Grants (German Research Foundation - DFG)

Understanding the basic processes in affective learning II: Learning of valent motor actions

Applicant: Christian Frings & Eva Walther (PIs)

Funding: 2021-2024

Attitudes are of high importance, as they are seen as an important predictor of behavior. A new perspective on the interplay between attitudes and action emerges from recent theories on action control in which close relationships between attention, learning and action are postulated (cf. Frings, Hommel, Koch, Rothermund, Dignath et al., 2020; Hommel, Müsseler, Aschersleben, & Prinz, 2001). Based on this, an overlapping encoding of - in the case of attitude learning - evaluative aspects of stimuli and action can be assumed. From this assumption, the theoretically new hypothesis can be derived that actions do not acquire an evaluative connotation solely through operant reinforcement, but also through the overlapping encoding of evaluative stimulus and response patterns. Consequently, motor responses could thus acquire valence themselves (i.e., a positive or negative meaning), and transfer it on to other actions or stimuli through conditioning. This perspective of acquisition of valent motorical actions not only provides new theoretical insights into the interplay of attitudes and behavior, but has also important implications, for example, on the formation of habits and the questions of how action is learned and stabilized in the first place (e.g. Prinz, 1998). However, a new view on the processes underlying attitude learning results especially from this hypothesis of an overlapping encoding of evaluative stimulus and response patterns.

Laboratory for simulation of virtual reality (VR)

Applicant: Eva Walther (PI)

Funding: since 2015  

The project aims at at opening up new perspectives in the field of psychological research to the applicants by means of the Virtual Reality (VR) method. The University of Trier has clearly focused on development in the field of psychological experimental research in cognition and emotion. From a methodogical point of view, until now above all methods for recording automatical reaction components (e.g. Priming, Stroop Test; Flanke Task) as well as endocrinological (Cortisol) and neurophysiological parameters (EEG) have been applied. The methodological enlargement with regards to Virtual Reality (VR) means a basical progress in the psychological field and a great chance towards an international positioning. Not only contexts close to reality can be formed by means of VR, but also people may actually interact with emotional stimuli in a VR environment instead of only observing them passively. Thus, by using VR two central, but yet not compatible criteria of basical research may be brought in line; experimental control on the one hand and ecological validity on the other hand, which allow fundamental theoretical developments to be expected. Moreover, the establishment of a VR Lab increases the probability to establish further research groups which allows the investigation in VR to be regarded as structurizing.

Understanding the basic processes in affective learning

Applicant: Christian Frings & Eva Walther (PIs)

: 2014 to 2018

Affective attitudes reflect fast evaluative judgments of encountered objects. An experimental approach to study the formation of affective attitudes is evaluative conditioning (EC; for reviews see Hofmann et al., 2010; Walther et al., 2011). In a prototypical EC experiment, a neutral stimulus (conditioned stimulus; CS) is repeatedly paired with a (dis-)liked stimulus (unconditioned stimulus, US). The common result is a substantial shift in the valence of the formerly neutral CS such that it becomes evaluatively similar to the US. Despite intensive research the mechanisms underlying EC are not well understood so far. Although it is generally agreed upon that EC is based on a ‘mental link’ between stimuli (i.e., the CS and the US), relatively less attention was paid to the processes required to establish the integration of US and CS. The current project is concerned with this particular issue. Integrating cognitive binding theory, selective attention research and learning theory, we bridge the gap between hitherto unrelated research traditions and pursue a new perspective in an attempt to gain insight into the processes underlying evaluative learning. In fact, we suggest that selective attention to the US or CS modulates the integration of these stimuli. In addition, based on theories of feature binding, we analyze which processes lead to and enhance S-R associations rather than S-S associations. Important, based on previous findings (Gawronski, Walther, & Blank, 2005), we hypothesize that depending on contextual and interpersonal factors USs of the same valence can elicit quite different evaluative responses. Finally, we analyze whether selective (spatial) attention furthers the integration of CS and US features. On a larger scale, we hope to improve our understanding of the processes contributing to the formation of affective attitudes on the one hand and the role of selective attention in feature binding on the other hand.

The role of associative and propositional processes in the development and change of affective attitudes

Applicant: Eva Walther (PI)

Funding: 2006 to 2011

One of the central human motives is longing for cognitive consistance (Abelson et al., 1968). People change their attitudes and behavior to reach cognitive consistance. Balance is a special case of cognitive consistance. The informational processes leading to balance or imbalance, respectively, have been investigated unsufficiently until now, although a lot of specific detailed questions with respect to balance processes have been investigated to a high amount from beginning of the 50th years. In order to achieve a better understanding of cognitive, affective and behavioral consequences of cognitive balance, in this project the nature of cognitive balance shall be investigated as well as encoding and memory processes in building cognitive balance on the basis of a theoretical differentiation between associative and propositional processes.

The role of associative processes in evaluative conditioning of attitudes

Applicant: Eva Walther

Funding: 1999 to 2009

Evaluative Conditioning is a paradigm established in Basic Psychology by which can be shown that the contiguity between an affective neutral and a positively or negatively evaluated stimulus is sufficient to change the evaluative meaning of this formerly neutral stimulus. Thus, evaluative conditioning is the conditioning of evaluation or preferences. Many studies proof that this evaluative-affective learning also takes place if the evaluators are not conscious of the contingencies between the affectively marked and the neutral stimuli. This project shall show how the relatively simple mechanisms of associative, affective learning may be transfered to the phenomena of personal judgement in a profitable way. Moreover, the research within this paradigm may give important contributions to present theoretical discussions about the context of affect and cognition as well as to the question of consciousness of evaluative processes.