Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I like you, because I always feel good around you and I don’t know why


How do you know that you like someone or something?  Often, seeing a person you like gives you a good feeling inside or makes you smile.  You have that reaction far before you could say exactly why you like that person.  Indeed, you might find it hard to put into words exactly why you like them, but you know you do. 

There is a lot of work in Psychology showing that you can come to like someone (or some thing for that matter) not because of anything they have done, but just because you tend to feel good when you are around them.  There is a procedure called evaluative conditioning that shows how this can happen.

As one example, Michael Olson and Russell Fazio presented studies in the journal Psychological Science in 2001.  They had people stare at a computer screen while images were presented to them very rapidly (at a rate of 1.5 seconds per image).  They told people that they were studying people’s ability to do surveillance in a complex environment.  The images consisted both of pictures (of different Pokemon characters) as well as words.  Sometimes, more than one word or picture appeared on the same screen.  In fact, one Pokemon character was repeatedly paired with positive words and images (like the word excellent or a picture of a sundae).   A second character was repeatedly paired with negative words and images (like the word terrible or a picture of a cockroach).  Later, people were asked to rate how much they liked the character.  People consistently gave higher ratings to the character that was paired with positive words and pictures than to the character that was paired with negative words and pictures.  This difference occurred, though the participants in the study were not aware of which words and images had appeared with the characters. 

So, what is going on here?  In a May, 2009 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Christopher Jones, along with Russell Fazio and Michael Olson argue that this change in evaluation of the objects occurs because of a mis-attribution of the good feeling to the object.  That is, in these kinds of experiments, the positive words and pictures make the person feel good.  They are not sure why they feel good, so the good feeling is attached to the Pokemon character that is consistently associated with feeling good.  Likewise, the negative words and pictures make them feel bad.  They are not sure why they feel bad, so they attach the negative feeling to the Pokemon character that is consistently associated with feeling bad. 

Often, of course, this strategy is a pretty good one.  If there is a person in the world, and you usually feel good around that person, chances are that person is making you feel good.  If there is a person and you usually feel bad around them, chances are that person is making you feel bad.  However, this strategy can lead to the wrong outcome too.  You may end up liking people and things you encounter in positive situations more than perhaps you should.  Similarly, you may end up disliking people and things you encounter in negative situations more than you should.

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