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Classical Conditioning and Implicit Self-Esteem

Associations, even those not consciously noticed, can give rise to attitudes. Jodene R.
Baccus and colleagues have demonstrated how classical conditioning can even
increase the automatic, non-conscious aspect of self-esteem.
Implicit self-esteem is conceptualized as a self-evaluation that occurs unintentionally
and outside of awareness. Researchers have developed means of assessing implicit
self-esteem by examining automatic associations between self and good. For
example, the Implicit Association Test (IAT) requires participants to sort words into
categories. In one set of trials, the correct response for self-related words (e.g., me)
and the correct response for pleasant words (e.g., rainbow) require pressing the same key. In other trials, self-related
words are assigned the same key as unpleasant words (e.g., vomit). Faster reaction times are theorized to reflect
stronger associations. Thus, the amount of implicit self-esteem is determined by comparing the amount of time it
takes participants to respond to target words when self-related and positive words
share the same key with the amount of time it takes to respond when self-related
and negative words share the same key. The Name Letter measure provides a
second assessment of implicit self-esteem. It simply indexes the extent to which
participants prefer the initials of their name to other letters of the alphabet.
In Baccus experiment, the participants enter into a computer the answers to six
questions about themselves (e.g., first name, date of birth). They are then
instructed that a word will appear randomly in one of the quadrants on the screen.
Their task is to click on the word as quickly as possible. They are also told that doing
so will cause an image to be displayed briefly in that quadrant. The procedure is
repeated for 240 trials. The words appearing on the screen are chosen from the
participants answers to the first six questions (self-relevant words) as well as from a preprogrammed list of words
that are similar types of words but not relevant to the participant. In the crucial experimental condition, self-relevant
words are always paired with an image of a smiling face; while in the control
condition, a random selection of smiling, frowning, and neutral faces follows the
self-relevant words. As predicted, participants completing the experimental
version of the conditioning task exhibited significantly higher implicit self-esteem
(as measured by the IAT and the Name Letter measure) than those who completed
the control version of the conditioning task.
The authors conclude that a simple conditioning paradigm, originally developed by
learning theorists to study animal responses to expectations of food or shock, was
effective in modifying peoples unconscious responses to themselves. The finding
also fits well, observe the authors, with theories that find the roots of selfacceptance in positive, warm feedback from other people.

Baccus, J. R., Baldwin, M. W., & Packer, D. J. (2004). Increasing implicit self-esteem through classical conditioning. Psychological Science, 15,
498502.