Human Motivation & Affective Neuroscience Lab
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Effects of implicit motives on Pavlovian and instrumental learning

When, why, and how do motives shape behavior? Research at the HuMAN Lab proceeds on the assumption that implicit motives determine the degree to which the attainment of specific types of incentives is pleasurable and, conversely, the degree to which the non-attainment of such incentives is aversive. The stronger the motive, the more pleasurable the successful attainment of an incentive and the more aversive the failure to attain an incentive. For instance, the stronger the power motive, the greater the reward value of defeating an opponent and the greater the punishment of being defeated (Schultheiss, 2007).

To test whether this view of implicit motives as determinants of incentive value is correct, a number of studies conducted at the HuMAN Lab has focused on the effects of victory and defeat on the implicit power motive. In a series of studies on the effects of a dominance contest outcome, participants worked on an implicit learning task during the contest (implicit learning refers to the acquisition of behavior without intention or awareness of learning). After the contest, their performance on this task was assessed. In all studies (Schultheiss & Rohde, 2002; Schultheiss, Wirth et al, 2005), power-motivated winners showed clear signs of enhanced implicit learning and power-motivated losers clear signs of impaired implicit learning after the contest, whereas individuals low in power motivation did not show these differences. In other words, power-motivated winners were particularly good at retaining behavior that had previously been associated with their victory, and power-motivated losers were particularly likely to inhibit behavior that had been associated with their defeat. Evidence for an effect of implicit motives on instrumental learning also comes from our work on facial expressions of emotion (FEEs) as motivational incentives (cf. Schultheiss, Pang et al., 2005). For instance, power-motivated individuals showed superior instrumental learning of behavior that led to the presentation of a surprise face, a low-dominance signal and hence high in reward value for power-motivated individuals.

Two aspects of these findingsare particularly remarkable: First, because we used paradigms developed for the assessment of implicit learning in testing the motive-reinforcement hypothesis, participants were unaware that they had learned anything in the first place. Therefore, implicit motives stay "in character" here because they influence the acquisition of instrumental behavior "underneath the radar", that is, at a nonconscious level. Second, in the dominance contest studies we found that subjectively experienced pleasure over a victory or dissatisfaction over a defeat was neither predicted by implicit motives, nor was it in any way associated with participants' learning gains after the contest. This suggests that subjective reports on the pleasantness of an event may have little to do with, nor be required for, behavioral reinforcement.

Currently, the HuMAN Lab is extending research on motives and learning to processes of Pavlovian conditioning, in which a formerly neutral stimulus (e.g., a red triangle) becomes reliably associated with an unconditioned, emotionally arousing stimulus (e.g., a surprised face) and thereby also attains some of the emotional properties of the unconditioned stimulus. Results from a first set of studies demonstrate that implicit motives do determine the degree to which a neutral stimulus can be conditioned in this way (Stanton, Wirth, & Schultheiss, 2006).

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