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Evaluative conditioning

Author: Dr Simon Moss


In many settings, a neutral stimulus, called a conditioned stimulus, often coincides with some desirable or undesirable object, called the unconditioned stimulus. An unknown brand, for example, might appear in a commercial that also depicts a happy child. Over time, stimuli that often coincide with desirable objects are perceived more favorably, whereas stimuli that often coincide with undesirable objects are perceived less favorably--called evaluative conditioning (De Houwer, Thomas, & Bauyens, 2001;; Walter, Nagengast, & Trassilli, 2005).

Evaluative conditioning is similar, but not identical, to classical or Pavlovian conditioning. Specifically, in many contexts, one event, called the conditioned stimulus, precedes some other event that tends to provoke some response, called the unconditioned stimulus. In the traditional example of classical conditioning, the sound of a bell might often precede the presentation of food--food that elicits salivation. Over time, the bell alone will elicit the same response. In other words, over time, the primary response to the conditioned stimulus evolves. In contrast, the evaluation or attitudes towards this object or event might remain unchanged.

Examples of evaluative conditioning

The concept of evaluative conditioning manifests in many contexts. Individuals, for example, often "kill the messenger". These individuals, that is, often form negative attitudes towards anyone who conveys unfavorable information (e.g., Manis, Cornell, & Moore, 1974). The unfavorable information coincides with the messenger& hence, the messenger is perceived adversely over time.

Similarly, individuals who denigrate another person are themselves often perceived unfavorably. That is, these individuals become associated with negative adjectives. Their reputation thus diminishes (e.g., Skowronski, Carlston, Mae, & Crawford, 1998). This effect diminishes if the person they denigrate is present. In this instance, attention is not directed towards the individuals who express these negative adjectives.

Dijksterhuis (2004) showed how evaluative conditioning can even influence self esteem. In this study, some participants were exposed to a series of positive words that coincided with the letter I. This protocol, presumably, improved evaluations of the letter "I". Because this letter is associated with the self, self esteem also improved, as gauged by an implicit measure called the (name letter effect).

Evaluative conditioning of voices

Individuals can learn to develop positive associations with specific voices as well. That is, if speakers often emit positive words, listeners tend to like the subsequent words this person utters.

To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Bliss-Moreau, Owren, and Barrett (2010), participants listened to speakers emit positive, negative, or neutral words. Next, participants had to decide whether another series of words, such as kitten or seat, were positive or negative. A verbal prime preceded each word. This prime was spoken by one of previous speakers but was a neutral word.

Primes that were spoken by a person who previous uttered positive words were perceived positively. That is, if these primes preceded a positive target, participants could more rapidly recognize the valence of this target. Therefore, voices that tend to express positive words tend to imbue other words with a favorable valence.

Mechanisms that underpin evaluative conditioning

Many studies have attempted to characterize the mechanisms that underpin evaluative conditioning. Two principal accounts have been proposed (for a summary, see Walther, Gawronski, Blank, & Langer, 2009).

Stimulus-response learning

According to the notion of stimulus-response learning, the conditioned stimulus, such as a brand, merely becomes associated with the response to the unconditioned stimulus, such as reactions to a happy child. That is, when viewers observe a happy child, a specific set of responses will tend to be evoked--a feeling of happiness, a corresponding smile, a sense of optimism, and so forth. The conditioned stimulus, if paired with the unconditioned stimulus, will elicit the same responses. The brand will evoke happiness, smiles, and optimism, for instance.

Stimulus-stimulus learning

The notion of stimulus-stimulus learning delineates a different sequence of processes. According to this account, the conditioned stimulus, in this example the brand, activates all the properties and representations associated with the unconditioned stimulus, in this example the smiling child. That is, a smiling child is associated with an extensive array of properties: the urge to assist, the sense of innocence, and so forth. The conditioned stimulus, if paired with the unconditioned stimulus, also evokes all these representations.

The US reevaluation paradigm

A specific technique, called the US reevaluation paradigm (Rescorla, 1974), has been utilized to ascertain whether stimulus-response learning or stimulus-stimulus learning underpins evaluative conditioning. A typical example was published by Baeyens, Eelen, Van den Bergh, and Crombez (1992). In this study, a series of unconditioned stimuli-- likeable or dislikeable faces--appeared alongside conditioned stimuli--neutral faces. Initially, if paired with likeable faces, the neutral faces were evaluated favorably. Similarly, if paired with dislikeable faces, the neutral faces were evaluated unfavorably.

Subsequently, attitudes towards the unconditioned stimuli were modified. In particular, the likeable faces coincided with negative adjectives, and the dislikeable faces coincided with positive adjectives. Unsurprisingly, the extent to which the likeable faces were perceived as favorable diminished& the degree to which the dislikeable faces were perceived as unfavorable also subsided.

Finally, and more importantly, participants then evaluated the extent to which they like the neutral faces. Interestingly, after the attitudes towards the likeable faces declined, the neutral faces that had earlier coincided with these stimuli were now rated less favorably. Similarly, after the attitudes towards the dislikeable faces improved, the neutral faces that had previously coincided with these stimuli were later rated more favorably.

