Attitude and Behavior

Attitude is a feeling, belief, or opinion of approval or disapproval toward something; behavior is an action or reaction that occurs in response to an event or internal stimuli, such as a thought.

Behavior can be influenced by a number of factors beyond attitude, including preconceptions about self and others, monetary factors, social influences (what peers and community members are saying and doing), and convenience. Individuals may have strong convictions about improving the public school system in their town, but if it means a hefty increase to property taxes, they may vote against any improvements due to the potential cost, or individuals may not vote at all because the polling place is too far from their home or the weather is bad on election day. In another example, individuals who believe strongly in abstinence before marriage may choose to remain virgins until their wedding night, while others who maintain the same convictions may ultimately engage in premarital sex after being influenced by social messages that their sexual identity is dependent on sexual activity.

Studies have demonstrated that, in some cases, pointing out inconsistencies between attitudes and behavior can redirect the behavior. In the case of the school supporters, other parents may explain that the supporters’ actions (e.g., voting against a tax increase or refraining from voting at all) are harming rather than helping efforts to improve education in their town, and this may influence supporters to reevaluate their voting decision.

For those in need of psychological support, several treatment approaches are available that focus on changing attitudes in order to change behavior, two of which are cognitive therapy and cognitive-behavior therapy. Cognitive therapy attempts to change irrational thinking patterns. Cognitive-behavioral therapy tries to correct the resulting inappropriate behavior.

Changing attitudes to modify behavior

Attitude and behavior are woven into the fabric of daily life. Research has shown that individuals register a reaction of good or bad toward everything they encounter in less than a second, even before they are aware of having formed any attitude. Advertising, political campaigns, and other persuasive media messages are all built on the premise that behavior follows attitude, and attitude can be influenced with the right message delivered in the right way.

People in the fields of social and behavioral psychology have researched the relationship between attitude and behavior extensively. The more psychologists can understand the relationship between attitude and behavior and the factors that influence both, the more effectively they can treat mental disorders and contribute to the dialogue on important social problems such as racism, gender bias, age discrimination, and violence.

The concept of social marketing combines cognitive-behavioral components of psychology with social science and commercial marketing techniques to encourage or discourage behaviors by changing the attitudes that cause them. It is also a key part of public health education initiatives, particularly regarding preventive medicine. Campaigns promoting positive attitudes toward prenatal care, abstinence from drug use, smoking cessation, sunscreen use, organ donations, safe sex, cancer screening, and other healthcare initiatives are all examples of social marketing in action. In effect, social marketing is selling attitudes and beliefs and if successful (in the view of the marketer) is influencing associated behavior. Education can play a role in health attitudes and behaviors. A 2013 study, for example, showed that education about organ donation and transplantation was responsible for changes in attitudes and behaviors among student nurses, and those new attitudes may then influence patient understanding and potentially promote an increase in donors.

Changing behavior to influence attitudes

Personal constructs also play a role in the relationship between attitudes and behavior. The psychology of personal constructs dates back to 1955 when clinical psychologist and educator George Kelly (1905–1967) introduced the concept. Kelly's constructs were based on the idea that individuals look at the world through the lens of their own unique set of preconceived notions. Known as constructs, these notions change and adapt as individuals are exposed to new situations. At the heart of Kelly's theory is the idea that individuals can seek new experiences and adapt new behaviors in order to change their constructs and view of the world. He recommended that therapists encourage their patients to try out new behaviors and coping strategies. He, as well as others who have followed his lead, noted that patients would often adapt these useful new behavior patterns and subsequently change their attitudes.


Cognitive-behavioral therapy—
Psychotherapy that tries to correctthe resulting inappropriate behavior.
Cognitive therapy—
Psychotherapy that attempts to change irrational ways of thinking.
Personal constructs—
The mental perceptions used by individuals to interpret the world. These constructs typically change over time as the individual has various experiences.

Studies of the relationship between attitudes and behaviors continue in many fields, ranging from advertising to health care, as researchers and others try to determine how best to influence individuals toward desired behaviors.

See also Antisocial behavior ; Risk-taking behavior.



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Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, 305 7th Ave., 16th Fl., New York, NY, 10001, (212) 647-1890, .

Association for Behavior Analysis International, 550 W. Centre Ave., No. 1, Portage, MI, 49024, (269) 492-9310, ,

Association for Positive Behavior Support, PO Box 328, Bloomsburg, PA, 17815, (570) 441-5418, tknoster@, .