An attitude, in its simplest measure, is simply an individual’s positive or negative evaluation and/or perception of a noun (person, place, or thing). One purpose of this paper is to address theories of attitude formation through affect (emotion), cognition (information), and behavior. A second purpose of this paper is to discuss what functions or benefits attitudes serve individuals. Lastly, the potential influence of attitudes on behavior is explored.
According to Fazio and Olson (Hogg & Cooper, 2007), attitudes are formed through three processes: affect, cognition and behavior. This concept is a departure from earlier authors’ views of attitude formation. For instance, the tripartite (three-component) model of attitudes posited that each attitude included a component from each realm (affect, cognition, and behavior).
Affective Attitude Formation. Affect refers to emotion. Therefore, an attitude formed through affect has a strong emotional component. Processes involved in affective attitude formation are mere exposure, classical conditioning, operant (instrumental) conditioning (Hogg & Cooper, 2007, Fiske, 2010, Crisp & Turner, 2010), modeling and observational learning (Fiske, 2010).
In 1968 Zajonc discovered the phenomenon of mere exposure, which is the idea that “sheer frequency of encountering an initially neutral or positive stimulus, enhances evaluations of it” (Fiske, 2010, p. 239). For instance, my husband and I pass several decorative lamps in our complex each evening during our walk. According to the mere exposure effect, if my husband and I were provided a selection of lamps to review it is likely we would demonstrate a preference for a similar style of decorative lamp.
Another method of developing an affective attitude is instrumental (operant) conditioning, which is the well-known psychological theory of rewards and punishment (Hogg & Cooper, 2007, Fiske, 2010, Crisp & Turner, 2010). Specifically, a neutral stimulus occurs and by happenstance (environment), it is rewarded. This accidental pairing becomes unconsciously associated with the reward. Thusly, an individual would develop a positive attitude towards the original neutral stimulus. On the opposite end of the spectrum, an inadvertent pairing of a neutral stimulus with a punishment can also result in an instrumental association, resulting in a negative attitude towards the original stimulus.
Social learning theory provides insight into two similar processes of conditioning that result in affective attitude formation. Specifically, the process of modeling is similar to classical conditioning, and observational learning is similar to instrumental conditioning (Fiske, 2010). The difference between the two types of models is the unit of action. In classical and instrumental conditioning, it the person’s actions that result in conditioned responses. In the social learning models, conditioning is the result of observed or modeled behavior of others. For instance, a younger sibling observes the behavior of an older sibling that results in rewards and punishments, thereby influencing (conditioning) their own behavior. The sibling learns what to do to achieve rewards versus what not to do to avoid punishment.
Cognitive Attitude Formation. Cognitive theories of attitude formation trend toward more reasoned, informational approaches to forming an attitude. For instance, a person receives information, evaluates the information, and then decides their position. More specifically, “an attitude is formed on the basis of cognitions when one comes to believe either the attitude object possesses (un)desirable attributes, or that the attitude object will bring about (un)desired outcomes” (Hogg & Cooper, 2007, p. 125).
Fishbein and Ajzen’s 1975 Expectancy-Value Model posits a formulaic theory wherein “an overall attitude toward the object is reached by taking the sum of the expected values of all the attributes an attitude object is thought to have” (Hogg & Cooper, 2007, p. 125). As an example, my positive or negative attitude towards a person, place or thing is based on the sum of that person, place, or thing’s attributes. Therefore, my attitude towards owning a dog is determined by the sum of my evaluation of all of the possible attributes related to owning a dog – positives and negatives regarding breed, color, expense, habits, social norms, housing, travel, supplies, food, veterinarians, size, barking, and/or allergies. If, after evaluating all of the positives and negatives the determination adds up favorably, then my attitude towards owning a dog is favorable.
Behavioral Attitude Formation. Application of Bem’s 1972 Self-Perception Theory to attitude formation suggests that in situations where an individual’s attitude is unclear, the individual will reflect on their behavior for answers (Fiske, 2010, Crisp & Turner, 2010). Through attribution of their behavior to internal or external causes, an individual may surmise their attitude toward the object (person, place or thing) in question. For example, if asked what color clothing I prefer I could go to my closet and examine the predominant color of my clothing. Since I purchased the clothing personally I would attribute my clothing choices, including color, to an internal attribution (my preference). Although, there could be an argument for time of year, store selection and brand availability yielding a more external attribution, for the sake of argument, I will attribute the colors purchased to my free choice (internal attribution). Therefore, if my wardrobe is predominantly orange, I must have a positive attitude or preference for orange. Similarly, if I discover I own 15 pairs of almost identical black sandals, it is a safe assumption I like black sandals.
