Paired Association: Definition, Lesson & Quiz

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Sarah Collins

In this lesson, we'll discuss paired association and how emotions can get linked with objects. Learn about the use of paired association in advertising, and discover what can happen when paired association goes too far.

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Paired Association Defined

Fifteen years ago, I got really sick after eating a hotdog at a baseball game. I was super sick; on-the-bathroom-floor-for-hours sick. Ever since then, every time I see a hot dog, I feel a little nervous. Why is that? After all, I understand that not all hotdogs are to be feared (maybe just the wrinkly ones that have been spinning all day on the rotating grill), but because of paired association, I will never eat a hotdog again without wondering if I'll get sick. Paired association is a process that involves the brain partnering an emotion (anxiety) with a neutral stimulus/object (hot dog).

Paired Association Can Be Our Friend

While paired association may have forever tainted my experience of hotdogs, it is a process that is meant to help us. Paired association occurs in order for us to learn from our experiences. Learning from our experiences may cause us to avoid trouble in the future or even help enhance future experiences. For example, you might always feel happy when you smell leaves in autumn, because that's when you first fell in love.

Paired Association in Advertising

While paired association is largely a natural phenomenon, it is possible to take advantage of it. For instance, paired association has been used extensively by advertisers who have attempted to link emotion to their products. Advertisers have often used sexual imagery alongside their products, like beer and cars, with the hope that the emotion felt (arousal, excitement, lust) will get paired with the product. The goal is that, later, when a person sees the beer on the shelf or the car in the sales lot, they will experience the emotion originally felt when they had seen the sexual image and therefore want to possess the object that made them feel this way.

Paired Association Gone Haywire

Like many processes in the body, paired association can also activate unnecessarily. The paired association I have with anxiety and hotdogs is an example of this. The small ping of anxiety I feel inside when I begin to eat a hotdog is really irrational. On a more serious level, when a more intense level of anxiety is paired with an object, a phobia develops. A phobia is an intense fear of an object or situation. Phobias can develop through trauma; interestingly, some people who believe in reincarnation say that a present-day phobia that has no current explanation speaks to a past-life trauma. Regardless of its cause, a phobia can be treated by taking advantage of paired association and purposely pairing the stimulus with a new emotion, like feeling calm.

Lesson Summary

Paired association is a process by which the brain pairs an object or stimulus with an emotion. Paired association can ensure that you learn from your past experiences to help you avoid danger and/or enjoy life. Phobias are the result of paired associations that involved a tremendous amount of anxiety or fear.

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