Attitude: Social Psychology

Social psychologists often refer to attitude as people’s evaluation of almost any aspect of the world.

According to Murphy and Murphy attitude is primarily a way of being set towards or against certain things.

According to Balwin, attitude is a readiness for attention/action of a definite pattern.

Attitudes can also be defined as a mental/neutral state of readiness organized through experience influencing dynamically/directly the individual’s response to all objects and situations with which it is treated.




Types of attitude
The Implicit Association Test is often used to assess whether the associations people have between a group or object are positive or negative.


  1. Attitudes always imply a subject object relationship. They are associated with ideas, ways and external objects. It’s always related to definite stimulus situations.
  2. Attitudes in relation to objects, persons and values may / may not have motivational appeal initially. Gradually individuals through social interactions develop either positive/negative attitudes which develop upon their experience and need.
  3. Attitude give direction to one’s behaviour and actions. Because of a particularly positive attitude the organism either approaches it or because of a negative attitude avoids it.
  4. Attitudes are coloured with motivational and evaluative characteristics. A favourable attitude is considered as having some positive values while a negative attitude is looked upon as having unpalatable and negative implications.
  5. Attitudes are not innate but learned, acquired and conditioned. They grow in society in the minds of men through various modes of training.
  6. Attitudes is never neutral. It can be either positive or negative, favourable/unfavourable, palatable/unpalatable. Thus, it’s always coloured with some sort of emotion.
  7. Attitudes have affective properties of varying degrees. They are linked with the feelings and emotions like pleasant, unpleasant, fear, love.
  8. Attitudes are more/less enduring organisations/enduring states of readiness. Thus, attitudes once formed are relatively stable, consistent and permanent and can be normally predicted.
  9. Attitudes can be changed depending upon the circumstances, experiences and information through various processes of communication/through direct interaction.
  10. Attitudes have cognitive, affective and behavioural components.
  11. Except few, most of the attitudes are clustered or related to each other.
  12. Attitudes range in the number and variety of stimuli to which they are referred. The strength and the range of an attitude depend upon the strength of the experience and learning of the organism.


  1. ADJUSTMENT FUNCTIONS : The holding of a particular attitude leads to reward or the avoidance of punishment. It is the utilitarian/instrumental function of attitude which motivates the person to adjust with the environment to gain social approval and support of family, friends and neighbours.
  2. VALUE EXPRESSION FUNCTIONS: On the basis of identification with parents and other relatives the child develops certain personal values and self concepts. These values are integrated in the form of different attitudes. Attitudes helps in expressing these values. The individual gets satisfaction by expression of attitudes appropriate to his personal values.
  3. KNOWLEDGE FUNCTION: This is based on the need to understand, make sense and give adequate structure to th e universe. Attitudes have a cognition function in the sense that they help in understanding things properly for sake of quick adjustment.
  4. EGO DEFENSIVE FUNCTION: It provides protection against the knowledge and acceptance of basic unpleasant truths about disease, death, weakness, insecurity, frustration, unemployment, illness and various other harsh realities of life.


  1. LEARNING ATTITUDES BY ASSOCIATION: Students often develop a liking for a particular subject because of the teacher. Because the positives qualities of a teacher gets linked to the subject and ultimately results in liking of the subject. Hence, positive attitude is learned through positive association between  teacher and student.
  2. LEARNING ATTITUDES BY BEING REWARDED/PUNISHED:  If an individual is praised for showing a particular attitude, chances are high that s/he will develop that attitude further. For example: If a child constantly falls ill because s/he eats junk food instead of proper meals, then the child is likely to develop a negative attitude towards junk food,  and a positive attitude towards eating healthy food.
  3. LEARNING THROUGH MODELLING (observing others): Often it is not through association or through reward and punishment, that we learn attitudes. Instead, we learn them by observing others rewarded or punished for expressing thoughts, or showing behaviour of a particular kind towards the attitude object. For example, children may form a respectful attitude towards elders, by observing that their parents show respect for elders and are appreciated for it.
  4. LEARNING ATTITUDES THROUGH GROUP OR CULTURAL NORMS: Very often, we learn attitudes through the norms of our culture/group. Over time, these norms may become part of our social cognition, in the form of attitudes.
  5. LEARNING THROUGH EXPOSURE TO INFORMATION: Many attitudes are learned in a social context, but not necessarily in the physical presence of others. Today, with the huge amount of information that is being provided through various media, both positive and negative attitudes are being formed.


