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Attitude, one of the key concepts of social psychology, refers to people’s evaluations of entities in their world. Formally defined, attitude is a psychological tendency that is expressed by evaluating a particular entity with some degree of favor or disfavor. An individual’s evaluation is directed to some entity or thing that is its object—such as a person (Oprah Winfrey), a city (Chicago), or a theory (Darwinian evolution). The entity that is evaluated, known as an attitude object, can be anything that is discriminable or held in mind, sometimes below the level of conscious awareness.
Attitudes are initially formed when an individual’s first reaction to an exemplar of an attitude object leaves a mental residue that predisposes the individual to respond with the same degree of evaluation on subsequent encounters with the attitude object. This mental residue is a tendency to respond with some degree of positivity or negativity to an attitude object. Once an attitude is formed, it is expressed through the cognitive, affective, and behavioral responses that the attitude object elicits. The cognitive aspect of attitudes consists of associations that people establish between an attitude object and various attributes that they ascribe to it. The affective aspect of attitudes consists of feelings and emotions and physiological responses that accompany affective experience. The behavioral aspect of attitudinal responding refers to overt actions toward the attitude object as well as to intentions to act. These cognitions, affects, and behaviors all express positive or negative evaluations of attitude objects.
As people form attitudes based on cognitive, affective, or behavioral responding to an attitude object, they form associations between the attitude object and these responses. As evaluative meaning is abstracted from these associations, an overall abstract attitude may be derived from these more elementary associations. Yet attitudes do not necessarily take the form of simple, unitary evaluations. To represent attitudes’ complexity, psychologists have assumed that the mental associations underlying attitudes can have structural properties. For example, mental associations may be more or less ambivalent, or evaluatively inconsistent with one another. In addition many important structural properties derive from attitudes’ links to other attitudes—for example, attitudes may form ideologies when they are linked by a common theme, such as liberalism or conservatism.
Attitudes may be implicit or explicit. Explicit attitudes are evaluations that are consciously experienced and may be reported by the person who holds the attitude. In contrast, implicit attitudes are those that people do not consciously recognize. These implicit attitudes may be automatically activated by the attitude object or cues associated with it. Regardless of whether attitudes are explicit or implicit, they are a source of motivational and cognitive bias and therefore generally foster attitude-consistent beliefs, affects, and behaviors.
Attitudes are usually assessed through questionnaire techniques that elicit respondents’ endorsement of statements or other stimuli (called items) that imply positive or negative evaluation of an attitude object. Researchers typically combine each respondent’s reactions to these items according to a mathematical model that scales the reactions along an evaluative continuum that extends from very negative to very positive. Implicit measures of attitudes seek to assess attitudes without asking respondents for direct verbal reports of these attitudes. Such techniques may disguise attitude measures as tests of knowledge, assess physiological responses, or monitor the speed with which respondents associate an attitude object with positive or negative stimuli.
Attitudes can be changed on the basis of cognitive, affective, and behavioral processes. Most research on change has concerned persuasion by informational messages. Classically the independent variables studied by persuasion researchers are categorized as source, message, channel (or medium), recipient, and context variables. Variables within a single category do not necessarily affect persuasion similarly, nor do they necessarily act on attitudes through similar processes or through similar processes in varying circumstances. The reasons for this empirical complexity lie in the multiple psychological processes that can mediate attitude change.
Persuasion theory, which has a long history in social psychology, examines psychological processes that serve as mediators of the effects of information on attitudes. Some of these theories have emphasized what can be termed systematic processing, that is, the detailed processing of a communication’s content that produces acceptance of its conclusions. Yet dual-process models of persuasion emphasize that, in addition to careful, systematic scrutiny of the content of messages, people may use simple decision rules or cognitive heuristics to assess the validity of messages. For example, the decision rule that “experts’ statements can be trusted” might underlie persuasion by an individual expert communicator. A key assumption of dual-process theories is that people process information superficially and minimally unless they are motivated to turn to more effortful, systematic forms of processing. Furthermore systematic processing can only take place if they have the capacity or ability to evaluate the argumentation contained in messages. Therefore persuasion theory’s predictions about the effects of variables such as the characteristics of message sources are contingent on the ability and motivation of members of the target audience.
Another technique for changing attitudes is to induce people to engage in behavior that has implications for their attitudes. This research has featured competing theoretical positions that make differing assumptions about the psychological processes that produce such change. The best-known theory, cognitive dissonance theory, took the view that the behavior of advocating a position inconsistent with one’s attitude creates cognitive dissonance, an unpleasant state of arousal that motivates attitude change. Behavior inconsistent with an attitude changes this attitude toward the behavior, but only when the incentive for the behavior is not seen as the main reason for the behavior. Dissonance is particularly motivating when an individual accepts personal responsibility for his or her behavior bringing about an unwanted consequence. An example of such an unwanted consequence is provided by the case of a speaker who persuades audience members to adopt a viewpoint that he or she does not privately endorse. If the inducement for this behavior is small and personal responsibility is present, the speaker would be likely to show attitude change toward the position advocated. This attitude change occurs because such behavioral acts threaten the speaker’s self-identity or integrity unless attitude change makes the advocacy seem more consistent with his or her attitudes.
The Effects of Attitudes on Behaviors
One of the greatest successes of attitude research is the substantial progress made in predicting behavior from attitudes. Relatively good prediction can be readily achieved if researchers design their measures of attitudes and behaviors appropriately. However, debates have ensued concerning the psychological processes by which attitudes influence behaviors. Many theories have assumed that people take the utility of behaviors into account in a rational cost-benefit calculation that determines behavior. However, other theorists have emphasized automatic links between attitudes and behaviors as well as the more deliberative route involving analysis of the utility of behaviors. According to the automaticity approach, attitudes can be formed automatically and then cause behavior to follow without any conscious reasoning process. Increasing the plausibility of relatively automatic attitude-behavior links is research suggesting that implicit measures of attitudes—but not explicit measures—can predict a variety of relatively spontaneous and subtle behaviors, such as nonverbal behaviors, that are for the most part not consciously controlled.
Scope of Attitude Theory and Research
In summary, many specific research topics are encompassed within the broad area of attitudes, which in general pertains to the evaluative aspects of human experience. Researchers are concerned with the causes of attitudes and their effects. A wide range of causes can form and change attitudes. The attitude itself can have various structural properties and may be implicit or explicit. Attitudes in turn influence cognition, affect, and behavior.
- Albarracin, Dolores, Blair T. Johnson, and Mark P. Zanna, eds. 2005. Handbook of Attitudes and Attitude Change. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Eagly, Alice H., and Shelly Chaiken. 1998. Attitude Structure and Function. In The Handbook of Social Psychology, 4th ed., eds. Daniel T. Gilbert, Susan T. Fiske, and Gardner Lindzey, vol. 1, 269–322. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Petty, Richard E., and Duane T. Wegener. 1998. Attitude Change: Multiple Roles for Persuasion Variables. In The Handbook of Social Psychology, 4th ed., eds. Daniel T. Gilbert, Susan T. Fiske, and Gardner Lindzey, vol. 1, 323–390. New York: McGraw-Hill.
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