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De Houwer, J., & Hughes, S. (2016). Evaluative conditioning as a symbolic phenomenon: On the relation between evaluative conditioning, evaluative conditioning via instructions, and persuasion. Social Cognition, 34, 480-494. Jan De Houwer UGENT 2018 03

Evaluative conditioning (EC) is sometimes portrayed as a primitive way of changing attitudes
that is fundamentally different from persuasion via arguments. We provide a new perspective
on the nature of EC and its relation to persuasion by exploring the idea that stimulus pairings
can function as a symbol that conveys the nature of the relation between stimuli. We put
forward the concept of symbolic EC to refer to changes in liking that occur because stimulus
pairings function as symbols. The idea of symbolic EC is consistent with at least some current
theories of persuasion. It clarifies what EC research can add to the understanding of the origins
of our preferences and has implications for how (symbolic and non-symbolic) EC can be
established, the boundaries of EC research, and cognitive and functional models of EC.

Maes, E., Boddez, Y., Alfei, J. M., Krypotos, A. M., D’Hooge, R., De Houwer, J., & Beckers, T. (2016). The elusive nature of the blocking effect: 15 failures to replicate. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145, e49-e71. Jan De Houwer UGENT 2018 03

With the discovery of the blocking effect, learning theory took a huge leap forward, because
blocking provided a crucial clue that surprise is what drives learning. This in turn stimulated the
development of novel association-formation theories of learning. Eventually, the ability to explain
blocking became nothing short of a touchstone for the validity of any theory of learning, including
propositional and other non-associative theories. The abundance of publications reporting a
blocking effect and the importance attributed to it suggest that it is a robust phenomenon. Yet, in
the current paper we report fifteen failures to observe a blocking effect despite the use of
procedures that are highly similar or identical to those used in published studies. Those failures raise
doubts regarding the canonical nature of the blocking effect and call for a reevaluation of the central
status of blocking in theories of learning. They may also illustrate how publication bias influences
our perspective towards the robustness and reliablilty of seemingly established effects in the
psychological literature.

Braem, S., Liefooghe, B., De Houwer, J., Brass, M., & Abrahamse, E. (2017). There are limits to the effects of task instructions: Making the automatic effects of task instructions context-specific takes practice. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 43, 394-403. Jan De Houwer UGENT 2018 03

Unlike other animals, humans have the unique ability to share and use verbal instructions to prepare
for upcoming tasks. Recent research showed that instructions are sufficient for the automatic, reflexlike activation of responses. However, systematic studies into the limits of these automatic effects of
task instructions remain relatively scarce. In this study, we set out to investigate whether this
instruction-based automatic activation of responses can be context-dependent. Specifically,
participants performed a task of which the stimulus-response rules and context (location on the screen)
could either coincide or not with those of an instructed to-be-performed task (whose instructions
changed every run). In two experiments, we showed that the instructed task rules had an automatic
impact on performance – performance was slowed down when the merely instructed task rules did not
coincide, but, importantly, this effect was not context-dependent. Interestingly, a third and fourth
experiment suggests that context dependency can actually be observed, but only when practicing the
task in its appropriate context for over sixty trials or after a sufficient amount of practice on a fixed
context (the context was the same for all instructed tasks). Together, these findings seem to suggest
that instructions can establish stimulus-response representations that have a reflexive impact on
behavior, but are insensitive to the context in which the task is known to be valid. Instead, contextspecific task representations seem to require practice.

Moors, A., Boddez, Y., & De Houwer, J. (2017). The power of goal-directed processes in the causation of emotional and other actions. Emotion Review, 9, 310-318. Jan De Houwer UGENT 2018 03

Standard dual process models in the action domain postulate that stimulus-driven
processes are responsible for suboptimal behavior because they take them to be rigid and
automatic and therefore the default. We propose an alternative dual process model in which
goal-directed processes are the default instead. We then transfer the dual process logic from
the action domain to the emotion domain. This reveals that emotional action tendencies are
often attributed to stimulus-driven processes. Our alternative model submits that emotional
action tendencies can also be caused by goal-directed processes. We evaluate the type of
empirical evidence required for validating our model and we consider implications of our
model for behavior change, encouraging strategies focused on the expectancies and values of
action outcomes.

Brass, M., Liefooghe, B., Braem, S., & De Houwer, J. (2017). Following new task instructions: Evidence for a dissociation between knowing and doing. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 81, 16-28. Jan De Houwer UGENT 2018 03

The ability to follow new instructions is crucial for acquiring behaviors and the cultural
transmission of performance-related knowledge. In this article, we discuss the observation
that successful instruction following seems to require both the capacity to understand verbal
information, but also the ability to transform this information into a procedural format. Here
we review the behavioural and neuroimaging literature on following new instructions and
discuss how it contributes to our understanding of the functional mechanisms underlying
instruction following. Based on this review, we distinguish three phases of instruction
following. In the instruction phase, the declarative information of the task instruction is
transformed into a task model consisting of a structured representation of the relevant
condition-action rules. In the implementation phase, elements of this task model are
transformed into a highly accessible state guiding behaviour. In the application phase, the
relevant condition-action rules are applied. We discuss the boundary conditions and capacity
limits of these phases, determine their neural correlates, and relate them to recent models
of working memory.