1.The concept of balance :

Fritz Heider described the P-O-X triangle, which represents the relationship between 3 aspects/components of attitude. The basic idea is that an attitude changes if there is a state of imbalance between the P-O attitude, O-X attitude, and P-X attitude. This is because the imbalance is logically uncomfortable. Therefore, the attitude changes in the direction of balance.

When 3 sides are positiveWhen 3 sides are negative
When 2 sides are negative and one side is positiveWhen 2 sides are negative and one side is positive
P- Person whose attitude is being studied,
O- Another person,
X- The topic towards which the attitude is being studied(attitude object)
For e.g., In a family a child(P) wants to pursue psychology field (attitude topic X), means have a positive attitude towards psychology. But the father(O), doesn’t want his child to pursue psychology, thus has negative attitude towards psychology(O-X is negative).
If O has positive attitude towards P, the situation would be unbalanced. P-X is positive, O-P is positive, But O-X is negative. 
Means there will be two positive and one negative in the triangle, and the situation will become imbalanced.
Thus, one of the three attitude have to change. This could take place in P-X relationship (P starts disliking psychology), or in O-X  relationship(O starts disliking psychology as a carrier), or in O-P relationship (O starts disliking P).
Hence, an attitude change will have to take place so that there will be 3 positive relationship, or 2 negative and one positive relationship, in the triangle.

Hence, an attitude change will have to take place so that there will be 3 positive relationships, or 2 negative and one positive relationships, in the triangle.

2.The concept of cognitive dissonance :

Proposed by Leon Festinger, emphasises the cognitive component. The basic idea is that the cognitive components of an attitude must be “consonant” (opposite of dissonant) i.e., they should be logically in line with each other. If the person finds that cognition in attitude is dissonant then one of them will be changed in the direction of dissonance.

For e.g., 
Cognition1: Alcohol is injurious to health.
Cognition2: I take alcohol.
Holding both the ideas or cognition will make any individual feel that something is “out of tune”, or dissonant, in the attitude towards alcohol
Therefore, one of the ides will have to change, so that consonance can be attained.
And in this example, in order to remove or reduce dissonance, He’ll stop taking alcohol(change cognition2), which would be healthy, logical and sensible way of reducing dissonance.

Festinger and Carlsmith, two social psychologists, conducted an experiment that showed how cognitive dissonance works. Both balance and cognitive dissonance are examples of cognitive consistency (two-component, aspects/elements of attitude, or attitude system, must be in the same direction). Each element should logically fall in line with other elements. If it does not happen, then the person experiences a kind of mental discomfort, i.e., the sense that ‘something is not quite right in the attitude system. In such a state, some aspect of the attitude system changes in the direction of consistency, because our cognitive system requires logical consistency

‘Telling a lie for twenty dollars’
After participating in a very boring experiment, a group of students were asked to tell other group of students waiting outside that the experiment was very interesting. And for telling this lie a group of student were given 1 $ and some got 20$.
The explanation was: the 1$ students changed their attitude towards the experiment because they experienced cognitive dissonance.
In the 1$ group,
The initial cognition would be:                                                                                                       
(Dissonant component)                                                                                                                 
“The experiment was very boring”                                                                                                   
“I told the waiting students that it was interesting”                                                                                  
“I told a lie for only 1$”
The changed cognition would be:
(Dissonance reduced)
“The experiment was actually interesting”                                                                                                                     “I told the waiting students that it was interesting”
“I would have not told a lie for 1$”

The 20 $ group didn’t experience cognitive dissonance. SO, they did not change their attitudes towards the experiment, and rated it as very boring.
 The cognition in 20 $(no dissonance) group would be :
“The experiment was very boring”
“I told the waiting students that it was interesting”
“I told a lie because I was paid 20 $” 

3.The two step concept :

According to S.M. Mohsin, an Indian psychologist, attitude change takes place in form of two-step:

  1. Identification: The target of change identifies with the source, means the target has liking and regard for the source. S/he puts her/himself in the place of target, and tries to feel like her/him. The source must have positive attitude towards target, regard and attraction becomes mutual.

