An attitude is a predisposition to respond cognitively, emotionally, or behaviorally to a particular object, person, or situation in a particular way.
Attitudes have three main components:
Behavior typically interrelates with attitude, however behavior that reflects a given attitude may be suppressed because of a competing attitude, or in deference to the views of others who disagree with it. Behavior does not always conform to a person's feelings and beliefs.
A classic theory that addresses inconsistencies between behaviors and attitudes is the theory of cognitive dissonance, which was put forth by American social psychologist Leon Festinger (1919–1989). His theory of cognitive dissonance is based on the principle that people prefer their cognitions, or beliefs, to be consistent with each other, as well as with their own behavior. Inconsistency, or dissonance, among their own ideas makes people uneasy enough to alter these ideas so that they will agree with each other. For example, smokers forced to deal with the opposing thoughts “I smoke” and “Smoking is dangerous” are likely to do one of the following: decide to quit smoking, opt to discount the evidence of its dangers, or choose to adopt the view that smoking will not harm them personally. Test subjects in hundreds of experiments have reduced cognitive dissonance by changing their attitudes.
An alternative explanation of attitude change is provided by American social pscyhologist Daryl Bem (born in 1938) and his self-perception theory. This theory asserts that people adjust their attitudes to match their own previous behavior. In other words, people first consider their own behaviors and then form—or transform—their attitudes to support that behavior.
Attitudes are generated in different ways. Children acquire many of their attitudes by modeling their parents’ attitudes. Classical conditioning using pleasurable stimuli is another method of attitude formation and one widely used by advertisers who pair a product with catchy music, soothing colors, or attractive people. In this approach, scientists are interested in natural responses, which are responses that occur reflexively as a reaction to a stimulus (such as blinking the eyes in response to a puff of air). In classical conditioning, researchers would associate a second stimulus, such as the ringing of a bell, with the air puff over a period of time until ultimately, just the ringing of the bell—even without the air puff—is enough to cause the subject to blink his or her eyes. The eye blink, therefore, becomes a learned response to the bell, and is called a “classically conditioned” response.
Another form of conditioning is also used in attitude formation. Operant conditioning utilizes rewards for desired attitudes. For instance, an adult may take a child out for ice cream if he or she is polite. Over time, the child's attitude toward politeness may improve, which can also affect his or her behavior, as well as his or her expectation of similar behavior from others. Parents and teachers often employ operant conditioning as a mode of attitude formation.
Direct experience can likewise be involved in attitude development. Studies have shown that the greater the extent of exposure one has toward a given thing— whether it is a song, clothing style, beverage, or politician—the more positive one's attitude is likely to be. This is an effective tool in marketing.
One of the most common types of communication, persuasion, is a discourse aimed at changing people's attitudes. Its success depends on several factors, including the source, the method, and the medium.
To be effective in persuasion, the source, or communicator, of a message must have credibility based on his or her perceived knowledge of the topic, as well as trustworthiness. The greater the perceived similarity between communicator and audience, the greater the communicator's effectiveness. This is the principle behind politicians’ perennial attempts to portray themselves in a folksy, “down-home” manner to which the constituents can relate. This practice has come to include distinguishing and distancing themselves from “Washington insiders,” who are perceived by the majority of the electorate as being different from themselves.
In analyzing the effectiveness of the persuasive message itself, the method by which the message is presented is at least as important as its content. Factors influencing the persuasiveness of a message include whether it presents one or both sides of an argument; whether it states an implicit or explicit conclusion; whether it provokes fear; and whether it presents its strongest arguments first or last. If the same communicator were to present an identical message to two different groups, the number of people whose attitudes are changed would still vary because audience variables such as age, sex, and intelligence also affect attitude change.
Many studies have found women to be more susceptible to persuasion than men, but contrasting theories have been advanced to account for this phenomenon. Some have attributed it to the superior verbal skills of females, which may increase their ability to understand and process verbal arguments. Others argue that it is culturally determined by the greater pressure women feel to conform to others’ opinions and expectations.
The medium of persuasion also influences attitude change. A common description of this is “the medium is the message.” Face-to-face communication is usually more effective than mass communication, for example, although the effectiveness of any one component of communication always involves the interaction of all of them. The use of electronic media has also proven to be quite effective among certain groups of individuals, especially teens and young adults who spend a high percentage of their time texting or online.
The effects of persuasion, which may take different forms, are sometimes evident right away. At other times they may be delayed (the so-called “sleeper effect” ). In addition, people may often change their attitudes, only to revert over time to their original opinions, especially if their environment supports the initial opinion.
The information-processing model of persuasion, developed by American social psychologist William McGuire (1925–2007), focuses on a chronological sequence of steps that are necessary for successful persuasion to take place. In order to change listeners’ attitudes, one must first capture their attention, and the listeners must comprehend the message. They must then yield to the argument, and retain it until they have an opportunity for action—the final step in attitude change.
Overall, there are many schools of thought about attitudes, and how to change them. Researchers are continuing to study both for many purposes, including the effects of attitudes on society in general, on politics, on marketing, and on healthcare, and at many levels ranging from attitudes of the worldwide population to those of a single individual.
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