Attitudes and Beliefs

Attitudes are the positive or negative evaluations made about people, issues, or objects. For example, in an organizational setting, employees might hold attitudes toward their employer or coworkers, toward workplace issues or regulations, and toward the job itself.

Attitudes form a central foundation of the way that individuals think about and come to understand the world around them; consequently, they influence and are influenced by people’s beliefs and cognitions. Much research has focused on the structure and measurement of attitudes, as well as their relation to affect, beliefs, and behavior. A central question that has been raised with regard to attitudes is whether they are accurate predictors of behavior. Understanding processes of attitude formation and change has also been a dominant avenue of research.

Attitude Structure

Attitudes are based on cognitive, affective, and behavioral information. Beliefs provide the cognitive basis of an attitude. A belief is the cognitive information that one has about an attitude object. For example, a workplace attitude might be based on beliefs, or cognitions, about one’s job. The affective basis of an attitude refers to the emotional response that one has toward the attitude object—for example, the affect that one feels toward one’s job. The behavioral basis of an attitude refers to actions that are taken with regard to the attitude object, such as job-related behaviors that reflect one’s attitude toward work. An attitude might be based on any combination of these three components. For certain attitudes, components can be evaluatively inconsistent with one another. For example, a person with an emotionally grueling job might experience negative affect toward his or her work but at the same time hold positive cognitions by believing that the job is important and useful. This leads to attitudinal ambivalence, which is described as a state of holding both positive and negative evaluations of the same attitude object.

The issue of attitudinal ambivalence has received recent attention, reflected in the debate over whether attitude structure is bipolar or bivariate. Evaluative processes have been traditionally conceptualized as bipolar. According to a bipolar model of attitudes, people’s attitudes can range from very negative (and not at all positive) to very positive (and not at all negative). This conceptualization implies that negativity and positivity are reciprocal, opposing forces; consequently, the more positive one’s attitude is, the less negative it will be, and vice versa. One limitation of this conceptualization is that it precludes the possibility of attitude ambivalence. To address this issue, an alternative conceptualization of attitude structure has emerged in which attitudes are viewed as bivariate rather than bipolar. The bivariate perspective suggests that positivity and negativity are separable attitudinal substrates, rather than opposite ends of the same continuum; further, each can be separately activated and exert an independent influence on behavior.

Attitude Formation

Attitudes form through a variety of processes. Many attitudes are developed through direct experience with an attitude object or learned through processes of operant and classical conditioning. A growing body of evidence suggests that attitudes may also have a genetic basis.

Direct experience. Attitudes may form through direct experience with a person, issue, or object. Direct interaction with the attitude object contributes to the formation of a positive or negative evaluation. Attitudes formed through direct experience are strong predictors of future behavior.

Classical conditioning. When a positive or negative stimulus is paired repeatedly with an initially neutral attitude object, attitude formation through classical conditioning may occur. When this occurs, the evaluation paired with the neutral stimulus eventually becomes associated with the attitude object itself. Attitude formation through this process often occurs at an unconscious level.

Operant conditioning. Attitudes are formed through operant conditioning when an attitude object becomes associated with a positive or negative consequence. Specifically, when behavior toward an attitude object is reinforced, a positive attitude toward the attitude object will form. When behavior toward an attitude object is punished or associated with negative consequences, an unfavorable attitude will form.

Genetic determinants of attitudes. Identical twins (even when raised in separate environments) show a higher correlation in their attitudes than fraternal twins, providing evidence for a genetic basis of attitudes. This is likely because of the influence of genetics on temperament and personality, which in turn influence attitudes. Attitudes that have a genetic basis appear to be more difficult to alter and exert a stronger influence on behavior.

Implicit and Explicit Attitudes

A distinction has been made between implicit and explicit attitudes. An explicit attitude is one that a person is consciously aware of and can report, for example, on a self-report measure. A large volume of research has focused on understanding and assessing explicit attitudes. However, recent attention has turned to the existence of implicit attitudes, attitudes that are involuntary, uncontrollable, and, in some cases, not accessible at a conscious level. Although implicit attitudes are not consciously accessed, they are found to still exert influence on behavior. Take, for example, a person who holds sexist attitudes in the workplace but is not consciously aware of holding these attitudes. These are implicit attitudes, which could exert influence on this person’s workplace behavior with regard to female employees. The relationship between implicit and explicit attitudes, along with their influence on behavior, is a topic of ongoing investigation among attitude researchers. With regard to attitude measurement, implicit and explicit attitudes may require different methods of assessment. Because people are not able to directly access and report implicit attitudes, traditional means of attitude measurement may be less effective, indicating a need for more indirect methods of assessment.

