Social Cognition and Decision Sciences

The Role of the Ecology in Evaluative Conditioning: Towards a Comprehensive Conceptualization of Preparedness (Emmy-Noether independent junior research group)

Project lead: Prof. Dr. Mandy Hütter

Evaluative conditioning (EC) constitutes an established social-cognitive research paradigm developed for the investigation of the incidental acquisition of attitudes. The EC effect consists in an evaluative change in a conditioned stimulus (CS) that is due to its mere pairing with a valent, unconditioned stimulus (US). As a simple and highly effective learning phenomenon, EC has been regarded as largely stimulus-driven. That is, the stimulus pairings are assumed to constitute the primary determinants of the CS evaluation. Contextual influences that may moderate this relationship have received little attention in theories and investigations of EC. To fill this gap, the present project draws on the concept of preparedness that proposes an influence of the incentives structure of the ecology on a related learning phenomenon, classical conditioning. In contrast to earlier conceptualizations, the concept of preparedness is exempted from its evolutionary-biological connotation. It rather specifies the general readiness of the individual to process certain information or to process information in a certain way instigated by characteristics of the ecology. The work program focuses on flexible, near-term effects of the ecology. The different aspects of the work program have in common that they instigate preparedness that manifests itself in attentional biases, encoding schemes, processing styles, and expectancies that shape the micro-genetic construction of stimuli and stimulus relations present in EC. The predicted effects derived from the revised concept of preparedness go beyond an influence on the direction and magnitude of the EC effects. First, it is proposed that the ecology also affects whether the acquisition process is characterized by features of automaticity demanding the orthogonal investigation of contextual influences on EC and its characterization by features of automaticity. Automaticity features of acquisition processes are assessed by validated stochastic models as a function of situational variables. A second novel aspect of this project concerns the conditions in the environment under which individuals tend to acquire generalized evaluations (e.g. of a social group) as opposed to individualized evaluations. The research paradigm utilized to achieve this goal was developed to assess the level of learning in terms of concrete versus abstract construal of the CSs and the ease with which those attitudes generalize to novel stimuli.In summary, the proposed conceptualization of preparedness and its application to the study of attitude acquisition via EC create a number of novel predictions that challenge and advance present accounts of EC and demand the clarification of the concept of automaticity. Moreover, the present research has important theoretical and practical implications for the acquisition of generalized evaluations.

Funded by: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (01.10.2015 – 30.09.2020)

Team members: Katharina Berger, M.Sc., Dr. Max Ihmels


Berger, K. T., Hütter, M., & Corneille, O. (2019). Investigating attitudinal ambivalence via sequential priming: Evidence for the simultaneous and unintentional activation of opposite evaluations. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(7), 1269-1297.

Högden, F., Hütter, M., & Unkelbach, C. (2018). Does evaluative conditioning depend on awareness? Evidence from a Continuous Flash Suppression paradigm. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 44(10), 1641-1657.

Hütter, M., & De Houwer, J. (2017). Examining the contributions of memory-dependent and memory-independent components to evaluative conditioning via instructions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 71, 49-58.

Hütter, M., & Fiedler, K. (2016). Conceptual, theoretical, and methodological challenges in evaluative conditioning research. Social Cognition, 34(5), 343-356.

Hütter, M., & Klauer, K. C. (2016). Applying processing trees in social psychology. European Review of Social Psychology, 27, 116-159.

Hütter, M., & Niese, Z. A. (2023). Sampling as preparedness in evaluative learning. In K. Fiedler, P. Juslin, & J. Denrell (Eds.), Sampling in Judgment and Decision Making. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. doi: 10.1017/9781009002042.008

Hütter, M., Niese, Z. A., & Ihmels, M. (2022). Bridging the gap between autonomous and predetermined paradigms: The role of sampling in evaluative learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 151(8), 1972–1998.

Hütter, M., & Sweldens, S. (2018). Dissociating controllable and uncontrollable effects of affective stimuli on attitudes and consumption. Journal of Consumer Research, 45(2), 320-349.

Kukken, N., Hütter, M., Holland, R. (2020). Are there two independent evaluative conditioning effects in relational paradigms? Dissociating the effects of CS-US pairings and their meaning. Cognition & Emotion, 34(1), 170-187.

Mierop, A., Hütter, M., & Corneille, O. (2017). Resource availability and explicit memory largely determine evaluative conditioning effects in a paradigm claimed to be conducive to implicit attitude acquisition. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 8(7), 758-767.

Mierop, A., Hütter, M., Stahl, C., & Corneille, O. (2019). Does attitude acquisition in evaluative conditioning without explicit CS-US memory reflect implicit misattribution of affect? Cognition and Emotion, 33(2), 173-184.

Niese, Z. A., & Hütter, M. (2023). The malleability of sampling’s impact on evaluation: Sampling goals moderate the evaluative impact of sampling a stimulus. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 109, Article 104516.

Richter, B., & Hütter, M. (2021). Learning of affective meaning: Revealing effects of stimulus pairing and stimulus exposure. Cognition and Emotion, 35(8), 1588-1606.

Vogel, T., Hütter, M., & Gebauer, J. E. (2019). Is evaluative conditioning moderated by Big Five personality traits? Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10, 94-102