Hütter, M., & De Houwer, J. (2017). Examining the contributions of memory-dependent and memory-independent components to evaluative conditioning via instructions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 71, 49-58. Jan De Houwer UGENT 2018 03

We investigated whether instructions have the potential to generate memory-independent
attitude acquisition as indexed by a stochastic model of evaluative conditioning that distinguishes
between memory-dependent and memory-independent learning. For that purpose, we instructed
participants about pairings of conditioned and unconditioned stimuli without having participants
experience them. We obtained a significant contribution of memory-independent learning that
depended on whether instructions emphasized the importance of memorization at learning or the
importance of feelings at either learning or retrieval. Our findings call for caution when
interpreting the memory-independent contribution as an indicator of association formation on the
one hand and unaware learning on the other hand. Our research demonstrates the need to clearly
distinguish between processes operating at encoding and processes operating at retrieval in
empirical and theoretical research on evaluative conditioning.

Mertens, G., Van Dessel, P., & De Houwer, J. (2018). The contextual malleability of approach-avoidance training effects: Approaching or avoiding fear conditioned stimuli modulates effects of approach-avoidance training. Cognition & Emotion, 32, 341-349. Jan De Houwer UGENT 2018 03

Previous research showed that the repeated approaching of one stimulus and avoiding of another
stimulus typically leads to more positive evaluations of the former stimuli. In the current study,
we examined whether approach and avoidance training (AAT) effects on evaluations of neutral
stimuli can be modulated by introducing a regularity between the approach-avoidance actions
and a positive or negative (feared) stimulus. In an AAT task, participants repeatedly approached
one neutral non-word and avoided another neutral non-word. Half of the participants also
approached a negative fear-conditioned stimulus (CS+) and avoided a conditioned safe stimulus
(CS-). The other half of the participants avoided the CS+ and approached the CS-. Whereas
participants in the avoid CS+ condition exhibited a typical AAT effect, participants in the
approach CS+ condition exhibited a reversed AAT effect (i.e., they evaluated the approached
neutral non-word as more negative than the avoided non-word). These findings provide evidence
for the malleability of the AAT effect when strongly valenced stimuli are approached or avoided.
We discuss the practical and theoretical implications of our findings.

Mertens, G., & De Houwer, J. (in press). Can threat information bias fear learning? Some tentative results and methodological considerations. Journal of Experimental Psychopathology. Jan De Houwer UGENT 2018 03

Whereas it is widely recognized that both verbal threat information and stimulus pairings
can install strong and persistent fear, few studies have addressed the interaction between these
two pathways of fear. According to the expectancy bias of Davey (1992, 1997), verbal
information can install expectancy biases for aversive events that can result in facilitated fear
learning through stimulus pairings and can delay extinction of fear. However, these predictions
of the expectancy bias account have not been explored fully. Following up on two earlier studies
(Field & Storksen-Coulson, 2007; Ugland, Dyson, & Field, 2013), we investigated the impact of
prior threat information on fear acquisition, extinction and reinstatement. To this aim,
participants received instructions about four unfamiliar animals, two of which that were
described as dangerous whereas the other two were described as harmless. One animal of each
pair was subsequently paired with an electric stimulus. Our results indicated that threat
information resulted in stronger fear responses prior to fear conditioning and in delayed
extinction of fear. However, these effects of instructions were not very pronounced and not
found on all measures of fear. We discuss several methodological and procedural considerations
that may modulate the effects of (verbally installed) expectancy biases.

Maes, E., Vanderoost, E., D’Hooge, R., De Houwer, J., & Beckers, T. (2017). Individual difference factors in the learning and transfer of patterning discriminations. Frontiers in Psychology. 8:1262. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01262 Jan De Houwer UGENT 2018 03

In an associative patterning task, some people seem to focus more on learning an
overarching rule, whereas others seem to focus on acquiring specific relations between the
stimuli and outcomes involved. Building on earlier work, we further investigated which
cognitive factors are involved in feature- versus rule-based learning and generalization. To this
end, we measured participants’ tendency to generalize according to the rule of opposites after
training on negative and positive patterning problems (i.e., A+/B+/AB- and C-/D-/CD+), their
tendency to attend to global aspects or local details of stimuli, their systemizing disposition and
their score on the Raven intelligence test. Our results suggest that while intelligence might have
some influence on patterning learning and generalization, visual processing style and
systemizing disposition do not. We discuss our findings in the light of previous observations
on patterning.


Mechanisms of conscious and unconscious learning