Attitude Measurement

Attitudes are frequently assessed through self-report measures. Three common scale methodologies used to assess attitudes are the Thurstone scale, Likert scale, and semantic differential. A Thurstone scale is developed by having individuals rank order opinion statements about a particular attitude object according to their favorableness. A subset of items representing a wide range of opinions is then selected and used to assess attitudes. A Likert scale consists of a series of items for which people indicate the strength of their agreement with each statement (e.g., “I enjoy my job”) on a rating scale that encompasses low to high levels of agreement. The semantic differential assesses attitudes by providing opposing adjective pairs (e.g., good-bad; foolish-wise) on which the individual rates a specific attitude object.

Although there are advantages to measuring attitudes through direct self-report measures, such as availability, speed, and ease of use, there are also limitations associated with their use. For example, many existing self-report measures make the implicit assumption that attitudes are bipolar (rather than bivariate) and, therefore, may not detect levels of attitudinal ambivalence. Further, when individuals are asked to report attitudes on controversial topics, they may be less likely to report their true evaluations and instead report responses that they perceive to be socially desirable. Similarly, if attitudes are not consciously accessible, as in the case of implicit attitudes, individuals may not be able to accurately report them on these measures. To overcome these concerns, researchers can use indirect methods of attitude measurement, such as unobtrusive behavioral measures, physiological measures, or techniques, such as the Implicit Association Test, that are designed for assessing implicit attitudes.

Do attitudes predict behaviors?

The question of whether attitudes guide and predict behavior is an issue that has been central to the study of attitudes. Several critical challenges to the commonsense assumption that attitudes determine behavior emerged in the 1930s and 1940s, as numerous studies indicated little or no relationship between attitudes and behaviors. Consequently, by the 1960s there was a call by many researchers to abandon the study of the attitude. Since then, researchers have reexamined the attitude-behavior link and articulated particular conditions under which attitudes will be likely to guide behavior. Attitudes that are accessible, specific, strong, or formed through direct experience are found to exert stronger influences on behavior. Additionally, the theory of reasoned action, developed by Icek Ajzen and Martin Fishbein, and the theory of planned behavior, developed by Ajzen, provide models of how attitudes can guide deliberative behavior through their influence on intentions.

Persuasion

Persuasion refers to an active attempt made to change another person’s attitude toward some issue, object, or person. Seminal studies conducted during the 1940s by Carl Hovland and his research group at Yale University led to the development of the message learning approach, which became a primary template for persuasion research. The message learning approach suggests that persuasion occurs through a sequence of stages including attention, comprehension, yielding, and retention of a message. It asserts that persuasion is influenced by characteristics related to the source of the message, the nature of the audience (or message recipients), and qualities of the message itself.

In the 1980s, dual-process models, such as Shelly Chaiken’s heuristic-systematic model and the elaboration likelihood model, developed by Richard Petty and John Cacioppo, emerged as dominant models of persuasion. These models suggest that persuasion can result from two types of message processing: thoughtful processing of the arguments contained in a message, or less effortful processing of cues or heuristics pertaining to the message. Whether one engages in more or less effortful processing depends on one’s ability or motivation to elaborate on the message. Although attitude change can occur through either process, persuasion that results from more elaborative processing of a message has been found to be more persistent, resistant to counter persuasion, and predictive of future behavior.

References:

  1. Cacioppo, J., Gardner, W., & Berntson, G. (1997). Beyond bipolar conceptualizations and measures: The case of attitudes and evaluative space. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 1, 3-25.
  2. Kraus, S. (1995). Attitudes and the prediction of behavior: A meta-analysis of the empirical literature. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 58-75.
  3. Olson, J., Vernon, P., Harris, J., & Lang, K. (2001). The heritability of attitudes: A study of twins. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(6), 845-860.
  4. Petty, R. E., & Wegener, D. (1999). The elaboration likelihood model: Current status and controversies. In S. Chaiken & Y. Trope (Eds.), Dual-process theories in social psychology (pp. 41-72). New York: Guilford Press.
  5. Wood, W. (2000). Attitude change: Persuasion and social influence. Annual Review of Psychology, 51, 539-570.

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