Observations on Awareness and Conditioning

Gerald J. Gorn, University of British Columbia
W. J. Jacobs, University of Lethbridge
Michael J. Mana, University of British Columbia
ABSTRACT - In these comments we will attempt to make two points. First, there are several types of awareness. Each type say, but does not necessarily, play a role in classical conditioning. Second, there is at least one clear case where awareness is not necessary for classical conditioning.
[ to cite ]:
Gerald J. Gorn, W. J. Jacobs, and Michael J. Mana (1987) ,"Observations on Awareness and Conditioning", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 415-416.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 415-416


Gerald J. Gorn, University of British Columbia

W. J. Jacobs, University of Lethbridge

Michael J. Mana, University of British Columbia


In these comments we will attempt to make two points. First, there are several types of awareness. Each type say, but does not necessarily, play a role in classical conditioning. Second, there is at least one clear case where awareness is not necessary for classical conditioning.


Although we cannot deal with all of the issues surrounding awareness and conditioning, we would-like to consider two issues. Both issues relate to the key question of the role of awareness in conditioning. The first issue concerns the meaning of the term awareness. We hope to make clear that there are any kinds of awareness. If the role of awareness in conditioning, and in human behavior in general, is to be understood, there is a need to decide what we mean by the term awareness. The second issue concerns the claim that there is no empirical evidence in the conditioning literature that people's behavior can be influenced without their awareness. We hope to make it clear that this is not the case.


Types of Awareness

We can distinguish two basic types of awareness. The first can be called self-awareness. One form of self-awareness is the knowledge of how one's behavior is influenced by the environment; in a Pavlovian conditioning paradigm, this means that the subject is aware that he or she has acquired and is performing a conditional response because of an acknowledged relationship between a conditional and unconditional stimulus.

This type of self-awareness is related to, but distinct from, a second basic type of awareness: External awareness. One form of external awareness in Pavlovian conditioning experiments, implicit in the example given above, is an awareness of the relationship between the conditional and the unconditional stimuli, two elements in the environment. This form of awareness is called contingency awareness (Page 1973), something quite distinct from self-awareness where the causal between the conditional-unconditional stimulus association and the conditional response is known.

An awareness of the relationship between the conditional and the unconditional stimuli may lead to another for of external awareness: awareness of the experimental hypothesis. This is called demand awareness (Page 1973). Of the various types of awareness, demand awareness is the most relevant to the present discussion because its presence in a conditioning experiment casts doubt on whether any real conditioning has occurred. Focusing on demand awareness, Kahle, Beatty and Kennedy (1987), Brewer (1974), and Page (1973) have argued that Pavlovian conditioning procedures do not produce any real conditioning of adult human behavior: Behavioral change is merely a by-product of demand awareness. the argument is that behavioral changes seen in subjects following conditioning result from the subjects developing contingency awareness, then ascertaining what kind of behavioral change the experimenter wants to see, and then acting cooperatively.

Assessing Demand Awareness

We have begun a series of pilot studies designed to assess the validity of the type of questionnaires typically used to assess demand awareness in the conditioning paradigm (e.g., Page 1973). In our studies, the subjects are not subjected to a conditioning procedure of any kind. They are simply given a general description of the experimental paradigm used by Page, without any reference to the relationship between the conditional stimulus and the unconditional stimulus. They are asked to imagine that they were subjects in the experiment, and then asked to fill out the postexperimental, funnel-type questionnaire used by Page to assess awareness in his experiment. Although space does not permit us to describe all of the conditions that we are testing, the subjects in a critical group that we have run, received two pieces of information: 1) a description of the pattern of their hypothetical response in the experiment, based upon the responses that would be expected from a conditioned subject in Page's (1973) experiment; and 2) the cues that are contained in the questionnaire itself. In this group, 63% of the subjects indicated some awareness of the experimental hypothesis, with 33% of the subjects indicating both contingency and demand awareness. These results contra ted sharply with those of a group that were not provided with the information concerning their "responses" in the imaginary experiment. There was little evidence of any type of awareness in these subjects. These results indicate that subjects who respond to questionnaires as though they are demand aware (e.g., Page 1973) may be led to this "awareness" by analyzing the questions in terms of their behavior in the experimental situation. At best, the funnel-type questionnaire provides evidence of a correlational, not causal, relationship between awareness and conditioning. Awareness may accompany, or follow, conditioning in an attribution sense, rather than cause it.


At this point, our discussion turns to the second issue, which concerns the claim that there is no empirical evidence of conditioning in adult humans without awareness (Kahle et al.1987). In the psychological literature, there is clear evidence that Pavlovian conditioning can affect the behavior of adult humans without their awareness of any experimental hypothesis, without their awareness of the relationship between the conditional and the unconditional stimuli, and without their cooperation. We will present an example that we find particularly compelling because it is from real life; there is no experimenter or experimental situation to generate demand.

