Accessibility refers to the ease with which an idea or concept can be retrieved from memory. Accessible constructs are those that are quickly retrieved from memory. Concepts that are accessible are important because a concept must be activated to be useful in guiding behavior or in influencing judgments. Concepts that an individual has thought about recently or thinks about frequently tend to be more easily retrieved than other concepts. In social psychology, accessibility has often been considered in relation to attitudes. That is, attitudes that come to mind quickly are accessible attitudes. Accessible attitudes are generally stronger, more resistant to persuasion, and more predictive of behavior than are less accessible attitudes.
The study of attitudes has been an important part of the research landscape in social psychology since the early 1900s. Historically, attitudes were thought to be an important topic to study because early researchers assumed that attitudes are strongly related to behavior. However, the assumption that attitudes are reflected in behavior was criticized in 1969 by Allan Wicker, who observed that the bulk of research findings examining the correlation of attitudes to related behaviors found only a weak relationship. Later, as part of the ensuing debate about whether and how strongly attitudes guide behavior, Russell Fazio and colleagues found that accessible attitudes (those that are quickly brought to mind) are more strongly related to behavior than attitudes that take longer to bring to mind.
The concept of accessibility has also been applied to other judgments people make in their everyday lives. Stereotypes of minority groups, for example, can vary in their accessibility. Priming, or presenting stereotype-related information to make the stereotype more accessible in the short term, has been shown to increase the reliance on stereotypes in making judgments of members of minority groups. Similarly, information that is relevant to a person’s self-concept, or that is relevant to the attainment of a goal, tends to be accessible. The accessibility of self-relevant and goal-related information makes that information more likely to be relied on in making judgments.
A classic investigation of the accessibility of social stereotypes was conducted by Tory Higgins and his colleagues in 1977. They conducted an experiment in which they made trait categories accessible by having research participants remember them during an unrelated perceptual task. Afterward, participants read an ambiguous description of a stimulus person. The activated trait categories influenced participants’ ratings and descriptions of the stimulus person. This study demonstrated that trait categories that are made accessible through priming are important in the interpretation of social information.
To understand how accessible concepts affect judgments, it is important to understand how concepts like attitudes and stereotypes are represented in memory. Concepts are thought to reside in a semantic network in memory. The mental representation of an object or concept is stored as a node in this network. The network is organized such that related concepts or nodes are linked through associative pathways. These associations, or links, vary in their strength: A strong association is created if a concept is frequently activated with another concept. Strong associations exist among members of categories and the concept of the category. Category members that are highly typical of the category are more strongly associated with the category than less typical members. For example, a robin will have a stronger link to the category label “bird” than will an ostrich. It is efficient to be able to quickly categorize objects that one encounters in the world: It enables quick decisions about whether or not to approach a novel object. Social stimuli appear to be represented similarly, and the categories people use to understand other people are called stereotypes.
Attitudes are similarly represented in semantic networks. An attitude object is represented as a node in the network. The evaluation of this attitude object is also represented in the network. The strength of the association between the object and the evaluation of it will determine the accessibility of the attitude. For highly accessible attitudes, there is a strong association between the attitude object and its evaluation. That is, when the node for the attitude object is activated, the strength of the association ensures that the node containing the evaluation of the object is also activated. In this way, judgments can be made rapidly and without extensive reflection. In contrast, for attitudes that are not accessible, the associations between the object and the evaluation of that object are not as strong. In this case, the activation of the object does not spontaneously activate the evaluation of the object. Consequently, it may take more time to activate the judgment.
Having accessible attitudes toward objects in our world is efficient. Accessible attitudes allow us to decide quickly what to approach or avoid without having to consider each object’s attributes and whether we consider each attribute desirable or undesirable. Therefore, accessible attitudes serve a knowledge function, or as a frame of reference for how we interpret and understand our world, and often determine what we attend to, how we perceive objects and situations, and how we act.
Our use of categories to organize our understanding of social stimuli relies strongly on the accessibility of the categories we have in memory. Recent research in the use of stereotypes has shown that accessible constructs are used extensively in categorizing novel social stimuli. That is, we rely on the stereotypes that are accessible to us in deciding how to categorize, think about, and react to new people we meet. Importantly, the use of stereotypes to categorize individuals can be overcome: Work on dual process models of social cognition has demonstrated that the stereotypic judgment, which relies on accessible categories, is a heuristic judgment that occurs spontaneously. With sufficient motivation and time to think about it, this immediate judgment can be modified by a more effortful process or by encouraging individuals to bring to mind a counterstereotypic example.
An important implication of accessible attitudes is that they serve to maintain behavior based on those judgments. Accessible attitudes tend to be stronger than less accessible attitudes: People who hold accessible attitudes are likely to have thought carefully about the reasons supporting those attitudes. Accessible attitudes are also more resistant to persuasion than less accessible attitudes, probably because of this greater awareness of the reasons for holding the attitude. Furthermore, people with accessible attitudes have also probably thought somewhat about the types of arguments that might be used to persuade them to change their attitude and thus are prepared to counterargue efforts to change their minds. Finally, accessible attitudes are more predictive of behavior than less accessible attitudes. Because these attitudes are thought about frequently, they easily come to mind in the presence of the attitude object and thus are more likely to guide behavior.
Accessible attitudes provide unique challenges to people concerned with persuasion, such as health professionals seeking to change unhealthy behavior. For example, cigarette smokers have been found to have highly accessible prosmoking attitudes, and these attitudes serve to maintain their smoking behavior: The more people smoke, the more frequently they think about their reasons for smoking, and the more strongly entrenched their attitudes and their smoking behavior become. Because accessible attitudes can bias the interpretation of persuasive information, these smokers may become more resistant to the idea of quitting smoking. To change such attitudes, it may be useful to find components of the attitude that are less accessible and less central to the arguments to continue smoking. For example, change may be possible by persuading smokers to support laws to limit the access of minors to cigarettes.
In contrast, there may be times when an accessible attitude is desirable, such as an antismoking attitude or an attitude that is favorable toward healthy eating. Attitudes can be made more accessible by repeated expression. That is, someone who reports his or her attitude more times will have a more accessible attitude. Therefore, strengthening positive attitudes toward healthy behaviors may occur in settings in which people are given repeated opportunities to judge the attitude object or behavior. Interventions that engage at-risk groups in discussions of healthy behaviors and allow them to express positive attitudes toward those behaviors may be effective in fostering the desirable behaviors.
- Blair, I. V., Ma, J., & Lenton, A. (2001). Imagining stereotypes away: The moderation of implicit stereotypes through mental imagery. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 828-841.
- Fazio, R. H. (1995). Attitudes as object-evaluation associations: Determinants, consequences, and correlates of attitude accessibility. In R. E. Petty & J. A. Krosnick (Eds.), Attitude strength: Antecedents and consequences (pp. 247-292). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Gawronski, B., & Bodenhausen, G. V. (2005). Accessibility effects on implicit social cognition: The role of knowledge activation and retrieval experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 672-685.
- Higgins, E. T. (1996). Knowledge activation: Accessibility, applicability and salience. In E. T. Higgins & A. W. Kruglanski (Eds.), Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles (pp. 133-168). New York: Guilford Press.