Attitudes Definition

AttitudesAttitudes refer to our overall evaluations of people, groups, and objects in our social world. Reporting an attitude involves making a decision concerning liking versus disliking or favoring versus disfavoring an attitude object. Attitudes are important because they affect both the way we perceive the world and how we behave. Indeed, over 70 years ago, Gordon Allport asserted that the attitude concept is the most indispensable concept in social psychology. That statement remains equally valid today; the study of attitudes remains at the forefront of social psychological research and theory. This page concentrates on three key aspects of attitudes: their content, structure, and function.

The Content of Attitudes

One of the most influential models of attitude content has been the multicomponent model. According to this perspective, attitudes are summary evaluations of an object that have affective, cognitive, and behavioral components. The affective component of attitudes refers to feelings or emotions associated with an object. Affective responses influence attitudes in a number of ways. First, attitudes are influenced by the emotions that are aroused in a person after exposure to the attitude object. For instance, spiders make some people feel scared, and this negative affective response is likely to produce a negative attitude toward spiders. In addition, feelings influence attitudes via processes such as classical conditioning and mere exposure. Here, the environment repeatedly pairs the object with other stimuli that elicit particular emotions (classical conditioning) or repeated exposure causes the object to seem more familiar and positive over time.

The cognitive component of attitudes refers to beliefs, thoughts, and attributes associated with an object. Cognitions have an impact on many types of attitudes. For example, someone buying a used car is likely to devote considerable attention to its attributes, such as its safety record, gas mileage, and past repair costs. The person’s attitude toward the car is likely to be influenced by its positive and negative characteristics. Within the study of intergroup attitudes, stereotypes are beliefs about the attributes possessed by a particular social group. Many studies have revealed that possessing negative stereotypes about a group of people is associated with having a prejudicial attitude toward the group.

Behavioral information is the mental representation of current, past, and future behaviors regarding an attitude object. For instance, research has demonstrated that performing a behavior with evaluative implications influences the favorability of attitudes. In a study by Pablo Brinol and Richard Petty, participants moved their heads in either an up-and-down motion (nodding the head in agreement) or a side-to-side motion (shaking the head in disagreement) as they listened to an editorial that was played over the headphones. It was found that participants were more likely to agree with the content of a highly persuasive appeal when they moved their heads up-and-down, as compared to side-to-side. While performing a behavior can influence a person’s attitude, attitudes also influence future behavior. Attitudes play an important role in predicting how an individual will behave in a particular situation.

Knowing the content of an attitude is important, because attempts to change attitudes are more successful when the persuasive appeal matches the content of the attitude. For example, if a person dislikes a beverage because it tastes bad, the person will be more convinced by a strong demonstration of a new, pleasant taste than by positive information about its health value.

The Structure of Attitudes

In addition to attitude content, another important issue concerns how positive and negative evaluations are structured in memory. It is sometimes assumed that having positive feelings, beliefs, and behaviors prevents the occurrence of negative feelings, beliefs, and behaviors. In other words, according to this one-dimensional perspective, the positive and negative elements of attitudes are stored at opposite ends of a single dimension, and people tend to experience either end of the dimension or somewhere in between.

This view is opposed by a two-dimensional view, which suggests that positive and negative elements are stored along two separate dimensions. One dimension reflects whether the attitude has few or many positive elements, and the other dimension reflects whether the attitude has few or many negative elements. This view proposes that people can possess any combination of positivity or negativity in their attitudes. As a result, attitudes may occasionally subsume both strong positive and negative components, which is labeled as attitudinal ambivalence. This ambivalence is an important determinant of whether attitudes are strongly held and resistant to change. For example, research has demonstrated that ambivalent attitudes are less likely to predict behavior. Further, individuals pay more careful attention to a persuasive appeal when they have an ambivalent attitude.

The Function of Attitudes

Considerable attention has been devoted to understanding the needs or functions that are fulfilled by attitudes. Almost 50 years ago, M. Brewster Smith and colleagues suggested that attitudes serve three primary functions: object-appraisal, social-adjustment, and externalization. Object-appraisal refers to the ability of attitudes to summarize the positive and negative attributes of objects. For example, attitudes can help people to approach things that are beneficial for them and avoid things that are harmful to them. Social-adjustment is fulfilled by attitudes that help people to identify with others whom they like and to dissociate from people whom they dislike. For example, individuals may buy a certain soft drink because it is endorsed by their favorite singer. Externalization is fulfilled by attitudes that defend the self against internal conflict. For example, bad golfers might develop an intense dislike for the game because their poor performance threatens their self-esteem.

In his own program of research, Daniel Katz proposed four attitude functions: knowledge, utility, ego-defense, and value-expression. The knowledge and utilitarian functions are similar to Smith and colleagues’ object-appraisal function, while the ego-defensive function is similar to Smith and colleagues’ externalization function. Katz also proposed that attitudes may serve a value-expressive function, such that an attitude may express an individual’s self-concept and central values. For example, a person might cycle to work because he or she values health and wishes to preserve the environment.

Among the functions, the object-appraisal function is especially important because it is the capacity of attitudes to serve as energy-saving devices that make judgments easier and faster to perform. There is also an important distinction between instrumental and value-expressive attitudes. Knowing the primary function of an attitude is important, because attempts at attitude change are more likely to be successful when the persuasive appeal matches the function of the attitude.


  • Haddock, G., & Maio, G. R. (Eds.). (2004). Contemporary perspectives on the psychology of attitudes. New York: Psychology Press.