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 reduce that effect. The topic of this post gets into the prediction of impulsive behavior. When we’re feeling more impulsive we tend to be running on autopilot, and so a good way to predict behavior in that situation is with something that taps into that state of automaticity. One such thing is what’s called an ‘implicit’ attitude, which is a more automatic, associative attitude. 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 memory that serves as a connecting link between an object (like 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 it. Those associations could be automatically activated when we subsequently encountered the product, leading to a kind of favorable gut reaction to it. These attitudes are referred to as implicit because they're not really overtly expressed like the attitudes we often report on surveys.
To accurately tap the associative nature of implicit attitudes, they’re measured differently than the attitudes we provide on surveys (called ‘explicit’ attitudes). That is, implicit attitudes are typically measured with reaction time. For example, 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 more 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 for our minds to process, allowing us to react faster. Our reaction time is then used to infer our implicit attitudes.
One of psychology’s main goals 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 sharing those qualities. Implicit attitudes however are less controlled and more emotional and are better at predicting behaviors sharing those qualities, like impulsive 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 fact that implicit attitudes have predicted behavior explicit attitudes haven’t is in my opinion a very good reason to study implicit attitudes, as doing so increases our general understanding of attitudes and the behavior they predict. If we can predict behavior it becomes easier to control, which for example with impulse buying means controlling a behavior associated with debt, low self-esteem, and negative emotions.