One of the ongoing themes in my blog is impulsivity. Expending willpower can make us more impulsive, and affirming our core values, being in a good mood, or consuming glucose can attenuate that effect. The topic of this post gets into the prediction of impulsive behavior, specifically the method used for predicting it. When we’re feeling more impulsive we tend to be running on autopilot, and so a good way to predict behavior in this situation is with something that taps into that state of automaticity. One such thing is what’s called an ‘implicit attitude’, which is an attitude based on automatic associations in memory. In this post I’m going to describe the concept of an implicit attitude, how one is measured, and why implicit attitudes are so well suited for predicting impulsive behavior. After reading this I suggest you visit Project Implicit at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/ so you can discover some of the implicit attitudes you hold and learn something about yourself you might not have guessed!
An implicit attitude is defined as a misidentified memory that serves as a connecting link between an object (e.g., a product) and feelings or thoughts toward that object. For example, we might have a pleasant memory of an afternoon at the park in which we happened to use some product. The pleasant feelings associated with the memory of the park could rub off on the product, leading us to form favorable associations with the product. The attitude would be implicit because the role of our memory of the park in the formation of associations between the product and pleasant feelings wouldn’t be identified. Essentially, we’d have pleasant associations with a product whose true origins couldn’t be consciously considered or reported.
You might be wondering how implicit attitudes are measured if we can’t consciously report them. Implicit attitudes are typically measured with reaction time. Specifically, if we react faster to the idea that some product is good than we do to the idea that it’s bad, that means we have a favorable implicit attitude toward that product. Conversely, if we react faster to the idea that some product is bad than we do to the idea that it’s good, that means we have an unfavorable implicit attitude toward that product. The idea behind this measurement method is when we’re exposed to associations we already hold they’re easier to process, allowing us to react faster. Our reaction time is then used to infer the implicit attitudes we hold.
One of the main goals of psychology is predicting behavior. Behavior is often predicted with attitudes, but not all attitudes are created equally. Explicit attitudes are more controlled and deliberative, and are better at predicting behaviors that share those qualities. Implicit attitudes, however, are less controlled and more emotional, like impulsivity. Since implicit attitudes tap into the same areas of our psyche from which impulsive behaviors are derived, they’re better able to predict those behaviors. Indeed, research has shown when individuals are feeling more impulsive, for example after expending willpower, implicit attitudes tend to predict their behavior. In my own research I’ve found after individuals expended willpower they bought the products they implicitly preferred, not the products they explicitly preferred.
The next time you’re shopping and you’re in a hurry, distracted, or tired, chances are you’ll be more impulsive and making more impulsive decisions. In that situation you won’t be thinking as much about your shopping decisions, meaning that your implicit attitudes will exert a stronger influence on your purchases. What sort of products do we implicitly prefer? Well, we tend to implicitly prefer products that are more ‘fun’, as those are products with which we have stronger emotional connections. For example, candy and pizza tend to be more fun than fruits and vegetables. Potato chips tend to be more fun than unsalted pretzels. If you find yourself choosing more ‘fun’ products under conditions facilitating impulsivity, your implicit attitudes might be doing some of the choosing for you. In that case, you might want to employ one of the tactics mentioned at the beginning of this post to replenish willpower (see my post entitled “Avoiding the Willpower Depleting Effects of Using Self-Control” for more information) and help your explicit attitudes guide behavior. I don’t mean to imply implicit attitudes are bad things; we all hold them, and automatic thought serves a very useful purpose in that thinking carefully about everything would require way too much time and energy. Implicit attitudes are however the attitudes that will operate when we’re feeling impulsive. Knowing when and how implicit attitudes guide behavior will help you take steps to increase the likelihood that your own consumer decisions will be less impulsive and more controlled, and ultimately smarter.