Attitude-Behavior Consistency Definition
The study of attitude-behavior consistency concerns the degree to which people’s attitudes (opinions) predict their behavior (actions). Attitude-behavior consistency exists when there is a strong relation between opinions and actions. For example, a person with a positive attitude toward protecting the environment who recycles paper and bottles shows high attitude-behavior consistency. The study of attitude-behavior consistency is important because much of the usefulness of the attitude concept is derived from the idea that people’s opinions help guide their actions.
Attitude-Behavior Consistency Background
Common sense would dictate that attitudes should predict behavior. It seems sensible to predict that a student who strongly supports saving endangered animals will make an annual donation to the World Wildlife Fund. However, is the link between attitudes and behavior this simple?
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To answer this question, it is helpful to consider some early research on this topic. Initial research on attitude-behavior consistency was conducted in the early 1930s. At this time, a college professor named Richard LaPiere was traveling across America with a young Chinese couple. At the time, there was widespread anti-Asian prejudice in America. As a result of this prejudice, LaPiere was concerned whether he and his traveling companions would be refused service in hotels and restaurants. Much to his surprise, only once (in over 250 establishments) were they not served. A few months after the completion of the journey, LaPiere sent a letter to each of the visited establishments and asked whether they would serve Chinese visitors. Of the establishments that replied, only one indicated that it would serve such a customer. While there are a number of problems with LaPiere’s study (for instance, there is no guarantee that the person who answered the letter was the same person who served LaPiere and his friends), the study was taken as evidence that that people’s behavior might not necessarily follow from their attitudes.
By the late 1960s, a number of experiments had examined the relation between attitudes and behavior. In 1969, Allan Wicker reviewed the findings of these studies. He reached a rather sobering conclusion: Attitudes were a relatively poor predictor of behavior. Wicker’s conclusion contributed to a “crisis of confidence” in social psychology and led a number of researchers to question the usefulness of the attitude concept. It was argued that, if attitudes do not guide actions, then the construct is of limited value.
When Do Attitudes Influence Behavior?
Attitude researchers responded to this criticism by devoting greater attention to the study of when attitudes predict behavior. In the past 30 years, research findings have led to a more optimistic conclusion: Attitudes do predict behavior, under certain conditions. What are some of these conditions?
First, attitudes do a better job of predicting behavior when both concepts are measured in a similar way. Returning to LaPiere’s study, his measure of attitude asked establishments to indicate whether they would serve someone of the Chinese race. This measure of attitude is quite broad in comparison to the measure of behavior, which involved service being offered to a highly educated, well-dressed Chinese couple accompanied by an American college professor. Had LaPiere’s attitude measure been more specific (e.g., if it had read, “Would you serve a highly educated, well-dressed Chinese couple accompanied by an American college professor?”), there would have been greater consistency between attitudes and behavior.
Second, attitude-behavior consistency varies depending upon the topic being studied. In some areas, attitudes do an excellent job of predicting behavior, whereas in other areas they do not. At one extreme, a person’s attitude toward a particular political candidate does a very good job of predicting whether or not they vote for the candidate. Not surprisingly, people tend to vote for politicians they like. At the other extreme, researchers have found a low degree of consistency between a person’s attitude toward blood donation and the behavior of donating blood. Perhaps it is not surprising that this is a domain where there is a low relation between attitudes and behavior. It may be that a low relation arises because of other factors that people see as more important than their positive attitude (they may be extremely squeamish about needles), or because the behavior of donating blood may be much more difficult to enact than the simple expression of one’s attitude through a behavior like voting.
Third, the consistency between attitudes and behavior depends upon the “strength” of the attitude. Attitudes differ in their strength. Some of people’s attitudes are very important to them, whereas others are not. A number of studies have demonstrated that strong attitudes are more likely to predict behavior than are weak attitudes. For instance, Rob Holland and colleagues conducted a study in which they asked participants to indicate the favorability and strength of their attitude toward the organization Greenpeace. One week later, as part of a different experiment, these same people were given the opportunity to donate money to Greenpeace. Holland and colleagues found that when participants held strong opinions about Greenpeace, the favorability of their attitude predicted the amount of money they donated one week later. Among people with weak attitudes toward Greenpeace, how much they liked the organization did not predict their later behavior.
Fourth, the consistency between attitudes and behavior is affected by differences across people. For example, research on the personality factor called “self-monitoring” (which reflects differences across people in how they vary their behavior across social situations) has found that the relation between attitudes and behavior is stronger for low self-monitors than high self-monitors. Further, the likelihood of a person’s attitudes influencing their behavior is affected by their age. A number of studies have found that university students show lower attitude-behavior relations compared to adults. This difference is thought to occur because university students tend to have less-clear attitudes compared to older individuals.
How Do Attitudes Influence Behavior?
In addition to understanding when attitudes predict behavior, social psychologists have developed a number of models to explain how attitudes predict behavior. Two important models are the theory of planned behavior and the MODE model.
The Theory of Planned Behavior
The theory of planned behavior was developed by Icek Azjen. As its name suggests, the theory of planned behavior was developed to predict deliberative and thoughtful behavior. According to this model, the most immediate predictor (or determinant) of a person’s behavior is his or her intention. Put simply, if you intend to recycle glass bottles, you are likely to engage in this behavior. Within the theory of planned behavior, a person’s intentions are determined by three factors: attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control. The attitude component refers to the individual’s attitude toward the behavior—whether the person thinks that performing the behavior is good or bad. If you think that recycling glass is good, you should have a positive intention to carry out this behavior. Subjective norms refer to people’s beliefs about how other people who are important to them view the relevant behavior. If your family and close friends believe that recycling glass is good, and you are motivated to comply with their expectations, you should have a positive intention to carry out this behavior.
Of course, people’s behavior is also influenced by whether they feel they can perform the behavior. For example, if an individual wanted to eat a healthier diet, a positive attitude and positive subjective norms are unlikely to produce the desired behavior change if the person is unable to restrain him- or herself from eating French fries and chocolates. As a result, the Theory of Planned Behavior includes the idea that behavior is affected by whether people believe that they can perform the relevant behavior. This is captured by the concept of perceived behavioral control.
The MODE Model
Not all behavior is planned and deliberative. Quite often we act spontaneously, without consciously thinking of what we intend to do. When our behavior is spontaneous, the theory of planned behavior may not reflect how we decide to act. To help understand how attitudes influence spontaneous behavior, Russell Fazio developed the MODE model of attitude-behavior relations. MODE refers to Motivation and Opportunity as .Determinants of behavior. The MODE model suggests that if people are motivated and have the opportunity, they can base their behavior on a planned and deliberative consideration of available information. However, when either the motivation or the opportunity to make a reasoned decision is low, only strong attitudes will predict behavior.
- Haddock, G., & Maio, G. R. (Eds.). (2004). Contemporary perspectives on the psychology of attitudes. New York: Psychology Press.