Spontaneous and Deliberate Evaluation

Conflicts between the “head” and the “heart” can be common in everyday life. We may feel romantically attracted to a particular person despite firmly believing that this person is not a good match; and the sight of a high-calorie dessert may elicit an impulse to indulge although we know that it is unhealthy and detrimental for our goal to lose weight. Conversely, we may experience feelings of apprehension and discomfort when encountering members of stigmatized groups even though we intellectually abhor prejudice and wish to express solidarity with minorities; and the idea of shooting an abducted passenger plane to prevent terrorists from crashing it into a building may elicit a negative emotional reaction even when it would save the lives of many more people. Although these examples may seem rather distinct, they are conceptually similar in that all of them involve a conflict between a spontaneous evaluative reaction and a deliberate evaluative judgment. In the Social Cognition Lab, we are interested in the mental underpinnings of spontaneous and deliberate responses, focusing especially on the role of associative and propositional processes. In our research, we investigate how associative and propositional processes interact with each other, how they jointly influence social judgments and social behavior, and what factors lead to changes in the two kinds of processes and their resulting evaluative responses.

Associative and Propositional Processes

A substantial amount of this research is based on the associative-propositional evaluation (APE) model, which distinguishes between the activation of associations in memory and the validation of the propositional information implied by activated associations (Gawronski & Bodenhausen, 2006, 2007, 2011, 2014). The original purpose of the APE model was to provide an integration of seemingly inconsistent findings in the literature on implicit and explicit attitude change. In several follow-up studies, we have used the core assumptions of the APE model to gain deeper insights into the mechanisms underlying various social psychological phenomena. Examples include the role of associative and propositional processes in attitude formation and change (e.g., Gawronski & LeBel, 2008), evaluative conditioning (e.g., Hu, Gawronski, & Balas, 2017, in press), cognitive dissonance (e.g., Gawronski & Strack, 2004), cognitive balance (e.g., Langer, Walther, Gawronski, & Blank, 2009), prejudice and stereotyping (e.g., Gawronski, Peters, Brochu, & Strack, 2008), biased information processing (e.g., Galdi, Gawronski, Arcuri, & Friese, 2012), and self-representation (e.g., Peters & Gawronski, 2011). More recently, we have started to investigate the role of associative and propositional processes in various applied contexts, including affective disorders (e.g., Ouimet, Gawronski, & Dozois, 2009), political decision-making (e.g., Galdi, Arcuri, & Gawronski, 2008), consumer behavior (e.g., Gawronski, 2013), and legal decision-making (e.g., Morrison, DeVaul-Fetters, & Gawronski, 2016). A short video clip on the APE model can be found at Social PsyClips.

Generalization and Contextualization

Challenging a widespread assumption in the literature, a considerable body of research has shown that spontaneous evaluations can be highly context-dependent, such that the same object may elicit different evaluative responses depending on the context in which it is encountered. However, the conditions under which spontaneous evaluations are context-dependent or context-independent are still not well understood. To address this limitation, we have started to investigate the learning processes that lead to context-dependent versus context-independent evaluative responses (Rydell & Gawronski, 2009). Drawing on the concepts of contextual renewal and occasion setting in animal learning, we have developed a representational theory that specifies the contextual conditions under which spontaneous evaluations reflect either (a) initially acquired attitudinal information; (b) subsequently acquired counterattitudinal information; or (c) a mixture of both (Gawronski, Rydell, Vervliet, & De Houwer, 2010). In several follow-up studies, we have tested novel predictions derived from this theory to provide deeper insights into the mechanisms underlying context effects on spontaneous and deliberate evaluations (e.g., Brannon & Gawronski, in press; Gawronski, Ye, Rydell, & De Houwer, 2014; Ye, Tong, Chiu, & Gawronski, 2017; for a review, see Gawronski & Cesario, 2013).

Moral Judgment and Decision-Making

A recent line of research in our lab is concerned with the psychological processes underlying moral judgments and decisions. Drawing on the distinction between norm-based morality (deontology) and outcome-based morality (utilitarianism), our work aims at identifying the contribution of multiple distinct processes to judgments and decisions in moral dilemmas. Prominent examples of such dilemmas are cases in which violations of a deontological norm (e.g., do not inflict harm upon others) may lead to better outcomes overall (e.g., sacrificing the well-being of one person to protect the well-being of several others). Similar to the distinction between spontaneous and deliberate evaluation, dual-process theories of moral psychology suggest that deontological judgments are rooted in spontaneous emotional responses to the idea of causing harm, whereas utilitarian judgments stem from deliberate cognitive evaluations of outcomes. To allow for more stringent tests of these assumptions, we have developed a process dissociation model that disentangles the independent contributions of deontological and utilitarian inclinations to moral judgments (Conway & Gawronski, 2013). In our ongoing research, we are using an extended multinomial model that quantifies the unique roles of (1) sensitivity to outcomes, (2) sensitivity to moral norms, and (3) general preference for inaction (Gawronski, Armstrong, Conway, Friesdorf, & Hütter, in press). Using our CNI model, we are currently investigating the influence of qualitatively distinct emotions on moral judgment, the role of neuroendocrine factors, and behavioral correlates such as cheating and prosocial behavior.

Theory and Measurement

Because the strength of any scientific theory depends on the strength of the data it is based on, our research also includes a strong focus on psychological measurement. One line of work is concerned with the processes underlying implicit measures of spontaneous evaluation. A major product of this research is an integrative framework that describes the interplay of attentional and associative processes in response interference tasks (Gawronski, Deutsch, LeBel, & Peters, 2008). Several studies inspired by this framework have shown that a given factor can produce different effects on otherwise equivalent measures that have been assumed to assess the same construct (e.g., Deutsch & Gawronski, 2009; Gawronski, Cunningham, LeBel, & Deutsch, 2010). Another line of work has investigated the mechanisms underlying two of the most popular implicit measures: the Implicit Association Test (Conrey, Sherman, Gawronski, Hugenberg, & Groom, 2005) and the Affect Misattribution Procedure (Gawronski & Ye, 2014, 2015). Integrating basic questions of psychological measurement with a broader meta-theoretical perspective, our work is also concerned with fundamental conceptual issues in the construction and evaluation of social psychological theories (e.g., De Houwer, Gawronski, & Barnes-Holmes, 2013; Gawronski & Bodenhausen, 2015; Gawronski, Sherman, & Trope, 2014).

Research Funding and Awards

Our research has been generously supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Canada Research Chairs Program, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Ontario Research Fund, the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation, and the Alexander-von-Humboldt Foundation. In addition, members of the Social Cognition Lab have received numerous awards for their research, including the Theoretical Innovation Prize from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, the Career Trajectory Award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology, the Early Career Award from the International Social Cognition Network, the Early Researcher Award from the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation, the Best Social Cognition Paper Award from the International Social Cognition Network, the Charlotte-and-Karl-Bühler Prize from the German Psychological Society, the Early Career Best Paper Award from the European Journal of Social Psychology, the Faculty Scholar Award from the University of Western Ontario, the Dissertation Award from Society of Experimental Social Psychology, multiple Graduate Student Travel Awards from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, as well as doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Ontario Graduate Scholarship Program, the Fonds Quebeqois de la Recherche sur la Societe et la Culture, and the Richard J. Schmeelk Program.


Social-Personality | Department of Psychology | UT Austin
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