Gerd Bohner, Nina Dickel
If you’ve ever found yourself inexplicably drawn to a particular brand or product, you may have experienced the effects of evaluative conditioning.
What is Evaluative Conditioning?
Evaluative conditioning is the process by which we form attitudes towards a stimulus based on the pairing of the stimulus with positive or negative experiences. For example, if you have had a positive experience with a particular brand of cereal, you may form a positive attitude towards that brand. Conversely, if you have had a negative experience with a particular product, you may form a negative attitude towards it. It goes even deeper than this. Lets say you got bitten by a dog when you were younger. You would then be more likely to dislike an otherwise neutral brand if it’s associated with dogs (think mascots, logos, packaging etc).
Bohner and Dickel's Research on Evaluative Conditioning
In their 2011 study, Bohner and Dickel conducted a series of experiments to investigate the effects of evaluative conditioning on attitudes towards different social groups. They found that participants who were exposed to stimuli associated with positive attributes, such as friendly or helpful, developed more positive attitudes toward members of that social group than those who were exposed to stimuli associated with negative attributes, such as dangerous or threatening.
The Role of Automatic Processes
Evaluative conditioning is primarily an automatic process, meaning that it is largely unconscious and effortless. The associations formed through evaluative conditioning can have a significant impact on our attitudes and behavior. Bohner and Dickel found that even when participants were explicitly told that the positive or negative attributes were unrelated to the social group being studied, the associations still influenced their attitudes toward that group.
The Impact of Context on Evaluative Conditioning
Bohner and Dickel also investigated the impact of context on evaluative conditioning. In one experiment, they showed participants pictures of a social group while playing different types of music in the background. The results showed that the music played during the experiment had a significant impact on the participants’ attitudes toward the social group.
For example, participants who listened to classical music while viewing pictures of the social group had more positive attitudes toward that group than those who listened to heavy metal music. This finding suggests that the context in which evaluative conditioning occurs can significantly influence the attitudes that are formed. To be fair, they never listed the participants preference of music.. but you get the idea!
Implications for Understanding Attitudes
Bohner and Dickel’s research on evaluative conditioning has important implications for our understanding of how attitudes are formed and how they can be changed. It suggests that attitudes are not solely the result of conscious reasoning or deliberate choice, but are also influenced by a range of automatic, unconscious processes.
Efforts to change attitudes towards products can require more than just providing information or logical arguments. Instead, it may be necessary to influence the associations that people have formed with those stimuli through evaluative conditioning. By doing so, we can potentially shift people’s attitudes in a more positive direction. If a brand is dull, boring or experienced negative press, it’s a good idea to pair it with something (or someone) that is liked by your target audience. This also works if you want to strengthen brand association.