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Attitudes

How Attitudes Form, Change and Shape Our Behavior

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What's your opinion on the death penalty? Which political party does a better job of running the country? Should prayer be allowed in schools? Should violence on television be regulated?

Chances are that you probably have fairly strong opinions on these and similar questions. You've developed attitudes about such issues, and these attitudes influence your beliefs as well as your behavior. Attitudes are an important topic of study within the field of social psychology. What exactly is an attitude? How does it develop? Continue reading to learn more about how psychologists define this concept, how attitudes influence our behavior and things we can do to change attitudes.

What Is an Attitude?

Psychologists define attitudes as a learned tendency to evaluate things in a certain way. This can include evaluations of people, issues, objects or events. Such evaluations are often positive or negative, but they can also be uncertain at times. For example, you might have mixed feelings about a particular person or issue.

Researchers also suggest that there are several different components that make up attitudes.

  1. An Emotional Component: How the object, person, issue or event makes you feel.
  2. A Cognitive Component: Your thoughts and beliefs about the subject.
  3. A Behavioral Component: How the attitude influences your behavior.

Attitudes can also be explicit and implicit. Explicit attitudes are those that we are consciously aware of and that clearly influence our behaviors and beliefs. Implicit attitudes are unconscious, but still have an effect on our beliefs and behaviors.

How Do Attitudes Form?

Attitudes form directly as a result of experience. They may emerge due to direct personal experience, or they may result from observation. Social roles and social norms can have a strong influence on attitudes. Social roles relate to how people are expected to behave in a particular role or context. Social norms involve society's rules for what behaviors are considered appropriate.

Attitudes can be learned in a variety of ways. Consider how advertisers use classical conditioning to influence your attitude toward a particular product. In a television commercial, you see young, beautiful people having fun in on a tropical beach while enjoying a sport drink. This attractive and appealing imagery causes you to develop a positive association with this particular beverage.

Operant conditioning can also be used to influence how attitudes develop. Imagine a young man who has just started smoking. Whenever he lights up a cigarette, people complain, chastise him and ask him to leave their vicinity. This negative feedback from those around him eventually causes him to develop an unfavorable opinion of smoking and he decides to give up the habit.

Finally, people also learn attitudes by observing the people around them. When someone you admire greatly espouses a particular attitude, you are more likely to develop the same beliefs. For example, children spend a great deal of time observing the attitudes of their parents and usually begin to demonstrate similar outlooks.

How Do Attitudes Influence Behavior?

We tend to assume that people behave in accordance with their attitudes. However, social psychologists have found that attitudes and actual behavior are not always perfectly aligned. After all, plenty of people support a particular candidate or political party and yet fail to go out and vote.

Researchers have discovered that people are more likely to behave according to their attitudes under certain conditions:

  • When your attitudes are the result of personal experience.
  • When you are an expert in the subject.
  • When you expect a favorable outcome.
  • When the attitudes are repeatedly expressed.
  • When you stand to win or lose something due to the issue.

In some cases, people may actually alter their attitudes in order to better align them with their behavior. Cognitive dissonance is a phenomenon in which a person experiences psychological distress due to conflicting thoughts or beliefs. In order to reduce this tension, people may change their attitudes to reflect their other beliefs or actual behaviors.

Imagine the following situation: You've always placed a high value on financial security, but you start dating someone who is very financially unstable. In order to reduce the tension caused by the conflicting beliefs and behavior, you have two options. You can end the relationship and seek out a partner who is more financially secure, or you can de-emphasize the importance of fiscal stability. In order to minimize the dissonance between your conflicting attitude and behavior, you either have to change the attitude or change your actions.

Attitude Change

While attitudes can have a powerful effect on behavior, they are not set in stone. The same influences that lead to attitude formation can also create attitude change.

  • Learning Theory of Attitude Change: Classical conditioning, operant conditioning and observational learning can be used to bring about attitude change. Classical conditioning can be used to create positive emotional reactions to an object, person or event by associating positive feelings with the target object. Operant conditioning can be used to strengthen desirable attitudes and weaken undesirable ones. People can also change their attitudes after observing the behavior of others.

  • Elaboration Likelihood Theory of Attitude Change: This theory of persuasion suggests that people can alter their attitudes in two ways. First, they can be motivated to listen and think about the message, thus leading to an attitude shift. Or, they might be influenced by characteristics of the speaker, leading to a temporary or surface shift in attitude. Messages that are thought-provoking and that appeal to logic are more likely to lead to permanent changes in attitudes.

  • Dissonance Theory of Attitude Change: As mentioned earlier, people can also change their attitudes when they have conflicting beliefs about a topic. In order to reduce the tension created by these incompatible beliefs, people often shift their attitudes.

References

Hockenbury, D., & Hockenbury, S. E. (2007). Discovering Psychology. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Myers, D. G. (1999). Social Psychology. McGraw-Hill College.

Smith, E. R. & Mackie, D. M. (2007). Social Psychology. London: Psychology Press.

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