From New World Encyclopedia

The term Attitude as well as the concepts "attitude formation" and "attitude change" constitute an important part of the field of social psychology. Attitudes are an evaluation of a particular person, belief, event, place, or thing. They are positive or negative views of an "attitude object." People may also have ambivalent feelings toward a certain target, which means that they can simultaneously possess positive and negative attitudes toward the same object.

Affect, cognition, and action are the three aspects of an attitude. Learning, including classical and operant conditioning, as well as reduction or resolution of cognitive dissonance lead to the formation of attitudes. The main external source for attitude change is persuasion.

Attitudes may be regarded as predisposition, and are not always directly connect to behavior. However, the generation of stereotypes and opinions regarding people is often linked to antagonistic or discriminatory behavior. As people come into contact with others in the workplace, as well as in their personal lives, understanding how to develop appropriate attitudes that support harmonious relationships is of great importance.

Aspects of attitudes

Attitudes may be "implicit," or unconscious, as well as "explicit," as in the response that people give when asked their opinion on something. Both types may affect behavior, although in different ways. The relationship between these two types of attitudes is complex and not well understood.

Attitudes are generally understood to have three components: affective or emotional features, behavioral or action components, and cognitive aspects related to thought and beliefs. Social psychologists have studied all three aspects of attitudes, and their inter-relationships, and have developed several theories in which attitude is the central and key concept in understanding and explaining human behavior in social situations.


Affective components of attitudes can be very strong and influential. For example, a bigot feels uneasy in the presence of people from a certain religious, racial, or ethnic group; the nature lover feels exhilaration from a pleasant walk through the woods and mountains. Like other emotional reactions, these feelings are strongly influenced by direct or vicarious conditioning.

The affective components consist of the kinds of feelings that a particular topic arouses. The affective response is a physiological response that expresses an individual's preference for an entity. It is a conditioned emotional response, which has been linked to a previously non-emotional stimulus. The affective component of an attitude grows into a reflex that is intertwined with new emotional responses.


The cognitive response is a cognitive evaluation of the entity to form an attitude. The cognitive component consists of a set of beliefs about a topic. People acquire most beliefs about a particular topic quite directly: They hear or read a fact or an opinion, or other people reinforce their statements expressing a particular attitude. It is formed through direct instructions, reinforcement, imitation and/or exposure. Children form attitudes by imitating the behavior of people who play important roles in their lives. Children usually repeat opinions expressed by their parents. Most attitudes in individuals are a result of "social learning" from their environment. Psychologists use the expression "mere exposure" effect to denote the formation of a positive attitude toward a person, place, or thing based solely on repeated exposure to that person, place, or thing.


The behavioral component consists of a tendency to act in a particular way with respect to a particular topic. Attitudes are more likely to be accompanied by behaviors if the effects of the behaviors have motivational relevance for the person. Sivacek and Grano (1982) demonstrated this phenomenon by asking students to help campaign against a law pending in the state legislature that would raise the drinking age from eighteen to twenty. Although almost all the students were opposed to the new drinking law, younger students, who would be affected by its passage, were more likely to volunteer their time and effort.

There is not a 100 percent correspondence between attitudes and behavior. The link between attitudes and behavior depends on attitude specificity, attitude relevance, personality, social constraints, and timing of measurement. For example, a person may have a positive attitude towards blood donation but not go to a blood bank to donate blood. Differences in degrees of specificity of the attitude and behavior, motivational relevance, the opportunity a person has had to observe his/her own attitude-related behavior, and external constraints that prevent a person's acting on his/her attitude all come into play.

The strength of the link between particular attitudes and behavior varies but usually people strive for consistency between their attitudes and their behavior. A source of discrepancy between attitudes and behaviors can be the constraints on behavior. For example, a young man might have a very positive attitude toward a certain young woman, however, he never kisses her because she has plainly shown that she is not interested in him. No matter how carefully the young man's attitudes are measured, it is impossible to predict his behavior without additional information from the young woman. Thus, people do not always behave as their expressed attitudes and beliefs would lead others to expect. Psychologists mention a few situations when attitudes and behavior diverge: the person's motivational relevance, self-attribution, degree of specificity of situations, constraints on behavior. The "behavioral intention" is a verbal indication of the intention of an individual.

