Conditioning Nonsense or Making Something Out of Nothing

Staats and Staats ExperimentPersuasion researchers are stone cold maniacs.  They employ testing procedures that rival anything nuclear physicists use and all to make the world go Boom! but with words.  Consider this baroque masterpiece Professors Staats and Staats conducted.  (Professor Staats is standing at left while Professor Staats is standing at right.  The seated woman is not being shocked nor is her mind being read, but that control panel looks like something from Flash Gordon.)

They tested how you can take nonsense words, XEH or YOF, and make people have either positive or negative attitudes towards them by associating the nonsense with positive or negative words.  They hid this test within a larger task called “verbal learning of paired associates.”  They gave people a long list of “paired associates,” two words that had to be learned together and would be measured on a later memory test.  You would get each pair one at a time, be given some time to study, then given the next pair to study.  If you were in the test you might get a list that looked like this.

XEH – dirty
LAJ – pen
YOF – beauty
GIW – key
LAJ – car
YOF – gift
GIW – paper
XEH – sour

Now, the actual list of paired associates was much longer than this, 108 pairs.  And, remember, you are getting these pairs one at a time and are studying each pair for a memory test.  If you’re sharp, you’ve picked up on the trick.  In this list, the nonsense syllable of XEH is always paired with a semantically negative word (dirty, sour) while YOF is paired with a positive term (beauty, gift).  The other nonsense terms have neutral word associations.  Now, if you do this experiment rather than read about it, virtually no one picks up the trick.  The situation is simply too complicated and the researchers will give you a sweet, simple, but deceptive cover story that makes you look at the wrong hand while they pull the trick from the other sleeve.  And, just to demonstrate how stone cold they are, Staats and Staats ran the experiment twice.  First, XEH got the negative words and YOF got the positives.  Second, they reversed the association and XEH got positive words and YOF got negative words.  This handled the remote possibility that, hey, you idiots, don’t you know the XEH is an inherently NEGATIVE sounding word, so don’t need to pair it with NEGATIVE words, because it’s already a NEGATIVE attitude, you fool.  And, they also replicated these experiments two more times using different attitude measures.  Like I said, stone cold maniacs.  Boom!

Before they give the memory test after your study session with the 108 paired associates list (dammit, aren’t you sorry you didn’t get to do this experiment!), they ask you to provide your attitude toward the nonsense syllable, and so you rate it on a 7 point scale from good to bad.  According to Ding-Dong theory, the nonsense syllable XEH should have a negative attitude because of the repeated pairings with semantically negative words while YOF should have a positive attitude because of the positive semantic pairings.  And, that’s exactly what Staats and Staats found.  Here’s the attitude means from their Table 2.


The first row indicates results for people who had XEH with negative words and YOF with positive words while the second row shows the reverse pairing.  The means can range from 1 to 7 with a higher score indicating a NEGATIVE attitude.  The numbers in the parentheses are the d effect sizes and all of them are large, larger than that 25-75 Windowpane effect.

These results are exactly what Classical Conditioning predicts.  Take a neutral thing, XEH or YOF, then repeatedly associate it with either positive words or negative words, and the attitude toward that neutral thing will change in the same direction.  And, we can take this neutral thing and move it in either direction.  And, the effect sizes are large, unusually large for most social science studies.  And, nobody in this experiment realizes what is going on.

This study provides a great illustration of what low WATT processing means.  Imagine how hard your mind is working as you are trying to learn these crazy paired associates with 108 trials.  You’re really concentrating.  Yet, you are forming an attitude without any elaborative processing at all, at least not at a deliberate, controlled, and self aware sense of it.  There’s no “long conversation” in your head about XEH or YOF.  So, you are clearly doing a lot of cognitive work, just not persuasive cognitive work here in the Central Route sense of it.  You’re on the Peripheral Route, Ding-Donging your way to a new attitude, making something out of nothing.

The practical persuasion here is direct.  Just combining two things at the same time delivers change.  This study is the empirical basis for most brand and image development, maintenance, and change.  Sometimes you can fool yourself on the creative side thinking you’ve got to invent the greatest new execution when the Main Point is Ding-Dong.  Just associate early and often.  Slick, cool, groovy, and even fab is nice now and then, but make sure you ring the bell.

This research, even though it is insanely complex, demonstrates two persuasion Rules.

More Is the Enemy of Less.

There’s a Difference between Persuasion, and Smoke and Mirrors; With Persuasion the Illusion Lingers.

And, if you want to read more about it:

Staats, C. K., & Staats, A. W. (1957). Meaning established by classical conditioning. Journal of  Experimental Psychology, 54, 74-80.