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Evaluative conditioning (also referred to as evaluative learning) concerns how we can come to like or dislike something through an association (association of ideas).
If something that we have no strong feelings towards (such as an unfamiliar person, object, or picture, and so on) becomes associated something that we strongly dislike (such as a very unpleasant odour) then our feelings to that once innocuous item can change—we can come to dislike that thing too. The same can happen when something is paired with something else that we strongly like—we can come to like that item more.
But, more importantly, the debate is whether attitudes are formed only by mere association of affective views (classical conditioning) or also by active cognitive processes (evaluative conditioning). i.e. Is the attitude merely a result of a superficial association or can there be more complex thought processes involving these associations, making them evaluatively rather than classically conditioned?
There are 3 Essential characteristics of Evaluative Conditioning. People with evaluatively conditioned attitudes exhibit the following: 1. Lack of awareness of the attitude formation 2. The formation includes Social Factors 3. The attitudes are stable and resistant to extinction, unlike classically conditioned attitudes.
An example that most people are likely to have experienced is a person's name. Most people probably have names that they strongly dislike. Some of these may be the names of people from their past who they disliked a lot. It is quite remarkable how strongly we can feel towards certain names, as anyone who has ever had to name a child will tell you. The strong feelings towards a person's name is acquired by the association of the name with feelings towards the person with that name. And these feelings are moderated by the meanings those people have for the individual rather than just the name itself. The feelings toward the name is in fact an attitude displacement. What you really like/dislike is the person and not the name, but evaluation of the person arouses feelings that are then associated with the name.
An interesting question for research is the process by which feelings towards the previously neutral item have changed. Two possibilities are that:
(1) If a neutral item (N) is paired with a disliked item (D), then feelings towards N might change because when you think of or see N you think of D. Hence, you don't like N because it reminds you of D.
(2) If item N is paired with disliked item D, then the feelings towards N actually change regardless of whether it reminds you of D.
The first possibility is the signal learning hypothesis. N is merely a signal for D (in the sense that if you see N then it reminds you of D). In this case, you dislike N because some internal representation of D becomes activated in your mind (either consciously or unconsciously).
The second possibility implies an intrinsic learning of affect for N. For example, people can like particular shoes, chairs, kitchen units, paintings, flowers, sounds, ties, handbags, cars, colour schemes, not because they are necessarily reminded of something else when looking at or handling the item, but rather because the item initiates its own feelings in you.
The real possibility is that people can acquire a liking or a disliking of something through evaluative learning (ie, through an association) but then go on to have no recollection of how they acquired such a feeling (that is, they are unable to recall the nature of the original association). There is a lot of experimental evidence that suggests this to be the case.