Attitude formation and attitude change

Unlike personality, attitudes are expected to change as a function of experience. Tesser (1993) has argued that heredity variables may affect attitudes, but believes that may do so indirectly. For example, if one inherits the disposition to become an extrovert, this may affect one's attitude to certain styles of music.

There are numerous theories of attitude formation and attitude change. Persuasion is the process of changing attitudes. Two aspects of persuasion process have received special attention: the source of the message and the message itself. A message tends to be more persuasive if its source is credible. Source credibility is high when the source is perceived as knowledgeable and is trusted to communicate this knowledge accurately. Attractiveness of the source has also a definite impact in the process of persuasion. For example, individuals who are asked to endorse products for advertisers are almost always physically attractive or appealing in other ways. Another example, physically attractive people are more likely to persuade others to sign a petition (Eagly and Chaiken, 1993). The social psychological mechanisms of attitude formation and attitude change are identical.


The celebrated work of Carl Hovland, at Yale University in the 1950s and 1960s, helped advance knowledge of persuasion. In Hovland's view, we should understand attitude change as a response to communication. He and his colleagues did experimental research into the factors that can affect the persuasiveness of a message:

  1. Target Characteristics: These are characteristics that refer to the person who receives and processes a message. One such is intelligence. It seems that more intelligent people are less easily persuaded by one-sided messages. Another variable that has been studied in this category is self-esteem. Although it is sometimes thought that those higher in self-esteem are less easily persuaded, there is some evidence that the relationship between self-esteem and ease of persuasion is actually curvilinear, with people of moderate self-esteem being more easily persuaded than both those of high and low self-esteem levels (Rhodes & Woods, 1992). The mind frame and mood of the target also plays a role in this process.
  2. Source Characteristics: The major source characteristics are expertise, trustworthiness and attractiveness. The credibility of a perceived message has been found to be a key variable here (Hovland & Weiss, 1951); if one reads a report on health and believes it comes from a professional medical journal, one may be more easily persuaded than if one believes it is from a popular newspaper. It has been questioned whether this is a long-lasting effect, with Hovland and Weiss (1951) finding the effect of telling people that a message came from a credible source to disappear after several weeks (the so-called "sleeper effect"). However, this sleeper effect is controversial. It appears that if people are informed of the source of a message before hearing it, there is less likelihood of a sleeper effect than if they are told a message and then told its source.
  3. Message Characteristics: The nature of the message plays a role in persuasion. Sometimes presenting both sides of a story is useful to help change attitudes.
  4. Cognitive Routes: A message can appeal to an individual's cognitive evaluation to help change an attitude. In the "central route" to persuasion the individual is presented with the data and motivated to evaluate the data and arrive at an attitude changing conclusion. In the "peripheral route" to attitude change, the individual is encouraged not to look at the content but at the source. This is commonly seen in modern advertisements that feature celebrities. In some cases, doctors and experts are used. In other cases film stars are used for their attractiveness.

Theories of attitude formation and attitude change

A variety of theories attempt to explain attitude formation and attitude change from various aspects of emotional life, behavior, and cognition.

Consistency theories of cognitive dissonance

Consistency theories imply that we seek to be consistent in our beliefs and values. The most famous example of such a theory is Dissonance-reduction theory, associated with the name of Leon Festinger.

According to Festinger's theory, when we perceive a discrepancy between our attitudes and behavior, between our behavior and self-image, or between one attitude and another, a frustrating state of anxiety, or "dissonance," results. For example, a person may successfully overcome a childhood racial prejudice but may experience unpleasant emotional arousal at the sight of a racially mixed couple. The person experiences a conflict between the belief in his own lack of prejudice and the evidence of prejudice from his behavior. This internal conflict produces cognitive dissonance, which is aversive. According to Festinger, a crucial source of a person's motivation is dissonance reduction: The aversive state of dissonance motivates a person to reduce it. Because dissonance reduction involves the removal of an aversive stimulus, it serves as a negative reinforcer.

