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Attitude and Behavior

Changing attitudes to change behavior, Changing behavior to influence attitudes

Attitude is a feeling, belief, or opinion of approval or disapproval towards something. Behavior is an action or reaction that occurs in response to an event or internal stimuli (i.e., thought).

People hold complex relationships between attitudes and behavior that are further complicated by the social factors influencing both. Behaviors usually, but not always, reflect established beliefs and attitudes. For example, a man who believes strongly in abstinence before marriage may choose to remain a virgin until his wedding night. Under other circumstances, that same man may engage in premarital sex despite his convictions after being influenced by social messages that his masculinity is dependent on sexual activity.

Ideally, positive attitudes manifest well-adjusted behaviors. However, in some cases healthy attitudes may result in harmful behavior. For example, someone may remain in an abusive and potentially deadly domestic situation because they hold negative attitudes towards divorce.

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. Someone may have strong convictions about improving the public school system in their town, but if it means a hefty increase to their property taxes, they may vote against any improvements due to the potential for monetary loss. Or, they may simply not vote at all because their polling place is too far from their home, or the weather is bad on election day.

Studies have demonstrated that, in some cases, pointing out inconsistencies between attitudes and behavior can redirect the behavior. In the case of the school supporter, showing that their actions (i.e., not voting, not attending parent-teacher organization meetings) are harming rather than helping efforts to improve education in their town may influence them to reevaluate their behavior so that it reflects their attitudes.

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

Changing attitudes to change behavior

Attitude and behavior are woven into the fabric of daily life. Research has shown that individuals register an immediate and automatic reaction of "good" or "bad" towards everything they encounter in less than a second, even before they are aware of having formed an 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.

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, and age discrimination.

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 in the case of preventive medicine. Campaigns promoting positive attitudes towards 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 ideally influencing associated behavior.

Changing behavior to influence attitudes

In 1955, clinical psychologist and educator George Kelly introduced his psychology of personal constructs. Kelly's constructs were based on the idea that each individual looks at the world through his or her own unique set of preconceived notions about it (i.e., constructs). These constructs change and adapt as the individual is exposed to new and different situations. At the heart of Kelly's theory is the idea that individuals can seek new experiences and practice and adapt new behaviors in order to change their attitudes (or constructs) towards the world. He recommended that therapists encourage their patients to try out new behaviors and coping strategies; he and others that followed frequently found that patients would adapt these useful new behavior patterns and subsequently change their attitudes.

When behavior is inconsistent with attitude, it is sometimes a result of social or peer pressure. While adult behavior generally follows from held attitudes, for children, attitudes are often shaped by observed behavior. From a very young age, children copy the actions of others and, to a degree, build their attitudes and beliefs from this learned behavior. As children grow into adolescence, the behavior of their peers can have a significant impact. Sometimes this peer pressure factor can be used to an advantage. One research study found that antismoking campaigns targeted at teenagers can have a higher success rate when adolescent peers are used as instructors.

Paula Ford-Martin

Further Reading

Byrne, Donn and Robert A. Baron. Social psychology. 8th edition. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, Inc., 1997.

Eagly, Alice and Shelly Chaiken. Dawn Youngblood, ed. The psychology of attitudes. Forth Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1993.

Kelly, George. The psychology of personal constructs. 2 vols. New York: Norton, 1955.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Abacus to Courage