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Evaluative Conditioning: Definition, Causes & Examples

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 originally a neutral stimulus but it becomes a conditioned stimulus (CS) after pairing with the unconditioned stimuli (US) that can innately evoke emotions.

EC is an important variant of classical conditioning because pairing of stimuli can change the 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 plays an important role in our emotional life.

We can form explicit 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, a vital 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 occurrence of attitude formation and evaluative conditioning procedure in humans.

The holistic account

In this model, the unconditioned stimuli (neutral stimuli) and conditioned stimuli co-occur to trigger the formation of holistic mental representations that consist 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 the EC procedure, 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, the valence of a stimulus is assigned based on a conscious and effortful mental process. 

However, propositional models cannot explain years of 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 mind​11​. The pursuit of goals is often influenced by environmental factors outside of our conscious awareness. Our resulting actions are 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 influence consumer psychology.

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

Celebrity association

Hiring celebrity endorsers or spokespersons is a common practice in advertising. 

By repeatedly appearing together, a brand becomes associated with the celebrities’ credibility, believability, persuasiveness, likeability, and other positive values.

For instance, previous 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 procedures​16​.

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

Current findings show that positivity is easier to change than negativity. In addition, a change of valence is easier in mildly positive and negative attitudes than strongly positive or negative attitudes​17​.

This is why some deeply rooted attitudes persist over time and resist counter-persuasion​18​. They can have significant effect on our behavior and decisions in daily life.


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