Ivan Pavlov, the Russian psychologist and surgeon of legendary ability (his Nobel prize is for medicine), was perhaps most famous for his experiments with dogs. Performing a tricky procedure to implant a saliva-measuring device in dogs’ necks, he then trained them to recognize when food was coming. First he’d ring a bell and bring the dog food. Dogs would begin to salivate when the food arrived. After a short training period, dogs would begin salivating when the bell was rung, even if Pavlov never brought the food. This technique, now universally referred to as classical conditioning, works on humans as well. My 13-year-old son Jim, for example, will begin to salivate any time we’re within ten blocks of his favorite burrito stand, regardless of whether we’re headed there for a snack.
Jodene Baccus, Mark Baldwin, and Dominic Packer of McGill University, who research the elusive concept of implicit self-esteem, have devised a way to use classical condition to influence this mood (“Increasing Implicit Self-Esteem Through Classical Conditioning,” Psychological Science, 2004).
Self-esteem is typically measured overtly, using self-reported surveys of statements like “I have a positive outlook on life,” which the respondent rates on a numerical scale. Implicit self-esteem is measured implicitly using a number of different methods. On its own, each test is not generally reliable, but taken as an average, the measures can lead to consistent results. For example, one test asks people to rate the letters of the alphabet on a numerical scale. People who rate their own initials higher tend to have higher implicit self-esteem. Implicit self-esteem has actually been found to be a better predictor of how people respond to threats and failure than explicit self-esteem, and so it’s perhaps a more important trait to study.
Baccus et al. devised a simple video game to classically condition people to change implicit self-esteem. The game divided the computer screen into four rectangles. Then a word would appear in one of the four rectangles, and players were instructed to click on it as quickly as possible. This would cause the word to disappear and a photo of a person’s face to appear in its place. Half the time, the computer would display words relating personally to the player: their name, their month of birth, their hometown. The rest of the time, the word was simply chosen randomly. The game was tested on 139 college students.
For half the students, one version of the game was used: whenever personal words appeared, the picture displayed afterwards would always be a smiling face, and the picture after the random words was randomly assigned to be smiling, frowning, or neutral. The remainder of the participants played a different version of the game where the faces were all random, whether or not they followed the personal words.
All participants were given tests of both implicit and explicit self esteem before and after the test, and though the explicit scores did not change, implicit self-esteem improved—but only for the students who played the version of the game that showed happy faces after the personal words. Baccus and her colleagues have devised a way to easily improve self-esteem—at least temporarily.
Now I just need to enlist them to figure out how to keep Jim away from the burrito stands!