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
Project life span: 01.10.2015 – 30.09.2020