Mechanisms Underlying Effects of Approach-Avoidance Training on Stimulus Evaluation

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Abstract

Over the past decade an increasing number of studies across a range of domains have shown that the repeated performance of approach and avoidance (AA) actions in response to a stimulus leads to changes in the evaluation of that stimulus. The dominant (motivational-systems) account in this area claims that these effects are caused by a rewiring of mental associations between stimulus representations and AA systems that evolved to regulate distances to positive and negative stimuli. In contrast, two recently forwarded alternative accounts postulate that AA effects are caused by inferences about the valence of actions and stimuli (inferential account) or a transfer of valenced action codes to stimulus representations (common-coding account). Across four experiments we set out to test these three competing accounts against each other. Experiments 1–3 illustrate that changes in stimulus evaluations can occur when people perform valenced actions that bear no relation to a distance regulation, such as moving a manikin upward or downward. The observed evaluative effects were dependent on the evaluative implication of the instructed movement goal rather than whether the action implied a movement toward or away from the stimuli. These results could not be explained with a rewiring of associations to motivational systems. Experiment 4 showed that changes in stimulus evaluations occurred after participants passively observed approach-avoidance movements, supporting an explanation in terms of cognitive inferences.

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