A person can achieve dissonance reduction either by reducing the importance of the dissonant element (Strategy 1) or by adding consonant elements (Strategy 2), or by changing one of the dissonant elements (Strategy 3). For example, a student believes she is very intelligent but she invariably gets bad grades in her courses. Because the obvious prediction is that intelligent people get good grades, the discrepancy causes the student to experience dissonance. To reduce this dissonance, she might decide grades are unimportant and intelligence is not closely related to grades. This is using Strategy 1, reducing the importance of one of the dissonant elements—the fact that she got bad grades in her courses. Or she can dwell on the belief that her professors have been unfair or that her job leaves her only little time to study. In this case, she is using Strategy 2, reducing dissonance by adding consonant elements—those factors that can account for her poor grades and hence explain the discrepancy between her perceived intelligence and actual grades. Finally, she can use Strategy 3 to change one of the dissonant elements. She can either start getting good grades or revise her opinion of her own intelligence.

Self-perception theory

Self-perception theory is an account of attitude change developed by psychologist Daryl Bem. It asserts that we only have that knowledge of our own behavior and its causation that another person can have, and that we therefore develop our attitudes by observing our own behavior and concluding what attitudes must have caused them.

Self-perception theory differs from cognitive dissonance theory in that it does not hold that people experience a "negative drive state" called "dissonance" which they seek to relieve. Instead, people simply "infer" their attitudes from their own behavior in the same way that an outside observer might. In this way it combines dissonance theory with attribution theory.

Bem ran his own version of Festinger and Carlsmith's famous cognitive dissonance experiment. Subjects listened to a tape of a man enthusiastically describing a tedious peg-turning task. Some subjects were told that the man had been paid $20 for his testimonial and another group was told that he was paid $1. Those in the latter condition thought that the man must have enjoyed the task more than those in the $20 condition. Bem argued that the subjects did not judge the man's attitude in terms of cognitive dissonance phenomena, and that therefore any attitude change the man might have had in that situation was the result of the subject's own self-perception. Cognitive dissonance theory cannot explain attitude change that occurs when there is no upsetting dissonance state, such as that which occurred to subjects in studies of the overjustification effect.

Whether cognitive dissonance or self-perception is a more useful theory is a topic of considerable controversy and a large body of literature, with no clear winner. There are some circumstances where each theory is preferred, but it is traditional to use the terminology of cognitive dissonance theory by default.

Balance theory

Balance Theory is a motivational theory of attitude change proposed by Fritz Heider, which conceptualizes the consistency motive as a drive toward psychological balance. Heider proposed that "sentiment" or liking relationships are balanced if the affect valence in a system multiplies out to a positive result.

For example, a person P who likes another person O will be balanced by the same valence attitude on behalf of the other. Symbolically, P (+) > O and P < (+) O results in psychological balance.

This can be extended to objects (X) as well, thus introducing triadic relationships. If a person P likes object X but dislikes other person O, what does P feel upon learning that O created X? This is symbolized as such:

  • P (+) > X
  • P (-) > O
  • O (+) > X

Multiplying the signs shows that the person will perceive imbalance (a negative multiplicative product) in this relationship, and will be motivated to correct the imbalance somehow. The Person can either:

  • Decide that O isn't so bad after all,
  • Decide that X isn't as great as originally thought, or
  • Conclude that O couldn't really have made X.

Any of these will result in psychological balance, thus resolving the dilemma and satisfying the drive. (Person P could also avoid object X and other person O entirely, lessening the stress created by psychological imbalance.)

Balance Theory is also useful in examining how celebrity endorsement affects consumers' attitudes toward products. If a person likes a celebrity and perceives (due to the endorsement) that said celebrity likes a product, said person will tend to like the product more, in order to achieve psychological balance. However, if the person already had a dislike for the product being endorsed by the celebrity, she may like the celebrity less instead of liking the product more, again to achieve psychological balance.

To predict the outcome of a situation using Heider's Balance Theory, one must weigh the effects of all the potential results, and the one requiring the least amount of effort will be the likely outcome.

Elaboration Likelihood Model

The Elaboration Likelihood Model of persuasion (ELM; proposed by Petty & Cacioppo, 1981, 1986) is a model of how attitudes are formed and changed. Central to this model is the elaboration continuum, which ranges from low elaboration (low thought) to high elaboration (high thought). Depending on the extent of elaboration, different processes can mediate persuasion.

