Attitudes - Page 1
Every day you constantly form and use attitudes. You have probably formed an
attitude about this web site, and use of that attitude affects whether you
decide to stay or leave. When you get up in the morning, your attitude towards
sleep might decide whether you hit the snooze button. You attitudes towards food
decide what you have for each meal. And, when a friend calls wanting to go out,
your response may be affected by your attitudes of the friend and his suggested
Because attitudes make up such a large part of our daily thought
(cognitive) and behavioral process, it is no surprise that, in its early
history, social psychology focused largely on attitudes (Weber, 1992, p. 117).
Importantly, attitudes can be used to predict behavior, though they are no
longer considered as strong predictors as they were originally. We will examine
the structure of attitudes, their behavior prediction capabilities, the
techniques for changing them, and several theories about how they form and
Definition and ABC's of Attitudes
An attitude can be defined as a positive or negative evaluation of people,
objects, event, activities, ideas, or just about anything in your environment
(Zimbardo et al., 1999, p. 745). All attitudes take a stance -- positive or
negative -- but they can vary in intensity. For example, I may very strongly
like a certain type of music, but have only a casual dislike of broccoli.
Attitudes form from our experiences (or observing experiences) and serve to
guide our future behavior.
Social psychologists examine attitudes in terms of three components:
cognitive, affective, and behavioral. Also, you should note that there is always
an object of the attitude, the item towards which the attitude is directed.
Let's use the example of your attitude towards a friend on the phone to
understand the three components.
- Cognitive -- This is the mental component, consisting of beliefs and
perceptions. Ex: "I think my friend is kind, charming, and humorous."
- Affective -- This is the emotional component. Ex: "I feel good when I am
around my friend."
- Behavioral -- This is the action component; more specifically, it
consists of the predisposition to act a certain way toward the attitude object.
Ex: "I try to hang out with my friend whenever I get the chance."
Though most attitudes have all three components, they can be more strongly
rooted in either the cognitive or the affective component.
Attitudes as Predictors
Once you know someone's attitude, you would think you would be able to
predict his behavior toward the object. Indeed, attitudes can be useful
prediction tools, but quite frequently they do not predict well. For example,
despite a positive attitude towards your friend, you might turn down his request
that you go to the movie theatre with him. There are many examples of when
attitude-behavior relations are not consistent.
Why is this so? A big reason is that attitudes tend to be general, whereas
behavior is specific. While asking you about your attitude towards a particular
friend is fairly specific, a better question might be "What is your attitude
towards going to the movies with that friend?" or "What is your attitude towards
going to the movies with that friend on a weeknight?" Your attitude indicated in response to these
questions might be a much better predictor, but then again, your behavior still
might not be consistent. This is because attitudes give a predisposition
to behave a certain way, not a guarantee. Situational factors contribute to your
choice in behavior. For example, your emotional state may affect your decision
to go out -- are you tired? did you just get in a fight with a family member? --
it may be that you do not have enough money to see a movie, or you may have too
much homework that night.
Social psychologists have determined a few factors that increase the
correlation between a person's attitude and actual behavior. First of all, the
attitude should be highly specific. Assuming it is specific, then the
accessibility of the attitude is an important factor. Accessibility refers to
the strength of an attitude, or how quickly that attitude comes to mind in
response to the attitude object. Let's use the attitude of hypothetical person
Bob towards lawyers in predicting his willingness to intern with a lawyer over
the summer. If you ask Bob how he feels about lawyers and his attitude is highly
accessible (i.e., he responds right away), then studies have shown that this
attitude will be a better predictor of his behavior. Accessibility depends on
direct experience and rehearsal. If Bob has had a direct experience with
lawyers, his attitude will be more accessible, than if it is only based on
opinions he has heard from others. Also, the frequency with which Bob rehearses
his attitude -- or in other words, how often he thinks about it -- affects its