Attitude Formation

Attitude Formation Definition

An attitude is a general and lasting positive or negative opinion or feeling about some person, object, or issue. Attitude formation occurs through either direct experience or the persuasion of others or the media. Attitudes have three foundations: affect or emotion, behavior, and cognitions. In addition, evidence suggests that attitudes may develop out of psychological needs (motivational foundations), social interactions (social foundations), and genetics (biological foundations), although this last notion is new and controversial.

Emotional Foundations of Attitudes

A key part of an attitude is the affect or emotion associated with the attitude. At a very basic level, we know whether we like or dislike something or find an idea pleasant or unpleasant. For instance, we may say that we know something “in our heart” or have a “gut feeling.” In such cases our attitudes have been formed though our emotions rather than through logic or thinking. This can happen through (a) sensory reactions, (b) values, (c) operant/instrumental conditioning, (d) classical conditioning, (e) semantic generalization, (f) evaluative conditioning, or (g) mere exposure.

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Sensory Reactions

Any direct experience with an object though seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching will lead to an immediate evaluative reaction. We are experts at knowing whether we find a certain sensory experience pleas-ant or unpleasant. For example, immediately upon tasting a new type of candy bar, you know whether you like it or not. This also applies to aesthetic experiences, such as admiring the color or composition of an artwork. We form attitudes about objects immediately upon experiencing them.

Attitude Formation


Some attitudes come from our larger belief system. We may come to hold certain attitudes because they validate our basic values. Many attitudes come from religious or moral beliefs. For example, for many people their attitudes about abortion, birth control, same-sex marriage, and the death penalty follow from their moral or religious beliefs and are highly emotional issues for them.

Operant Conditioning

Operant or instrumental conditioning is when an attitude forms because it has been reinforced through reward or a pleasant experience or discouraged through punishment or an unpleasant experience. For example, a parent might praise a teenager for helping out at an after-school program with little kids. As a result, the teen may develop a positive attitude toward volunteer work. Similarly, many people find that broccoli has a terrible taste, and so they dislike broccoli because of its punishing flavor.

Classical Conditioning

Classical or Pavlovian conditioning happens when a new stimulus comes to elicit an emotional reaction because of its association with a stimulus that already elicits the emotional response. The Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov took dogs, which naturally salivate to meat powder, and trained them to salivate at the sound of a bell by continually ringing the bell as the meat powder was presented. In humans, some of our attitudes have become conditioned in much the same way. For example, some people have a negative attitude towards “dirty” words. Just the thought of a taboo word will cause some people to blush. The words themselves have come to elicit an emotional reaction because their use is frowned upon in our culture in most contexts.

Semantic Generalization

Not only can we become conditioned to a specific stimulus, but this initial conditioning can generalize or spread to similar stimuli. For example, a bell higher or lower in pitch to the original conditioned sound may elicit the same reaction. In humans, the initial conditioning can spread even to words or concepts similar to the original stimulus. As a result, we can form attitudes about an object or idea without having direct contact with it. When this kind of generalization occurs, the process is called semantic generalization. For example, human subjects who have been conditioned to the sound of a bell may also show a response to the sight of a bell or by the spoken word bell. Semantic generalization can account for the formation of attitudes, like prejudice, where people have formed an attitude without having direct contact with the object of that attitude.

Evaluative Conditioning

An object need not directly cause us to feel pleasant or unpleasant for us to form an attitude. Evaluative conditioning occurs when we form attitudes toward an object or person because our exposure to them coincided with a positive or negative emotion. For example, a couple may come to feel positive toward a particular song that was playing on the radio during their first date. Their positive attitude to the song is a result of its association with the happy experience of a date.

Mere Exposure

Finally, when we see the same object or person over and over, we will generally form a positive attitude toward that object or person. This is true for an object or person we feel neutral or positive about, so long as we are not overexposed to it. For example, many popular styles of clothing seem bizarre at first, but then as we see more of them we may come to accept and even like them.

Behavioral Foundations of Attitudes

Sometimes we form attitudes from our actions. This can happen if we do something before we have an attitude (e.g., going to an art opening of an unknown artist), when we are unsure of our attitudes (e.g., going with a friend to a political rally), or when we are not thinking about what we are doing (mindlessly singing along with a random station on the radio). That is, there are times when just going through the motions can cause us to form an attitude consistent with those actions. In the previous examples, people may come to hate the new artist, support free trade, or like classical music because their actions have led them to engage in these behaviors, which then led to the formation of an attitude. There are at least four lines of evidence that account for how attitudes may form out of actions.

First, self-perception theory suggests that we look to our behavior and figure out our attitude based on what we have done or are doing. Second, cognitive dissonance theory suggests that we strive for consistency between our attitudes and our actions and when the two do not match, we may form a new attitude to coincide with our past actions.

Third, research evidence using the facial feedback hypothesis finds that holding our facial muscles in the pose of an emotion will cause us to experience that emotion, which may then color our opinions. For example, participants who viewed cartoons that were not particularly funny while holding a pen across their teeth—a pose which activates the same muscles involved in smiling—rated the cartoons funnier than subjects who posed with a pen in their mouths, which activated the same muscles involved in frowning. As a result, people may develop positive or negative attitudes toward neutral objects after moving their facial muscles into smiles or frowns, respectively.

Finally, role-playing, such as improvising persuasive arguments, giving personal testimony, taking on another person’s perspective, or even play-acting, are all additional ways that people may come to form attitudes based on their behaviors. For example, in an early study, women who were heavy smokers participated in an elaborately staged play where they played the role of a woman dying of lung cancer. Two weeks later, these women smoked less and held less positive attitudes toward smoking than women who had not been through this role-play procedure.

Cognitive Foundations of Attitudes

The cognitive foundation of attitudes, what might be called beliefs, comes from direct experience with the world or through thinking about the world. Thinking about the world includes any kind of active information processing, such as deliberating, wondering, imagining, and reflecting, as well as through activities such as reading, writing, listening, and talking.

If you believe that insects are dirty and disgusting, then you will probably have the attitude that insects are not food. However, if you read that locusts and other insects are happily eaten in some cultures, then you may come to believe that locusts may not be so bad. Your attitude here comes from thinking about the new facts you read.

Additionally, if the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that exposure to ultraviolet light is the most important environmental factor involved in the formation of skin cancers, and you believe that the CDC is a trustworthy expert, then you might logically reason that excessive sun exposure is not a healthy thing. Here your attitude comes from logically reasoning about the world.

Suppose you didn’t know how you felt about a topic until you were forced to write an essay for a writing class. This also would be an example of attitude formation through cognition, in this case, organizing your thoughts in preparation to write a coherent essay.


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