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Open Access Publications from the University of California

A Within-trial Contrast Effect and its Implications for Several Social Psychological Phenomena


Contrast refers to a comparison between two conditions of reward such that the relation between them is magnified (relative to an appropriate control condition). It is an effect that is opposite in direction from generalization (which is a form of averaging). Three kinds of contrast have received substantial empirical attention: Incentive contrast in which a sudden change in reward (either an increase or a decrease) results in an overreaction to the change, relative to a control condition; anticipatory contrast in which an anticipated improvement in reward results in less consumption of an initial reward; and differential or behavioral contrast in which a change in reward associated with one stimulus results in a change in behavior associated with a second stimulus in the opposite direction. Here I discuss a fourth kind of contrast that I call within-trial contrast. In this form of contrast a discriminative stimulus is preferred when it follows a less appetitive event (effort, delay, or the absence of reward). A model of this kind of contrast is proposed that is based on a presumed change in the hedonic state of the organism between the end of the less appetitive event and the reward (or stimulus signaling the reward). It is distinguished from an account based on the relative reduction in delay to reinforcement. Finally, I suggest that a general form of this within-trial contrast may help to explain various complex human social phenomena including cognitive dissonance, justification of effort, the effect of extrinsic rewards on behavior that is maintained by intrinsic rewards, and learned industriousness.

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