Research Focus

The LIPlab focuses on the experimental study of learning and implicit (evaluative) processes. We believe that a better understanding of these phenomena can have valuable practical implications and potential societal impact.

A Unique Approach to Psychological Research

As part of the functional-cognitive framework, we can define the phenomena that we study in functional-analytic terms (i.e. relations between environment and behavior) or in terms of mental mechanisms. For example, we can define learning as the mental capacity to store information, as well as the impact of regularities in the environment on behavior (De Houwer et al., 2013a). This clear distinction can be appreciated by both cognitive and functional-analytic researchers, and may prove useful in promoting a better understanding of both the functional level of analysis (i.e. understanding the conditions under which learning occurs) and the cognitive level (i.e. understanding the mental mechanisms that mediate learning). Understanding psychological suffering is one area of psychology that may benefit from this framework. For example, whereas functional-analytic research on psychological suffering may provide data that need to be explained at the cognitive level, cognitive theorizing may generate new predictions at the functional level of analysis about the contextual conditions that influence behavior that is harmful to the individual.

Implicit Processes

During the past decade, there has been an explosion in tasks that measure implicit attitudes and cognitions (see De Houwer et al., 2009, for a review). The best known example is the Implicit Association Test (see the Project Implicit website). It has always been assumed that implicit attitudes are learned gradually as the result of many direct experiences. Recent results show, however, that simply giving verbal instructions once is enough to create and change implicit attitudes. This could either mean that the current measures of implicit attitudes are not valid or that implicit attitudes are more complex than previously thought. We will try to disentangle these options by (a) comparing the effects of instructions on different implicit measures and (b) by comparing implicit attitudes that are based on instructions with those that are based on experience.

Relational Frame Theory (RFT) and Propositional Models

Our research at the functional-analytic level is heavily guided by Relational Frame Theory (RFT; Hayes et al., 2001). Put very briefly, RFT argues that many aspects of human behavior are a type of operant behavior called arbitrarily applicable relational responding. Our RFT research explores many aspects of this complex behavior -- how it emerges, how it is maintained, and how it can be changed (e.g. Zettle et al., 2016). Our RFT research is primarily focused on the role played by arbitrarily applicable relational responding in psychological suffering and how psychological therapy can alter this complex behavior (e.g. McEnteggart et al., 2016). Our cognitive research has a similar relational focus on the role of propositions (representations that specify how events are related) in complex behavior (De Houwer, 2009b; De Houwer, 2014; Mitchell et al., 2009). We examine the idea that propositional knowledge is crucial not only in associative learning (e.g., evaluative conditioning) but also in implicit cognition (e.g., implicit evaluation). In appreciating both levels of analysis, we can explore the links between RFT as a functional-analytic theory and propositional models as a cognitive theory (see De Houwer et al., 2016, for a discussion).

Large-scale Funded Research Projects

We receive funding on a regular basis from agencies, such as the Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO) and Ghent University. Indeed, we currently have two large-scale funded research projects. 1. Dermot Barnes-Holmes received a five-year Odysseus award from the FWO to conduct RFT research on the basic processes of psychological suffering as part of the functional-cognitive framework. The Odysseus project is currently in its second year of five. 2. Jan De Houwer received Methusalem funding from Ghent University to develop new directions in research on learning and implicit processes. The Methusalem project is currently in its second seven-year period.