Attitudes and Attitude Change
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: cognitive, affective, and behavioral. The cognitive component concerns one's beliefs; the affective component involves feelings and evaluations; and the behavioral component consists of ways of acting toward the attitude object. The cognitive aspects of attitude are generally measured by surveys, interviews, and other reporting methods, while the affective components are more easily assessed by monitoring physiological signs such as heart rate. Behavior, on the other hand, may be assessed by direct observation.
Behavior does not always conform to a person's feelings and beliefs. Behavior which reflects a given attitude may be suppressed because of a competing attitude, or in deference to the views of others who disagree with it. A classic theory that addresses inconsistencies in behavior and attitudes is Leon Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance, which is based on the principle that people prefer their cognitions, or beliefs, to be consistent with each other and 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 alter one of them by deciding to quit smoking, discount the evidence of its dangers, or 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 Daryl Bem's self-perception theory, which asserts that people adjust their attitudes to match their own previous behavior.
Attitudes are formed 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. Operant conditioning, which utilizes rewards, is a mode of attitude formation often employed by parents and teachers. Attitudes are also formed through direct experience. It is known, in fact, that the more exposure one has toward a given object, whether it is a song, clothing style, beverage, or politician, the more positive one's attitude is likely to be.
One of the most common types of communication, persuasion, is a discourse aimed at changing people's attitudes. Its success depends on several factors. The first of these is the source, or communicator, of a message. To be effective, a communicator must have credibility based on his or her perceived knowledge of the topic, and also be considered trustworthy. 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 their constituency. 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 or not 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 were 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 effect of intelligence on attitude change is inconclusive. On one hand, it has been hypothesized that the greater one's intelligence, the more willing one is to consider differing points of view. On the other hand, people with superior intelligence may be less easily persuaded because they are more likely to detect weaknesses in another person's argument. There is, however, evidence of a direct link between self-esteem and attitude change. People with low self-esteem are often not attentive enough to absorb persuasive messages, while those with high self-esteem are too sure of their own opinions to be easily persuaded to change them. The most easily persuaded individuals tend to be those with moderate levels of self-esteem, who are likely to pay a reasonable amount of attention to what those around them say and remain open enough to let it change their minds.
The medium of persuasion also influences attitude change ("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 effects of persuasion may take different forms. Sometimes they are evident right away; at other times they may be delayed (the socalled "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 psychologist William McGuire, 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 there is an opportunity for action—the final step in attitude change.
Chapman, Elwood N. Attitude: Your Most Priceless Possession. 2nd ed. Los Altos, CA: Crisp Publications, 1990.
Eiser, J. Richard Social Psychology: Attitudes, Cognition, and Social Behaviour. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Zimbardo, Philip G. The Psychology of Attitude Change and Social Influence. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.
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