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Evaluative Conditioning – Definition, Causes & Examples

| Why evaluative conditioning is important | Causes | The power of implicit learning | Examples | Extinction |

What is evaluative conditioning

Evaluative conditioning (EC) refers to forming or changing the attitude (liking) for an object by pairing it with stimuli that naturally evoke positive or negative emotions. 

Using the Pavlovian conditioning terminology, the object is the conditioned stimulus (CS) and the stimuli that can innately evoke emotions are the unconditioned stimuli (US).

EC is an important variant of classical conditioning in which the outcome is a change in emotional response to the conditioned stimulus (CS)​1​.

Why evaluative conditioning is important

Approaching people we like and avoiding those we don’t like are natural human behavior. We tend to want, do, and buy more often things that we like than things we dislike. People vote for politicians they find appealing, but not those that they find repelling​2​.

Therefore, our attitudes or preferences can significantly influence our attention, memory, decisions and behavior. The associative learning of likes and dislikes forms the basis of our emotional life.

We can form attitudes consciously through an active and diligent process that involves our assessment of the object, issue, or person. 

But they can also be formed by implicit association with something else during evaluative conditioning, which is an important mechanism that affects one’s liking​3​.

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What causes evaluative conditioning

The formation of attitudes through evaluative conditioning usually happens outside of our conscious awareness​4​.

Such implicit attitudes resemble gut reactions and lack of awareness of the underlying reason. 

Research shows that implicitly formed attitudes through associative learning bias the processing of subsequent information and choice behavior. They can have significant consequences because they are activated automatically​5​.

A number of causes have been proposed to explain the occurence of attitude formation and evaluative conditioning in humans.

The holistic account

In this model, the unconditioned stimuli and conditioned stimuli oc-occur to trigger the formation of a holistic mental representation that consists of stimulus elements of the CS and the evaluative nature of the US​6​.

The referential account

The referential model of EC is based on an associative link between the CS and the US. When the CS is presented after conditioning, the US representation is also automatically activated​7​.

Implicit misattribution of affect

In the implicit misattribute model, a CS’s liked or disliked is misattributed when the actual source is the US that is presented with it​8​.

Propositional learning

In propositional learning, CS is assigned valence values based on a conscious and effortful mental process. 

However, propositional models cannot explain research findings showing that evaluative learning is independent of awareness​9​.

The power of implicit learning

Automatic attitude activation is nonconscious and powerful​10​.

Many of our goals originate in the unconscious and unintentional​11​.

The pursuit of goals is often influenced by environmental factors outside of our conscious awareness. Our resulting actions are said to be primed by those environmental factors​12​.

Consequently, people can perform an action without knowing why they do it or what their ultimate goals are. Priming of goal representations can, therefore, promote effort to attain these goals.

When a behavior is unobtrusively linked to a positive emotional state, people are primed to want to adopt that behavior. People are more motivated and work harder on those tasks​13​.

Examples of evaluative conditioning

Advertising & Marketing

The marketing and advertising industry regularly applies EC concepts to consumer psychology.

Coca-Cola’s “have-a-Coke-and-a-smile” ads are a well-known example of evaluative conditioning. These ads feature Coke’s brand name (CS) being repeatedly presented next to images of happy, smiling people (US) to increase the liking of the brand​14​.

Celebrity association

Celebrity endorsers or spokespersons are common in advertising. 

By repeatedly appearing with a brand, celebrities’ credibility, believability, persuasiveness, and likeability are associated with the brand.

For instance, studies have found that the use of a celebrity in beer advertising led to more favorable ad ratings and more positive product evaluations​15​.

Extinction of evaluative conditioning

Evaluative conditioning appears to be highly resistant to extinction​16​.

Researchers have had mixed results when they have attempted to change existing attitudes with EC studies. 

In their findings, positivity was easier to change than negativity. In addition, mildly positive and negative attitudes were easier to change than strongly positive or negative attitudes​17​.

This is why some deeply rooted attitudes persist over time and resist counter-persuasion​18​.

References

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    Rozin P, Wrzesniewski A, Byrnes D. The Elusiveness of Evaluative Conditioning. Learning and Motivation. Published online November 1998:397-415. doi:10.1006/lmot.1998.1012
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    Hofmann W, De Houwer J, Perugini M, Baeyens F, Crombez G. Evaluative conditioning in humans: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin. Published online May 2010:390-421. doi:10.1037/a0018916
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    De Houwer J. A Conceptual and Theoretical Analysis of Evaluative Conditioning. Span J Psychol. Published online November 2007:230-241. doi:10.1017/s1138741600006491
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    Stahl C, Unkelbach C, Corneille O. On the respective contributions of awareness of unconditioned stimulus valence and unconditioned stimulus identity in attitude formation through evaluative conditioning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 2009:404-420. doi:10.1037/a0016196
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    Fazio RH, Olson MA. Implicit Measures in Social Cognition Research: Their Meaning and Use. Annu Rev Psychol. Published online February 2003:297-327. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.54.101601.145225
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    Martin I, Levey A. The evaluative response: Primitive but necessary. Behaviour Research and Therapy. Published online March 1994:301-305. doi:10.1016/0005-7967(94)90125-2
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    Baeyens F, Eelen P, Crombez G, van den Bergh O. Human evaluative conditioning: Acquisition trials, presentation schedule, evaluative style and contingency awareness. Behaviour Research and Therapy. Published online March 1992:133-142. doi:10.1016/0005-7967(92)90136-5
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    Jones CR, Fazio RH, Olson MA. Implicit misattribution as a mechanism underlying evaluative conditioning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online May 2009:933-948. doi:10.1037/a0014747
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    Walther E, Weil R, Düsing J. The Role of Evaluative Conditioning in Attitude Formation. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. Published online May 24, 2011:192-196. doi:10.1177/0963721411408771
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    Fazio RH. Attitudes as Object–Evaluation Associations of Varying Strength. Social Cognition. Published online October 2007:603-637. doi:10.1521/soco.2007.25.5.603
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    Bargh JA. Goal and Intent: Goal-Directed Thought and Behavior Are Often Unintentional. Psychological Inquiry. Published online July 1990:248-251. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli0103_14
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    Aarts H, Dijksterhuis A. Habits as knowledge structures: Automaticity in goal-directed behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 2000:53-63. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.78.1.53
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    Custers R, Aarts H. Positive Affect as Implicit Motivator: On the Nonconscious Operation of Behavioral Goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 2005:129-142. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.89.2.129
  14. 14.
    Gibson B. Can Evaluative Conditioning Change Attitudes toward Mature Brands? New Evidence from the Implicit Association Test. J Consum Res. Published online June 2008:178-188. doi:10.1086/527341
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    Atkin C, Block M. Effectiveness of celebrity endorsers. Journal of Advertising Research. 1983;23(1):57–61.
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    Baeyens F, De Houwer J. Evaluative conditioning is a qualitatively distinct form of classical conditioning: a reply to Davey (1994). Behaviour Research and Therapy. Published online September 1995:825-831. doi:10.1016/0005-7967(95)00021-o
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    Milner JS, Wagner MF, Crouch JL. Reducing Child-Related Negative Attitudes, Attributions of Hostile Intent, Anger, Harsh Parenting Behaviors, and Punishment Through Evaluative Conditioning. Cogn Ther Res. Published online August 23, 2016:43-61. doi:10.1007/s10608-016-9800-2
  18. 18.
    Jones CR, Olson MA, Fazio RH. Evaluative Conditioning. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Published online 2010:205-255. doi:10.1016/s0065-2601(10)43005-1

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