People who have cancer are often treated with chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Although such therapies kill cancer cells, they have two unfortunate side effects. First, they make the patient ill. Second, they gradually make the patient anorexic; that is, the patient stops eating food. This loss of appetite leads to dramatic weight loss and other problems associated with undereating. This aversion to food develop slowly over the course of therapy and often lasts well after the therapy is finished. Although medical doctors had known for many years that chemotherapy and radiation therapy produce illness in patients, they had not been able to ascertain why their patients gradually stopped eating, especially when the foods had often been long-time favorites before therapy began.

The answer to this puzzling and unfortunate problem was provided by psychologists familiar with a phenomenon from the area of animal learning that is referred to as conditioned taste aversion. This phenomenon was first reported by John Garcia and his colleagues who were interested in the toxic effects of radiation (Garcia and Koelling, 1966). Garcia noted that, after a bout of radiation, rats avoid any novel foods that they had tasted before the toxic bout, even if these foods were particularly appealing ones (e.g., sugar solutions). Further research on the phenomenon of conditioned taste aversion in the rat revealed a number of interesting facts: 1) if a familiar tasting food is paired with illness, rat- do not avoid that food after a single pairing but come to avoid it with repeated pairings (Riley, Jacobs, and Mastropaolo 1983); 2) the taste and the illness do not have to be closely paired in time. Conditioned taste aversions can be acquired even when a period of any hours intervenes between the food and the illness (c.g., Nachman and Jones 1974); 3) this conditioned aversion is very stimulus-specific; even when other stimuli (e.g., tones or lights) signal the impending nausea in the conditioning trials, the taste of the food alone is subsequently avoided (Garcia and Koelling 1966).

With this knowledge, an explanation based on conditioned taste aversions has been proposed for the anorexia produced by chemotherapy and radiation therapy (e.g., Garb & Stunkard 1974; Bernstein 196). According to this explanation, cancer patients who eat just before a therapy session gradually lose their appetite for a particular food because that food is repeatedly paired with the nausea resulting from radiation or chemotherapy. This aversion can develop even if the food is eaten many hours before the therapy. Moreover, the taste aversion develops even if other stimuli are present before and during the periods of therapy.

Once patients have developed an aversion to a particular food, they quite naturally eat other foods, ones to which the aversion has not yet developed. Of course, an aversion eventually develops to these foods. This cycle is repeated until the patients eventually eat very little food at all.

This explanation has been supported by a number of studies that used cancer patients as subjects (e.g., Bernstein & Webster 1980; see Logue 1985, for reports of conditioned taste aversions in other human populations). It is important to note that the subjects in these studies were typically unaware that it was the pairing of the taste of the food and the illness suffered during therapy which cawed the food aversion (e.g., Logue 1985). In addition, even when cancer patients recognize that the source of their illness is the drug therapy they have received, and not the food they have eaten, they continue to demonstrate a robust conditioned taste aversion. This form of conditioning therefore appears highly resistant to cognitive control (c.f., Bernstein 196).

This example illustrates three things. First, that without the knowledge of the animal conditioning literature, the cause of anorexia in patients receiving chemotherapy and radiation therapy might have remained undiscovered. Second, although much of the literature indicate that some form of awareness is present in classical conditioning, it is clear that conditioning can occur, at least in this instance, without awareness of the conditional-unconditional stimulus contingency on the part of the subject, or of any "demand" crested by the person controlling the presentation of the conditional and unconditional stimuli. Third, conditioning can persist even when a person recognizes both the basis and negative consequences of that conditioning.

Regardless of one's position on the role of awareness in the conditioning of human behavior, the conditioning paradigm should not be discarded simply because it does not fit our intuitions about the cause and control of human behavior. A conditioning perspective raise different questions than other perspectives, or at least asks them in a different way. Conditioning research undoubtedly been useful in explaining, and in providing techniques to modify, human behavior, e.g., operant conditioning in the develoPment of behavior modification, classical conditioning in the development of desensitization therapy and in the phenomenon of conditioned taste aversion that we have discussed. A conditioning perspective has also stimulated interest in alternatives to Fishbein's classic theory of reasoned action and its implications for communication effects (e.g. Mitchell and Olson 1981). Conditioning work may well be related to consumer behavior. After all, much of it deals with food likes and dislikes.

In conclusion we do not feel the evidence warrants a rejection of the conditioning paradigm as an additional paradigm for exploring consumer behavior. The effects of conditioning procedures continue to be a source of considerable interest in the field of psychology. The literature is a rich one awaiting further exploration by consumer researchers. Judging from the interest expressed at this conference, and the recent interest in conditioning in the consumer behavior literature, it is apparent that this exploration will continue.


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