MCAT Content / Theories Of Attitude And Behavior Change / Factors That Affect Attitude Change

Factors that Affect Attitude Change

Topic: Theories Of Attitude And Behavior Change

Attitude is our positive or negative evaluation of a person, an idea, or an object.

Typically, attitudes are favorable or unfavorable, or positive or negative. They can also be defined as a learned habit for responding to social stimuli. Attitudes reflect more than just positive or negative evaluations: they include other characteristics, such as importance, certainty, accessibility, and associated knowledge. Attitudes are important in the study of social psychology because they influence the amount of attention and the type of judgment an individual may give to a specific subject.

Attitudes are thought to have three components: an affective component (feelings), a behavioral component (the effect of the attitude on behavior), and a cognitive component (belief and knowledge). For example, you may hold a positive attitude toward recycling. This attitude should result in positive feelings toward recycling (such as, “It makes me feel good to recycle,” or “I enjoy knowing that I make a small difference in reducing the amount of waste that ends up in landfills”). This attitude should then be reflected in behavior: you actually recycle as often as you can. Finally, this attitude will be reflected in favorable thoughts (for example, “Recycling is good for the environment,” or “Recycling is the responsible thing to do”).

Because people are influenced by different situations, however, general attitudes are not always a good predictor of behavior. For a variety of reasons, an individual may value the environment and not recycle a can on a particular day. Attitudes that are well remembered and central to our self-concept, however, are more likely to lead to certain behaviors. Measures of general attitudes can be used to predict behavior patterns over time, even if they cannot be used to predict specific behaviors. It is well accepted that attitudes can affect behaviors, and behaviors can affect attitudes, depending on the situation.

Psychologists believe that attitudes can be either explicit (deliberately formed) or implicit (unconsciously formed). People may not be aware of their implicit attitudes, so they must be measured using sophisticated methods that can access unconscious thoughts and feelings, such as response times to stimuli. Explicit attitudes are deliberately formed attitudes that an individual is aware of having, and they can be measured by self-report and questionnaires.

Researchers attempt to understand the function of attitudes by considering how they affect individuals. There are four primary categories that explain the function of attitudes:

  • Utilitarian attitudes provide an individual with general tendencies, such as whether to approach or avoid a person, place, or thing.
  • Knowledge-related attitudes help us organize and interpret new information.
  • Ego-defensive attitudes help people protect their self-esteem.
  • Value-expressive attitudes express central values or beliefs.

There are several factors that affect the ways in which our attitudes are formed. Some researchers believe that learning can account for the attitudes an individual holds. The formation of many attitudes is believed to happen due to conditioning or social learning, and attitudes, in general, are expected to change with experience. An example of this can be seen with the mere-exposure effect, which describes how an individual will develop positive attitudes toward something or someone simply due to repeated exposure.

In psychology, “cognitive dissonance” describes the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values. For example, if you believe smoking is bad for your health but you continue to smoke, you experience conflict between your belief and your behavior. Since the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it and achieve consonance (agreement). When we experience cognitive dissonance, we are motivated to decrease it because it is psychologically, physically, and mentally uncomfortable. We can reduce cognitive dissonance by bringing our cognitions, attitudes, and behaviors in line—that is, making them harmonious. This can be done in different ways, such as:

  • changing our discrepant behavior (e.g., stop smoking);
  • changing our cognitions through rationalization or denial (e.g., telling ourselves that health risks can be reduced by smoking filtered cigarettes);
  • adding a new cognition (e.g., “Smoking suppresses my appetite so I don’t become overweight, which is good for my health”).

Persuasion is an active method of influence that attempts to guide people toward adopting an attitude, idea, or behavior; it is also the process of changing one’s own attitude toward something based on some kind of communication. Much of the persuasion we experience comes from outside forces.


Key Points

• Attitude is our evaluation of a person, an idea, or an object. Typically, attitudes are positive or negative and involve affective, behavioral, and cognitive components.

• Psychologists believe that there are both explicit (or deliberately formed) and implicit (or subconsciously formed) attitudes; people are often unaware of their implicit attitudes.

• Attitude serves a variety of functions, including utilitarian, knowledge, ego-defensive, and value-expression functions. Their formation is influenced by learning, personal experience, and observation.

• Cognitive dissonance takes place when one’s actions and beliefs do not fit together, usually resulting in a change of behavior or beliefs to relieve the dissonance.

• Persuasion is an active method of influence that attempts to guide people toward adopting an attitude, idea, or behavior; it is also the process of changing one’s own attitude toward something based on some kind of communication.


Key Terms

cognitive dissonance: a conflict or anxiety resulting from inconsistencies between one’s beliefs and one’s actions or other beliefs.

attitude: a positive or negative evaluation of people, objects, events, or ideas in one’s environment



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