlston, Mae, & Crawford, 1998). The moral is clear—associational learning is powerful, so be careful what you do and say.