Clearly, people have attitudes, preferences, likes, and dislikes. Why? What purposes do attitudes serve? How are the beneficial? The research evidences several predominant functions of attitudes: utilitarian, knowledge, object-appraisal, ego-defensive and value-expressive (Hogg & Cooper, 2007, Fiske, 2010, Crisp & Turner, 2010).
Attitudes serve a utilitarian function in that attitudes promote our basic survival in the most simplistic terms (i.e., rewards and punishments) (Hogg & Cooper, 2007). For example, a negative attitude towards dark alleys serves as a safety mechanism because it is possible that something bad could happen in a dark alley. Similarly, a positive attitude towards work helps us to get along with others (Crisp & Turner, 2010), improve our social and economic position, and live a higher quality life. In fact, Fiske (2010) states the utilitarian function is “using attitudes to further one’s specific self-interests” (p. 233).
In a similar vein, attitudes serve a knowledge function in that development of attitudes helps humans make sense and meaning, determine cause and effect, and essentially understand daily occurrences (Hogg & Cooper, 2007, Crisp & Turner, 2010). Fiske relates the knowledge function directly to object appraisal stating “the clearest function of attitudes is object appraisal, which fits our core social motive of understanding: Attitudes categorize entities, so the person can decide which to approach or avoid” (p. 232).
Attitudes serving an object appraisal function align with the use of heuristics and a cognitive miser approach to same. For instance, heuristics are developed to theoretically aid in automaticity, save cognitive time and physiological stress required to make complicated judgments and decisions in every situation. Attitudes serve a similar function in that “knowing what one feels, and therefore not having to struggle with one’s judgments and decisions, relieves stress” (Fiske, 2010, p. 232).
Two other functions of attitudes are value-expressive and ego-defensive. Ego-defensive attitudes serve as defense mechanisms when an individual encounters a potential threat to their positive sense of self or self-concept (Hogg & Cooper, 2007). Value-expressive attitudes are representative of an individual’s important beliefs; those they believe are representative of their self-identity (Hogg & Cooper, 2007). Fiske (2010) states, “value-expressive functions align with important standards or social approval; value-expressive attitudes represent one’s identity, either publicly or privately” (p. 234). Fiske (2010) further suggests that value-expressive functions serve to facilitate belonging (core social motive) in social groups.
Attitudinal Impact on Behavior
Attitudes have a tremendous impact on behavior because they essentially establish an individual’s most basic likes and dislikes toward every possible person, place, or thing. These positive or negative attitudes influence every aspect of life: family, career, money, religion, and politics, to name just a few big life issues. Attitudes also directly alter our behavior. For instance, our attitude towards the homeless will determine whether we stop and give someone money on a street corner or donate to a homeless charity. Similarly, the function of a particular attitude can also alter behavior. For instance, given a scenario in which my attitude is anti-smoking and my boss requests my presence outside while he smokes a cigarette, the function being served by my attitude will likely determine my behavior. If the anti-smoking attitude is highly value-expressive, it is unlikely I will meet him outside. If the anti-smoking attitude serves a knowledge based function due to awareness of potential dangers smoking causes, then it is possible I will meet my boss outside, especially if I also maintain a utilitarian attitude that favors being employed and the importance of keeping the boss happy. On the other hand, assuming an expectancy-value model approach, I could very well (unconsciously) evaluate the positives and negatives of all of the various attributes, factors and embedded attitudes and come to a conclusion for or against meeting with my employer outside. (Something to mull over the next time my boss requests my presence while he is smoking).
The overarching purpose of this paper is to provide the reader with a demonstration of my analysis and synthesis of information with respect to attitude formation, function, and impact on personal behavior. Therefore, in this paper, I discussed several important functions attitudes serve in an individual’s life, including object appraisal, utilitarian, knowledge, value-expressive and ego-defensive. Additionally, I presented methods of attitude formation through affective, cognitive and behavioral processes. Lastly, I discussed a few ways in which attitudes influence behavior.
Crisp, R. J., & Turner, R. N. (2010). Essential social psychology (2nd Ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
Fiske, S. T. (2010). Social beings: Core motives in social psychology (2nd Ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Hogg, M. A., & Cooper, J. M. (Eds.). (2007). The Sage handbook of social psychology (concise student Ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.