Attitude Strength Definition
Some attitudes exert a powerful impact on thinking and on behavior, whereas others are largely inconsequential. Similarly, some attitudes are very firm, resistant to even the strongest challenges and persistent over long spans of time, but others are highly malleable, yielding to the slightest provocation and fluctuation over time. The term attitude strength is used to capture this distinction. Specifically, strong attitudes are those that (a) resist change, (b) persist over time, (c) guide information processing, and (d) motivate and direct behavior.
Attitude Strength Background
A great deal of evidence attests to the impact of attitudes on a wide array of outcomes. There is evidence, for example, that attitudes can color one’s interpretation of ambiguous stimuli, causing one to perceive the stimuli in attitude-congruent ways. This explains why supporters of two competing political candidates can watch the same political debate and come away equally convinced that their own preferred candidate prevailed. In addition, attitudes can shape people’s perceptions of other people’s attitudes, causing them to overestimate the prevalence of their views. There is also a wealth of evidence that attitudes motivate and guide behavior. For example, people’s attitudes toward recycling are strongly predictive of whether they actually participate in recycling programs, and attitudes toward political candidates are excellent predictors of voting behavior. In these and countless other ways, thoughts and actions are profoundly shaped by attitudes.
Attitudes do not always exert such powerful effects, however. In fact, in addition to the impressive findings about the power of attitudes, the attitude literature is also full of an equally impressive set of failures to find any effect of attitudes on thought or behavior. In fact, by the late 1960s, the literature was so inconsistent that some prominent scholars questioned the very existence of attitudes, sending the field into a period of crisis.
Since then, social psychologists have made great progress toward identifying the conditions under which attitudes influence thoughts and behavior. It is now clear, for example, that attitudes are consequential for some types of people more than others, and in some situations more than others. More recently, social psychologists have also come to recognize that some attitudes are inherently more powerful than others. That is, across people and situations, some attitudes exert a strong impact on thinking and on behavior, whereas others have little or no impact.
Determinants of Attitude Strength
What makes an attitude strong? Over the past few decades, researchers have identified roughly a dozen distinct features of attitudes that are associated with their strength. These include knowledge, the amount of information people have stored in memory about the attitude object; importance, the degree to which people care about and attach psychological significance to an attitude object; certainty, the degree to which people are sure that their attitudes are valid and correct; elaboration, the amount of thought that has been devoted to the attitude object; extremity, how far from the midpoint the attitude is on a negative-positive continuum; accessibility, how quickly and easily the attitude comes to mind when the attitude object is encountered; ambivalence, the degree to which people simultaneously experience both positive and negative reactions to an attitude object; and a handful of other features. In separate programs of research, each of these attitude features has been shown to relate to one or more of the four defining properties of strong attitudes.
For example, attitudes that a person considers personally important predict his or her behavior much more accurately than do less-important attitudes. Important attitudes are also more resistant to change when a person is confronted by a counterattitudinal persuasive message, and they are more stable over long periods of time. In addition, important attitudes influence information processing in ways that unimportant attitudes do not: They influence how much people like other people, how they evaluate political candidates, and many other cognitive processes.
Relations among Strength-Related Attitude Features
Because attitude features relate in similar ways to the strength and durability of an attitude, researchers once assumed that they were interchangeable. To assess the strength of an attitude, a researcher might measure the importance people attach to the attitude or the amount of knowledge they possess about it or the certainty with which they held the attitude, or any one of the other strength-related features. Sometimes researchers would measure several of the strength-related features and combine them together into a single index of attitude strength.
More recently, however, researchers have come to appreciate the rather sharp differences between the various strength-related attitude features. For example, attaching importance to an attitude involves caring deeply and being passionately concerned about it, whereas being knowledgeable simply involves accumulating a large number of facts about the object. Differences of this sort raise the possibility that the various strength-related attitude features may operate differently, with unique consequences for thought and behavior. Indeed, a growing body of evidence supports this view. There is evidence, for example, that some attitudes are strong because people attach a great deal of importance to them, which has a particular set of consequences for thinking and action. Other attitudes are strong because they are based on a great deal of information, which sets into motion a somewhat different set of cognitive and behavioral consequences.
None of this evidence challenges the general notion that some attitudes are strong and others are weak. It reveals, however, that not all strong attitudes are alike. To the contrary, attitude strength is a multidimensional construct with a diverse set of consequences for thought and behavior.
- Petty, R. E., & Krosnick, J. A. (1995). Attitude strength: Antecedents and consequences. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Visser, P. S., Bizer, G., & Krosnick, J. A. (2006). Exploring the latent structure of strength-related attitude attributes. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 38, pp. 1-67). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.