Reasoned Action Theory Definition
The theory of reasoned action (TRA) is a model for predicting people’s behavior, which states that the best predictor of people’s behavior in any given situation is their intention to perform the behavior. Not surprisingly, the best predictor of whether people will actually do something is whether they intend to do it. The intention to perform the behavior is influenced by a person’s own attitude toward (feelings or evaluations of) the behavior as well as the attitudes of people who are important to the person and the associated perceived social pressures (subjective norms).
Background and Importance of Reasoned Action Theory
Social psychologists have demonstrated that knowledge of people’s attitudes and feelings frequently allows one to predict their behavior. However, research also indicates that sometimes people’s behavior is not consistent with their attitudes. For example, students might believe that studying for exams is good because it leads to better grades; however, they still might not study. Therefore, more variables must be influencing the behavior than just attitudes. The TRA was an attempt to identify other factors, such as social pressures, that could be useful in predicting behavior. The result was the better prediction of behavior.
Components of the Theory of Reasoned Action and Evidence
According to the TRA, individuals’ intention to perform a behavior (their behavioral intention) determines what they do, and it is based on two things: their own attitudes about the behavior and perceived social pressures from people whom they want to please (technically referred to in the theory as subjective norms). Usually, people intend to perform behaviors that they feel positively about or that are popular with other people, and they do not intend to perform behaviors that they feel negatively about or that are unpopular with other people. Once the intention to behave a certain way is determined, people tend to follow through with the intention and engage in the behavior.
Research demonstrates that people tend to perform behaviors about which they have positive attitudes and avoid behaviors toward which they have negative attitudes. The TRA states that attitudes toward specific behaviors are based upon expectations or beliefs about what the likely consequences of the behavior will be. If people believe that primarily positive consequences will result from the behavior (and negative consequences seem unlikely), they will have positive attitudes toward the behavior. If they believe that primarily negative consequences will result from the behavior (and positive consequences seem unlikely), they will have negative attitudes toward the behavior. For example, a student might believe that studying will lead to better grades but also to missed opportunities to socialize with friends. If socializing is more important to the student than are good grades, or if the student is not confident that he or she would get good grades even with more studying, the student would probably have a negative attitude toward studying. On the other hand, if getting better grades is more important to the student than socializing, and if the student is confident that studying will lead to better grades, he or she will probably have a positive attitude toward studying.
Although research demonstrates that people’s own attitudes concerning a behavior significantly influence whether they intend to do it, research has also shown that attitudes are not always sufficient for predicting behavior. According to the TRA, behavioral intentions are also influenced by perceived social pressures. For example, even if a student has a positive attitude toward studying, if the student’s friends have negative attitudes toward studying, it is likely that the student will not study much either because of conformity pressures. Whether the student conforms to perceived social pressures will depend largely on the extent to which the student is concerned about what those individuals think. In other words, the perceived social pressure is the result of the beliefs of other people (friends, family, etc.) concerning how the individual should behave as well as how motivated the individual is to comply with those people. For example, even if there is perceived pressure from parents to study, the student may be more motivated to comply with friends’ wishes. Studies have demonstrated that the consideration of perceived social pressures in addition to attitudes enhances the prediction of behavioral intention, and thus behavior. However, research shows that some people, as well as some behaviors, are more influenced by social pressure than others.
Typically, TRA researchers ask participants to report their attitudes concerning a specific behavior, including its likely consequences, the perceived social pressures from important others concerning the behavior, and their intention toward performing the behavior. Researchers then contact participants later to ask them whether they have actually engaged in the behavior. Such research generally supports the theory. Behavioral intentions are better predictors of behavior than are attitudes alone, and considering perceived social pressures in addition to attitudes usually increases prediction of a person’s behavioral intention. Therefore, all the components of the TRA are important.
Implications of the Theory of Reasoned Action
The TRA has been used to predict a wide range of behaviors relating to health, voting, consumer purchases, and religious involvement. Although the TRA predicts behavior more successfully than do models that only consider attitudes, the TRA is only applicable to behavior that is deliberate and under the person’s control. In instances when there are barriers to engaging in a behavior (for example, students who just do not have enough time to study even though they and their friends have positive attitudes toward studying), a recent extension of the TRA, the theory of planned behavior, must be applied.
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- Ajzen, I., & Fishbein, M. (1980). Understanding attitudes and predicting social behavior. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Sheppard, B. H., Hartwick, J., & Warshaw, P. R. (1988). The theory of reasoned action: A meta-analysis of past research with recommendations for modifications and future research. Journal of Consumer Research, 15, 325-343.