Changing Implicit Attitudes and Behaviors Through Training

By Jordan Axt

Do interventions that change implicit attitudes also change relevant behaviors? A new paper forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science highlights one intriguing method that may effectively change both unwanted implicit attitudes and behaviors.

The researchers, from Ghent University (Belgium), used Approach-Avoidance (AA) Training, which involves having participants repeatedly “approach” certain stimuli (e.g., moving a joystick toward images of healthy food) and “avoid” other stimuli (e.g., moving a joystick away from images of unhealthy food). In general, the research is mixed on the effectiveness of AA training, but these studies used a new version of the task that may produce more promising effects.

In particular, the researchers made sure that the AA training was clearly associated with positive and negative consequences. In their studies, participants played a modified videogame where they controlled an avatar that had to learn to approach or avoid certain foods with the goal of maintaining the avatar’s health. For healthy foods (like carrots), making the avatar approach the food resulted in better health and avoiding those foods worsened health. For unhealthy foods (like cookies), the opposite was true; approaching led to worse health and avoiding led to better health. Rather than being explicitly told (or reminded) which foods were good or bad, participants now more subtly learned whether each food was associated with positive or negative consequences.

Although this game might seem a bit silly, the results suggest that playing the game changed participants' attitudes, goals, and behaviors. Compared to participants in a control condition, participants who completed the AA training game had more positive implicit (measured with an IAT) and explicit (measured with self-report) attitudes towards healthy foods. They also indicated a greater desire to buy healthier food both immediately after the training and again the following day. Most interestingly, participants completing this AA training did less actual snacking on unhealthy foods like potato chips at the end of the study.

While exciting, future research can further explore these initial findings. For example, subsequent work might focus on understanding why exactly the AA training was effective; for example, was altering behavior or motivation due to changes in implicit attitudes, explicit attitudes, or some other factor the researchers did not measure? Regardless, this work provides initial evidence on a new method for altering both implicit attitudes and behavior.