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The Social Learning Theory Explanation for Gender Differences

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What is the Social Learning Theory's Ideas about Gender Differences?

The social learning theory or social learning approach also provides an insight into how and why gender differences arise. Unlike the biological approach, social learning theory suggests that our gender differences arise from our socialisation - our interactions with other human beings.

To see the other explanations for gender differences see:

Key Principles of the Social Learning Theory about Gender Differences

  • The gender differences that arise are solely a result of other people teaching us how to behave.
  • Therefore, the way that a society values men and women and the subsequent expectations is of the most important factors in sculpting gender differences.
  • There are no naturally present psychological differences between men and women - only learned behaviours.
  • Individual ideas of gender behaviour differs throughout a person's lifetime and depend on the social influences that the subject is receiving - if a parent decides that their baby boy should behave more feminine then that is what will most likely happen, regardless of whether the boy had already learned and liked being 'masculine'.
  • We learn our gender roles not only from real people that we come into contact with but also fictional characters and people we will never meet e.g. TV, books etc.
Models - not this kind!  Although, many people idolise and model models - status and attractiveness may be the causes.

Models - not this kind! Although, many people idolise and model models - status and attractiveness may be the causes.

Models Cause Gender Differences

Models cause gender differences - those toe rags, those rascals! We must stop them!

But you are a model! And so is everyone you know - a model in social learning theory is anyone who exhibits behaviour that others can see.

Modelling is the process of showing your behaviour - if a father spends his time fixing things around the house and playing sport whilst a mother spends her time cleaning and chatting to her friends then they are modelling traditional behaviour. This behaviour is likely to influence their children but this depends on a number of factors.


As children we are more susceptible to models and their behaviour, but it is a fundamental principle of the social learning theory that we have people who we model ourselves after throughout our lives.

Several factors increase the likelihood of identification with a model - who can then be said to be a role model:

  • Sex - we identify with people of our own sex more than we do of the other sex.
  • Success - models who we see have succeeded in something (they seem generally more happy, or have power or can get what they want more often) are more likely to be modelled after.
  • Status - people who are known to be regarded well by others are more appealing models for us and so their subsequent behaviours are more appealing for us to imitate.
  • Attractiveness - research has found that we are more likely to make models of people who we find attractive.

Who is Training Who?

The same techniques of reinforcements used in dog training can also be applied to humans - human training. Interestingly, even while a human trains a dog, the reaction of the dog acts as positive and negative reinforcement on the human .

The same techniques of reinforcements used in dog training can also be applied to humans - human training. Interestingly, even while a human trains a dog, the reaction of the dog acts as positive and negative reinforcement on the human .

Reinforcement and Gender Differences

Of course, we won't just do as other people do just because they are attractive or popular - we need to have motives for acting.

When a little boy sees another little boy being rewarded for not crying when he gets injured, since he can identify (they're both boys and both young) with him, he'll be less inclined to show emotions when injured in the future - even though he himself wasn't rewarded at the time.

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Learning through watching others get rewarded is what social learning theorists call: vicarious reinforcement.

The opposite, punishment, also applies and can explain how we can act so well in a situation, even though we never had first hand experience with it before. Although seemingly obvious, other approaches deny that we can in fact learn from other people and so deny the effect of this on gender differences e.g. the biological approach.

Internalisation and Gender Differences

Internalisation is the process of taking on certain behaviours into your personality - through repeated reinforcement and punishment - behaviours become integrated into our very person. This gives children and adults alike their 'gender'.

Since our personalities can be explained by reinforcement and punishment, this means that they are not fixed and will change throughout our lives, and, since:

  • Societies
  • Parents, friends & family
  • Film, literature etc.

All change rapidly, it means that our personalities are likely to change rapidly too. These changes are impossible to notice and explains why people sometimes get a feeling that they "don't know who they are anymore", especially through reflecting upon what they used to do with their time and what they wrote in diaries etc.


  • Ecological Validity - vastly lab-based and therefore conclusions can often not be extended to the real world, and, many times the environments are not remotely probably - adults playing with toys etc. Children are likely to understand that these are abnormal behaviours and thus themselves act abnormally.
  • Development - assumes that as children develop their understanding of concepts like gender never change. Children at around the age of 5 have much more rigid ideas about sex-typed behaviour than adults, suggesting that development is key to how far social experiences affect our behaviour, contradicting the idea that it is the only method of behaviour changes.
  • Modern Development - if behaviour is always a result of imitating existing behaviour then non-existing behaviours should not come into existence (or at least so quickly as to not be accidents): the contemporary 'dad at home' and working professional women are examples of these behaviours, which at least at first, were not common and ready to be imitated behaviours.
  • Same-Sex Siblings
    There have been many recorded instances where two sisters or two brothers were raised by the same parents but ended up to being more feminine or more masculine than the other. What could have brought this change about if you are to believe that only social learning theory sculpts our behaviour.

A Brief Video Highlighting the Basic Concepts Behind Social Learning Theory and Gender Differences

Recent Studies Supporting the Social Learning Theory's Explanation for Gender Differences

  • McGhee and Frueh (1980)
    Found that the more TV people watch the stronger gender stereotypes they had - explainable by the social learning theory explanations since gender roles are commonplace on most TV shows: women are seen cooking, cleaning and staying at home whilst men are seen in action and at the workplace.
  • Fagot (1985)
    Showed that both male and female children were more critical of male children who exhibited female behaviours than of female children who exhibited male behaviours.
  • Eccles (1987)
    Observed that teachers praised male children for their academic achievement whilst praising female children for their tidiness and obedience.
  • Pfost and Fiore (1990)
    Women were criticised harsher than men in the workplace when they worked traditionally masculine jobs than men were when they worked traditionally feminine jobs.

What do you think?

Other Approaches on Gender Differences

Learn about the Other Approaches


Emmyboy from Nigeria on November 07, 2018:

Very interesting read.

Thanks for sharing.

Scott Davidson from Sydney, Australia on May 13, 2016:

Some pretty intense analysis going on here. The way people behave is a direct result of their biological disposition.

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