Karen J. Prager, Ph.D., A.B.P.P.

Professor of Psychology and  Program Head for Gender Studies

Diplomate in Family Psychology

The University of Texas at Dallas

More Information About Dr. Prager's work


Research on Intimacy

Processes in Couple Relationships 

Teaching and Professional Practice

Selected Papers and Publications


For Students:




Click here to return to the Psychology of Gender syllabus


Social Learning Theory and Gender

Social Learning Theory

Emphasizes the role of environmental factors in learning

Three major principles:

Operant conditioning and reinforcement (and differential reinforcement)

Observational learning

Stimulus control of behavior


How can these principles help us to understand gendered behavior?

    Predictions of what people will do in situations that call for gender-typed behavior

    Predictions of what people will do because they are female or male as a result of learning history.


Start with the family:

    Do parents reinforce gendered behavior in children?

        Not as much as once believed

        Toy and game preference: the exception

        Parents may under-report differentially reinforcing behavior

        Do fathers differentiate more than mothers?

    Toys may be stimuli that elicit differentially reinforcing behaviors


Do children learn gendered behavior by imitating parents and other same-sex models more than other-sex models?

    Children don’t especially resemble same-sex parents.

    Children’s sex-typed behavior is different from adults’.


Is gender a reliable predictor of behavior?

    According to social learning theory, only when:

        1) gender-typed behavior is reinforced for women or men

        2) when the same behavior is differentially reinforced


Peers are powerful socializing agents

    Gendered play groups have distinct gendered rules (Eleanor Maccoby)


Where is the child-as-actor in this theory?   Is the child a passive agent?

How do we account for the fact that children actively pick and choose what they will imitate?


Gender Schema Theory

Schema: a set of ideas that helps an individual organize information (from Jacklin & Reynolds)

    Gender schematicity: Refers to individual differences in reliance on gender schemas

    Increases with gender knowledge

Accompanied by "education" about status differences between females and males


Ignores genetic influences


Behavioral Genetics

Examines family members with different levels of relatedness and

investigates their similarities and differences. Allows estimations of genetic and environmental influence and their interaction.

Research evidence:

    Suggests personality traits are at least partially inherited

    Includes masculinity and femininity

    Contrast: attitudes show little effect of inheritability


    Difficult to assess parental treatment of child vs. genetic influences. E.g., monozygotic twins treated more similarly by parents than dizygotic twins, thus making genetic influences appear larger.


General Criticism

1. Not just two sets of behavior to learn. Gender roles are complex.

2. Children not only learn about appropriate behavior. They learn about patriarchy.

3. Few studies control for racial/ethnic differences in how stereotypes operate, are learned.

4. "Biology vs. environment" arguments tend to have political underpinnings: they argue for maintaining vs. changing the status quo.