Cognitive Social Psychology: The Princeton Symposium on the Legacy and Future of Social Cognition

By Gordon B. Moskowitz | Go to book overview
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Goals and the Compatibility Principle in Attitudes, Judgment, and Choice C.
Miguel Brendl
INSEAD, Fontainebleau
Most theories of social cognition share the assumption that the basic modules from which behavior emerges are mental representations. Consequently, much research has focused on the properties of individual mental representations, such as their level of activation (accessibility) or the degree to which they share associations with other representations. The current chapter discusses another fundamental principle involving mental representations. The relations between different mental representations may be as important for the prediction of behavior as the property of each single mental representation. This chapter hypothesizes that goals may play a central role in determining these relations. Consider Example (a):
(a). Experimental participants look at a pair of dim light bulbs, one right one left, and are to press one of a pair of reaction time buttons, one right one left, as soon as one bulb lights up. They respond faster when they may press the right button for a right side light than for a left side light.

In this example, stimulus and response correspond by both being on the right side; as a result, the response is facilitated compared to them being on opposite sides. More generally, compatibility compared with incompatibility between side of stimulus and side of response facilitates responding. As is suggested in greater detail later, the following examples may also be instances of a more general principle of compatibility between stimuli and goals.

(b). People are more concerned about the amount of money that they could win in a gamble when asked for how much money they would sell their right to play the gamble than when deciding which one of two gambles to play.
(c). People weight positive information more when deciding which politician to vote for than when deciding whom not to vote for.
(d). People weight positive behavior more heavily than negative behavior when they judge the ability of others, but vice versa when they judge their morality.
(e). People are more persuaded by a positive than by a negative message frame when they decide about using sunscreen lotion, but vice versa when considering getting a mammogram.

Examples (c) to (e) involve responses to positive and negative stimuli. These types of stimuli are weighted to different degrees into an overall judgment (c and d), and this may impact responding. The persuasiveness of a stimulus—here a message—depends on a behavior depending on whether it is framed positively or negatively (e). It is suggested that these effects stem from how well the stimuli correspond, or are compatible to, the goal driving the response. We call this form of compatibility goal compatibility. Stimuli and goals are mental representations. The better the correspondence between these representations, the larger the assimilative impact of the stimulus on the response. Here assimilative means that the stimulus pulls the response in its direction on a dimension of positive versus negative valence. For example, negative information is weighted heavier into a decision to reject than to accept a job candidate because negative information corresponds better to a reject decision.

Compatibility effects of the kind described in Example (a) are extremely powerful and robust. Yet this principle has received surprisingly little attention in social psychology. The goal of this chapter is to review findings suggesting that the principle of compatibility underlies a number of framing effects and positive-negative asymmetries in judgment and choice (Examples [b] to [e]). To date these phenomena have been considered as independent of each other. A second theme of the chapter is to introduce the concept of compatibility of stimuli to goals.


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Cognitive Social Psychology: The Princeton Symposium on the Legacy and Future of Social Cognition
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