Sometimes people’s attitudes predict their behavior and sometimes they don’t. Most people have a positive attitude toward donating money to charity, but they don’t tend to give their hard-earned cash away whenever a charitable organization requests it. Similarly, many White individuals harbor a negative prejudice toward Blacks, but they often treat many Black individuals they meet with kindness and respect. Why do people’s behaviors seem to naturally flow from their attitudes on some occasions but not on others? The MODE model (motivation and opportunity as determinants of the attitude-behavior relationship) addresses this question.
Before describing the model, it is important to clarify some concepts. Attitude means any positive or negative association that one has with a given object, which can be anything—a person, political issue, food, and so on. According to the MODE model, one’s attitude toward an object, say, one’s mother, is an association in memory between the attitude object (mother), and one’s evaluation of it (positive or negative). Thus, for many objects in one’s memory, there is an evaluation directly linked to it. Importantly, the strength of this association can vary. For some attitude objects, there is a very weak link between the object and its evaluation. This would be the case for someone who, for example, has weak attitudes toward various brands of dish detergent. On the other hand, sometimes the link in memory between an object and its evaluation is very strong, as when someone has a strong positive attitude toward his or her mother. Sometimes the link between an object and its evaluation is so strong that merely seeing the object automatically activates the attitude. If seeing a picture of your mother immediately produces warm, positive feelings, then your attitude toward your mother is automatically activated.
Direct Influences of Attitudes on Behavior
The MODE model argues that attitudes, particularly strong attitudes, are functional—they steer people toward positive things and away from negative things. The MODE model argues that strong attitudes—those that are automatically activated—are more likely to guide behavior. Thus, one way that attitudes and behavior can relate is in a relatively direct fashion. For example, your attitude toward your mother might be automatically activated when you see a picture of her, which then prompts you to pick up the phone and call her. Similarly, if you have a strong attitude toward chocolate, the mere sight of a piece of chocolate might immediately prompt you to pick it up and eat it. In both of these cases, attitude-relevant behavior flows directly from your strong attitude. This direct, attitude-to-behavior route is one of the two ways that the MODE model argues attitudes relate to behavior.
As suggested in the opening paragraph, however, sometimes people’s attitudes—even strong ones— don’t directly guide their behavior. You might, for example, decide to wait until later to call your mother, and you might remind yourself that you’re trying to eat more healthfully and resist devouring that chocolate. The MODE model also describes the conditions under which strong, automatically activated attitudes do not guide behavior. As the MODE acronym implies, two factors—motivation and opportunity—must be present to break the direct attitude-to-behavior link. Each factor will be explained.
Motivation and Opportunity
The term motivation is used in a very broad sense within the MODE model, but it refers to any effortful desire one might have to behave in a certain way or reach a certain conclusion. In the example mentioned earlier, you might desire to eat better, which might lead you to overcome your strong positive attitude toward chocolate and avoid eating it. Similarly, you might be motivated to assert your independence from your parents, which might lead you to avoid calling your mother at the mere sight of her picture.
Despite any motivation you might have, however, the opportunity factor must also be present for your behavior not to be determined by your attitude. Opportunity means the time, energy, and ability to overcome the influence of your attitudes. For example, you might be motivated to eat better, but if you don’t have the willpower to resist temptation, you might eat the chocolate anyway. Interestingly, there are cases when one lacks the ability to inhibit the influence of one’s attitudes on behavior—particularly nonverbal behavior. You might, for example, have a negative attitude toward your boss, yet you are also probably motivated to be nice to him or her. Despite your efforts to be nice to your boss, you might be unable to contain that subtle sneer when you see him or her. In other words, your motivation to be nice is ineffective at curbing the influence of your attitudes because of a lack of ability. Thus, before any motivation can be effective at overcoming the influence of your attitude, the opportunity factor must also be present.
A large body of research supports the basic tenets of the MODE model. In one experiment, participants were asked to decide between two department stores in which to buy a camera. One store was excellent overall, except for the camera department. The other store had a good camera department, but was poor overall. Participants’ store choice indicated whether they used their attitude toward the stores to guide their decision (if they chose the first) or whether they moved beyond their attitudes and focused on the specific attributes of the stores (if they chose the second). Some participants in this study were also told that they would have to justify their answers to others later, and others were not (a manipulation of motivation). Also, some participants had to reach a decision quickly, and others had unlimited time to decide (a manipulation of opportunity). Consistent with the MODE model, only participants in the high motivation, high opportunity condition chose the department store with the better camera department. People relied on their global attitudes toward the stores to guide their behavior unless both motivation and opportunity were present.
The MODE model has also been applied to the study of racial prejudice. In one experiment, White participants’ automatically activated attitudes toward Blacks were assessed using a unique measure that taps people’s strong attitudes without having to ask them. In an earlier session, participants also completed a measure of their motivation to control prejudiced reactions toward Blacks, which asked participants to indicate their agreement with items like, “I get angry with myself when I have a thought or feeling that might be considered prejudiced.” In a final session, participants were shown pictures of people of various races (e.g., Black, White, Asian) depicted in various occupational roles (e.g., doctor, business person, brick layer), and were asked to make first impressions of them. They had unlimited time to make their ratings, so the opportunity factor was high for all participants. The question this study addressed was whether people’s impressions of Black and Whites would be guided directly by their automatically activated racial attitudes, or whether motivation to control prejudice might be used to try to “correct” for their prejudices. The results were consistent with the MODE model: Participants who were not motivated to avoid racial prejudice used their racial attitudes to make their impressions of the people. For those with negative attitudes toward Blacks, their impressions of the Blacks relative to the Whites were negative, and for those with positive attitudes toward Blacks, their impressions of the Blacks relative to the Whites were more positive. However, motivated participants tried to correct for their racial biases. Interestingly, they even appeared to overcorrect. Motivated participants with negative attitudes toward Blacks reported more positive impressions of Blacks relative to Whites. These individuals might have been motivated by a fear of being accused of prejudice. Motivated participants with positive attitudes toward Blacks reported more negative impressions of Blacks relative to Whites. These individuals might have been motivated by a fear of being accused of showing preferential treatment to Blacks.
The MODE model provides a means of conceptualizing situations, such as racial prejudice, where people “can’t help” but feel a particular way—that is, when they disagree with their own attitudes. Sometimes people’s attitudes influence their behavior directly, through an automatic process. However, as the MODE model states, when both motivation and opportunity are present, people can behave differently than their attitudes would imply.
- Fazio, R. H. (1990). Multiple processes by which attitudes guide behavior: The MODE model as an integrative framework. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 23, pp. 75-109). New York: Academic Press.
- Fazio, R. H., & Olson, M. A. (2003). Attitude structure and function. In M. A. Hogg & J. Cooper (Eds.), Sage handbook of social psychology (pp. 139-160). London: Sage.
- Olson, M. A., & Fazio, R. H. (2004). Trait inferences as a function of automatically-activated racial attitudes and motivation to control prejudiced reactions. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 26, 1-12.
- Sanbonmatsu, D. M., & Fazio, R. H. (1990). The role of attitudes in memory-based decision making. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 614-622.