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Social judgment theory was developed by psychologist Muzafer Sherif, with significant input from Carl I. Hovland and Carolyn W. Sherif. Rooted in judgment theory, which is concerned with the discrimination and categorization of stimuli, it attempts to explain how attitudes are expressed, judged, and modified. The theory details how attitudes are cognitively represented, the psychological processes involved in assessing persuasive communications, and the conditions under which communicated attitudes are either accepted or rejected. It offers a com-monsense plan for inducing attitude change in the real world.
There are five basic principles in social judgment theory. The first asserts that people have categories of judgment with which they evaluate incoming information. When an individual encounters a situation in which he or she must make a judgment, a range of possible positions can be taken in response. For example, if an individual is asked to make a monetary contribution to a charity, the possible positions range from “absolutely not” to “most certainly.” Along this inclusive continuum there are categories of positions that an individual may find acceptable or unacceptable, and also a range for which no significant opinion is held. These ranges are referred to as the latitude of acceptance, the latitude of rejection, and the latitude of noncommittment, respectively. An individual’s most preferred position, located within the latitude of acceptance, is referred to as the anchor.
The second principle states that as people evaluate incoming information, they determine the category of judgment, or latitude, to which it belongs. In the above-mentioned example, individuals with a favorable view of the charitable cause would most likely place the request for a donation within the latitude of acceptance. Conversely, those who hold an unfavorable view of the charitable cause will locate their attitude within the latitude of rejection. Those with no significant opinion either way will locate it in the latitude of noncommitment.
The third principle asserts that the size of the latitudes is determined by the level of personal involvement, or ego-involvement, one has in the issue at hand. People may or may not have opinions regarding the communicated information, and this will affect whether or not the persuasive message is accepted or rejected. These same opinions (or their lack) also affect the size of latitudes. The higher the level of ego-involvement, the larger the latitude of rejection becomes. For instance, an individual who is solicited for a donation to a cancer society will have a smaller latitude of acceptance if his or her mother suffers from cancer, as compared to someone who has no personal connection to the malady. For that individual, contributing to the charity is imperative, and any other response is unacceptable. Therefore, the latitude of acceptance and noncommitment will be small compared to the latitude of rejection.
Principle four states that people distort incoming information to fit their categories of judgment. When presented with a persuasive message that falls within the latitude of acceptance, and is close to the individual’s anchor, people will assimilate the new position. That is, they will perceive the new position to be closer to their attitude than it actually is. When the persuasive message is relatively far from the anchor, however, people tend to contrast the new position to their own, making it seem even more different than it actually is. In both cases, individuals distort incoming information relative to their anchor.
These distortions influence the persuasiveness of the incoming message. If the message is too close to the anchor, assimilation will occur and it will be construed to be no different than the original position. If contrast occurs, the message will be construed to be unacceptable and subsequently rejected. In both cases, social judgment theory would predict that attitude change is unlikely to occur.
The fifth principle asserts that optimal persuasion occurs when the discrepancies between the anchor and the advocated position are small to moderate. In such cases, assimilation or contrasting will not occur, allowing for consideration of the communicated message. Under these conditions, attitude change is possible.
A major implication of social judgment theory is that persuasion is difficult to accomplish. Successful persuasive messages are those that are targeted to the receiver’s latitude of acceptance and discrepant from the anchor position, so that the incoming information cannot be assimilated or contrasted. The receiver’s ego-involvement must also be taken into consideration. This suggests that even successful attempts at persuasion will yield small changes in attitude.
- Sherif, Carolyn W., and Muzafer Sherif, eds. 1967. Attitude, Ego-Involvement, and Change. New York: Wiley.
- Sherif, Carolyn W., Muzafer Sherif, and Roger E. Nebergall. 1965. Attitude and Attitude Change: The Social Judgment-Involvement Approach. Philadelphia: Saunders.
- Sherif, Muzafer, and Carl I. Hovland. 1961. Social Judgment: Assimilation and Contrast Effects in Communication and Attitude Change. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
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