The ELM distinguishes between two routes to persuasion: the "Central Route" and the "Peripheral Route." Central route processes are those that require a great deal of thought, and therefore are likely to predominate under conditions that promote high elaboration. Central route processes involve careful scrutiny of a persuasive communication (a speech, an advertisement, and so forth) to determine the merits of the arguments. Under these conditions, a person’s unique cognitive responses to the message determine the persuasive outcome (the direction and magnitude of attitude change).

Peripheral route processes, on the other hand, require little thought, and therefore predominate under conditions that promote low elaboration. These processes often rely on judgmental heuristics (such as “experts are always right”) or surface features of a message (the number of arguments presented) or its source (their attractiveness).

Which route is taken is determined by the extent of elaboration. Both motivational and ability factors determine elaboration. Motivational factors include (among others) the personal relevance of the message topic, accountability, and a person’s Need for Cognition (their innate desire to enjoy thinking). Ability factors include the availability of cognitive resources (e.g., the presence or absence of time pressures or distractions) or relevant knowledge needed to carefully scrutinize the arguments. Under conditions of moderate elaboration, a mixture of central and peripheral route processes will guide information processing.

Social judgment theory

The Social Judgment theory of attitude change was proposed by Carl Hovland and Muzafer Sherif. This theory attempts to explain how attitude change is influenced by judgmental processes. The key idea of Social Judgment theory can be understood and explained in terms of "attribution" and other "communication processes." "Attribution" is the process by which people decide why certain events occurred or why a particular person acted in a certain manner. The following factors influence the person's attribution: internal versus external causes of own behavior and the behaviors of others, consistency consensus, a certain person's role as an "actor" or a "receiver" in a particular situation.

A study of weight perception illustrates the theory. Participants are asked to categorize several small weights by weight class based only on lifting each one in turn. A control group C categorized the weights roughly evenly across six weight classes, while another group A was asked to lift a much heavier weight before each test weight. This group categorized most weights in the lowest weight class, with decreasing quantities in each successively higher weight class. The third group B lifted a weight only as heavy as the highest weight class before judging each other weight; this group categorized most weights into the highest weight class, with decreasing quantities in successively lower classes; the opposite result of group A, and contrary to predictions of the contrast effect. Hovland and Sherif called this effect, where things start to seem more like their context (the heavy weight), the assimilation effect. In terms of anchoring and adjustment, when an anchor (the heavy weight) approaches the range of possible judgments (the six weight classes), the categorization or judgment shifts from contrast to assimilation. When applied to social judgments, these effects show that the most effective position to advocate for changing another's attitude judgment is the most extreme position within that person's "latitude of acceptance," within which assimilation effects will make your position seem more like their own. Beyond this latitude lies the latitude of rejection, within which any position will be seen as more different from one's own due to contrast effects.

Attitudes and prejudices in the workplace

In our age of globalization the understanding and explanation of attitudes and prejudices has become crucial. Prejudice is a particular form of attitude. It is a negative evaluation of a group of people defined by such characteristics as social class, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, and so forth.

An important component of prejudice is the existence of stereotypes—reduced and often distorted beliefs about the characteristics possessed by members of a particular group. Stereotypes are examples of the heuristics that guide us through many of our social encounters. One reason we tend to view outgroup members negatively is our use of the available heuristic: Negative behaviors are often more vivid than positive ones, and outgroup members are more noticeable. Thus, when outgroup members commit an illegal act, we are more likely to notice it and to remember it. We then incorrectly conclude that the behavior is a characteristic of the outgroup as a whole. People also tend to apply the illusion of outgroup homogeneity. Although they realize that their own group contains members who are very different from each other, they tend to view members of other groups as rather similar. Obviously, this tendency contributes to the formation of stereotypes.

Prejudices often lead to discrimination—actual behaviors injurious to the members of the group. Intergroup conflict, such as war or gang violence, often has at its core ethnocentrism, or the belief that one's own group is superior to or more deserving than another group.

Attitudes and Education

Educational psychologists often use the concept "positive mental attitudes" which can be interpreted "Our attitude determines our altitude." Development of positive attitudes about oneself, or self-esteem, and others generally facilitates the accomplishment of goals.

Each person has many attitudes. These attitudes can be divided into two main groups: the way things are, "realities," and the way things should be, "values." For personality growth, an individual should not focus just on their realities, but on their hopes and dreams for what can come to be—what they value. Character education aims to develop value-based attitudes, personality integrity, and fundamental character strength based on "true values" of life.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

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