This finding corroborates stimulus-stimulus learning. That is, even after evaluations of the likeable or dislikable stimuli change, responses to these faces are likely to remain unchanged. According to the concept of stimulus-response learning, the conditioned stimuli--in this instance, the neutral faces--should evoke responses associated with the unconditioned stimuli--in this instance, the likeable or dislikeable faces. These responses should not change even after evaluations of the likeable or dislikeable faces are modified, contrary to the pattern of findings that were observed by Baeyens, Eelen, Van den Bergh, and Crombez (1992).

Walther, Gawronski, Blank, and Langer (2009) challenged the procedures that were applied in this study. Specifically, they emphasized the association between the conditioned and unconditioned stimuli were not randomized--but were selected by the experimenter. Perhaps some idiosyncratic associations between the conditioned and unconditioned stimuli could somehow have contaminated the responses.

Walther, Gawronski, Blank, and Langer (2009) redressed this limitation, and introduced some other improvements. These researchers, for example, used an implicit measure--an affective priming task--to assess attitudes towards the conditioned stimulus. In particular, to assess attitudes towards the various faces, these stimuli appeared on a screen for 200 ms. Next, a positive word, such as love, or a negative word, such as enemy, then appeared immediately. The task of participants was to press one button if the word was positive and another button if the word was negative. If the face was perceived very favorably, participants should classify the positive words rapidly and the negative words slowly. If the face was perceived very unfavorably, participants should classify the positive words more slowly and the negative words more rapidly.

Even after these changes were introduced, the US reevaluation effect was still observed. That is, after evaluations towards the likeable or dislikeable faces were modified, attitudes towards neutral faces that had earlier been paired with these stimuli also changed accordingly (Walther, Gawronski, Blank, & Langer, 2009). These effects were especially pronounced one week later even though explicit memory of the unconditioned stimuli deteriorated. These findings also corroborate the stimulus-stimulus learning account.

Factors that moderate evaluative conditioning

Some researchers have investigated the factors that amplify or inhibit evaluative conditioning. Walther and Grigoriadis (2004), for example, showed that evaluative conditioning is more pronounced when individuals feel sad rather than happy.

Presumably, according to Walther and Grigoriadis (2004), when individuals feel happy, each conditioned stimulus activates an extensive range of associations. A neutral face, for example, might activate a broad array of concepts, such as thoughts and emotions associated with each feature. As a consequence, when paired with an unconditioned stimulus, this breadth of associations will only change negligibly, if at all. Hence, the effect of these unconditioned stimuli diminishes.

Effect of evaluative conditioning

Some research has examined whether evaluative conditioning does indeed affect the choices or decisions of individuals. Dempsey and Mitchell (2010), for example, examined whether or not evaluative conditioning supersedes the impact of explicit information on product choices. They found that evaluative conditioning is sometimes more likely than explicit information to guide choices, at least in particular circumstances.

Specifically, according to Dempsey and Mitchell (2010), individuals will sometimes form an explicit evaluation of some product like a pen. That is, they will intentionally form a judgment of this product, derived from careful deliberation of the key attributes. In other instances, individuals will not have formed an explicit evaluation. In these instances, to decide which option they prefer, they can retrieve the information they know about this product from memory and then form a judgment. Alternatively, and more frequently, they may invoke their implicit attitudes instead, primarily derived from evaluative conditioning.

To assess these possibilities, Dempsey and Mitchell (2010) conducted a series of experiments. In one experiment, participants were exposed to a series of images. Unbeknownst to participants, one brand of pens was subtly embedded in a positive image& another brand of pen was subtly embedded in a negative image.

Participants were then exposed to advertisements on six brands across three different categories of products, supposedly written by undergraduate students. Some participants were explicitly directed to analyze the information carefully and to evaluate each product. Other participants were not encouraged to evaluate each product--but were instead merely asked to assess the legibility of the text. Finally, for each pair of products, participants decided which brand they prefer.

Compared to the other participants, individuals who had not formed an explicit judgment of the products were especially influenced by evaluative conditioning: They tended to choose the pen that had previously been embedded in a positive image. They often selected this pen even if the attributes of this brand--attributes they could have retrieved from memory--were not as favorable as the attributes of the other brand. These findings were independent of whether participants had to reach their decision rapidly or slowly.

The second experiment utilized the same procedure, except motivation to optimize the choice was manipulated. For example, to increase motivation, some participants were informed they may need to justify their decisions later. Furthermore, participants specified the extent to which they were confident about their choices. Finally, participants recorded their thoughts while reaching their decisions.

If the pens had not been embedded in positive or negative images, participants subsequently chose the pen that corresponded to the best attributes, particularly if motivated. However, if the pens had been embedded in positive or negative images, they chose the pen that was associated with the more desirable of these scenes, even if motivated. Confidence was also high if the pens had been embedded in these positive or negative images, regardless of motivation. Reliance on evaluative conditioning, therefore, is not dependent on motivation per se.

These findings extend the discovery that explicit attitudes predict behaviors that are derived from conscious deliberation. In contrast, implicit attitudes predict behaviors that are initiated more spontaneously (e.g., Rydell and McConnell 2006).


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Last Update: 6/30/2016