2. The source herself/himself shows an attitude change by actually changing her/his behaviour towards the attitude object. Observing the source’s changed attitude and behaviour, the target also shows an attitude change through behaviour. This is a kind of imitation or observational learning.

For e.g., Preeti reads in newspaper that a particular soft drink that she enjoys is extremely harmful, also which is been advertised by her favourite sportsperson, whom she has identified herself with. Now, if he wants to change people perception towards the drink from positive to negative.
 For which he has to first show positive feeling towards fans, and then change his own drinking habit by substituting it with healthy drink(STEP 1). 
And if the sportsperson changes his attitude , then Preeti is also likely to change her behaviour and attitude towards the drink(STEP 2).


1. Characteristics of existing attitude :

The properties of attitude i.e., valence(positivity/negativity), extremeness, simplicity or complexity(multiplexity), and centrality or significance of the attitude, determine attitude change. One must also consider the direction and extent of attitude change. An attitude change may be congruent- it may be changed in the same direction as the existing attitude, or incongruent- it may change in the direction opposite to the existing attitude.

For e.g., Poster describing the importance of brushing one’s teeth would strengthen a positive attitude towards  dental care. But if people are shown frightening images of dental cavities, they may not believe the pictures, and may become less positive about dental care.

2. Source characteristics :

Source credibility and attractiveness are two features that affect attitude change. Attitudes are more likely to change when the message comes from a highly credible source rather than from a low credible source.

For e.g., If an adult wants to buy a smart-phone, then s/he will be more convinced if the an adult points out its features in an advertisement, rather than a school-going child. But if the buyer is him/herself a child then s/h will be more convinced by the advertisement. In some cases, products such as shampoo/cream, the sales may increase if they are publicised, not necessarily by experts, but by popular t.v/film figures.

3. Message characteristics :

The message is the information that s presented in order to bring about an attitude change. Attitudes will change when the amount of information that is given about the topic is just enough, neither too much nor too little. Whether the message contains a rational or an emotional appeal, also makes a difference.

For e.g., Advertisement of solar panels, may point out that it saves electricity and is economical (rational appeal). Alternatively the advertisement may say that solar panels wages are much cheaper than the electricity and saves money(emotional appeal).

The motives activated by the message also determines attitude change. For e.g., eating green vegetables may be said to make a person healthy and good-looking, or more energetic and more successful at one’s job.

Finally, the mode of spreading the message plays a significant role. Face-to-face transmission of the message is usually more effective than indirect transmission, as for instance, through letters and pamphlets, or even through mass media. These days transmission through visual media such as television and the internet are similar to face-to-face interaction, but not a substitute for the latter.

4. Target characteristics :

Qualities of the target such as persuasibility, strong prejudice, self-esteem and intelligence influence the likelihood and extent of attitude change. People who have more open and flexible personalities, change more easily. People with strong prejudice are less prone to any attitude change than those who do not hold strong prejudices. People who have low self-esteem, and don’t have sufficient confidence in themselves, change their attitudes more easily than those who are high on self-esteem. More intelligent people may change their attitudes less easily than those with lower intelligence.


Psychologists have found that there should be consistency between attitudes and behaviour when:

  1. The attitude is strong and occupies a central place in the attitude system,
  2. The person is aware of is/her attitude,
  3. There is very little or no external pressure for the person to behave in a particular way,
  4. The person’s behaviour is not being watched or evaluated by others, and
  5. The person thinks that the behaviour would have a positive consequence and therefore, intends to engage in that behaviour.
For e.g., In days when high caste were against lower caste, a low-caste family comes on the rent of high-caste family, without letting them  know that they belong to low-caste, and the higher-caste well behaved with them and showcased positive attitude towards them. Once few people asked high-caste that would they have actually allowed someone who belonged to low-caste to stay in their house, so the higher-caste people simply said never ever.
This response showed the negative response towards lower-caste, which was inconsistent with the positive behaviour that was actually shown towards the rented lower-caste.
Thus, attitudes may not always predict actual pattern of one’s behaviour.



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