Attitude: Social Psychology

An attitude is a state of the mind, a set of views, or thoughts, regarding some topic (called the ‘attitude object’), which have an evaluative feature (positive, negative, or neutral quality). Psychologists define attitude as a learned tendency to evaluate things in a certain way. This can include evaluations of people, issues, objects, or events. Individuals may have different learning processes and conditions, resulting in different attitudes. Social psychologists often refer to attitude as people’s evaluation of almost any aspect of the world.  

Murphy and Murphy explain attitude as a way to set oneself towards or against certain things. According to Balwin, attitude is a certain pattern of readiness for attention or action. In Warren’s view, an attitude refers to the mental disposition toward an incoming experience that determines how the experience is modified or the degree of preparation for the experience. Attitude, according to Cantril, is a state of readiness of mental organization that increasingly indicates a characteristic way in which a person will react to any given object or situation.

Difference between attitude, belief and values:

Opinion or stances about a certain subject matter or person.Conviction or acceptance that something exists or is true, especially without proof.Moral principles or moral ethics or standard of behavior.
Directly influenced by person values.Grow from what we experience and think about.Directly influenced by family, friends, culture, religion, and social interactions.
A part of a person’s personality.Assumptions we make about others and ourselves.A part of a person’s character.
We can control, change and learn.Affect moral and values.Affect behavior and character.
Example: Confidence (can do/cannot do).Example: Lying is bad, Cheating is immoral, god created the world, etc.Example: Loyalty, fairness, courage, respect, etc.
Difference between attitude, belief and values:

Why are attitudes important?

Attitudes strongly influence two major aspects of our lives:

  • Social thought– the way we think about social information and social behavior– for example: protesting, voting, and interpersonal realtions.
  • Attitudes are pervasive: We hold attitudes about virtually all topics, which range from major to minor issues.

Component of attitude:

Attitude is accompanied by the thought component referred to as the cognitive aspect, the emotional component known as the affective aspect, and the tendency to act is called the behavioral (or conative) aspect. Taken together these three aspects have been referred to as A-B-C (Affective, Behavioural, Cognitive) components of attitude.

  • Affective: Feelings about the attitude object
  • Behavioural: Predisposition to act towards the attitude object in a certain way.
  • Cognitive: Belief about the attitude object. Any given attitude may be based in lesser or greater amounts on nany of these components.

For example, An individual who has a strong attitude towards mental wellness would feel passionate about the topic, promote and have a behavior that is in line with this and his/her thoughts would be reflecting towards this.


Functions of attitude:

  1. ADJUSTMENT/ UTILITARIAN FUNCTIONS: A person’s attitude is governed by the utilitarian/instrumental function to gain social acceptance and the support of family, friends, and neighbors by adjusting to the environment. This helps us to earn rewards and refrain punishment.
  2. VALUE EXPRESSION FUNCTIONS: Children attain certain values and views of themselves as a outcome of their recognition with their parents and other relatives. Those values are then expressed in several attitudes. Such attitudes reflects the values. A person feels content when he expresses attitudes appropriate to his values and provides freedom to express who we are and what we believe in.
  3. KNOWLEDGE FUNCTION: This roots from the wish to perceive, make sense, and set an adequate structure within the universe. Attitudes have a cognition function in which helps in understanding things with the motive of quick adaptation.
  4. EGO DEFENSIVE FUNCTION: It secures the knowledge and acceptance of basic awful truths about the disease, demise, weakness, insecurity, frustration, unemployment, illness, and various other hard realities of life. Thus, enabling us to project internally-held conflicts onto there (e.g., homophobia).

Characteristics of attitudes:

Attitudes are an analysis of different aspects of the social world. The degree to which we express positive/negative responses to issues, plans, individuals, etc., are more persistent than choosing preferences and are also highly unsusceptible to change. Other characteristic features are:

  • Valence (Positivity or negativity): This tell us whether an attitude is positive or negative towards the attitude object.
  • Extremeness: It indicates how much positive or negative an attitude is.
  • Simplicity or complexity (Multiplexity): This defines number of attitudes within a broader attitude.
  • Centrality or significance of the attitude: This defines the role of a particular attitude in the attitude system. An attitude with much centrality shall influence other attitudes in the system more than non-central (or peripheral) attitudes would.

We should also examine the direction and extent of attitude change. An attitude change might be congruent if it changes in the same direction as the existing attitude. On the other hand, an attitude change may be incongruent if it changes opposite to the existing attitude.

Types of attitudes:

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

How attitude formation takes place:

  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.

Factors influencing attitude formation:

  1. Family and school environment: Play an important role in early years. School level textbook and peer group have a great impact in attitude formation. People learns while observing others around. When someone whom you’re attached or greatly admire projects a particular attitude, you are more likely to develop beliefs around it. For example: Childrens spending a great time while being young, observing the attitudes of their parents, and imitating them.
  2. Reference groups: It refers to the acceptable behavior and ways of thinking in a society. Social norms/ social roles can greatly influence attitude. Soial norms are the standardised rules for what is considered appropriate and what is not. Social roles are the ways people are expected to behave in a particular role/context.
  3. Personal experiences: Many attitudes are formed through direct personal experiences which influence and directs attitude towards people and our own life.
  4. Media related influences: Advance in technology has made audio-visual media and internet a very impactful source of information that is leading to attitude formation and change as well.
  5. Classical conditioning: The way advertisors use it to direct our attitude towards a particular object/product. In Tv ads we see young beautiful people/actors/influencers having fun in a beach enjoying a sport drink. Such attractive and appealing imagery develops a positive association with that particular beverage. For example: Salman Khan promoting Thums up.
  6. Operant conditioning: This can also be used to influence the way attitude develops. Like for say, imagine a men who just started drinking. Whenever he brings in alcohol people/family memberscomplain, criticise, and ask him to leave their vicinity. Such negative feedback from closed one is likely to cause an unfavourable opinion of drinking and ultimately giving up the habit.

Ways to bring consistency in attitudes (Theories of attitude):

1.The concept of balance :

Fritz Heider (1958) 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. P is the person whose attitude is being studied, O is another person and X is the topic towards which the attitude is being studied (attitude object). It is also possible that all three are persons. A balanced state is one in which the entities comprising the situation and the feelings about them fit together.

We prefer balance in our environment over the imbalance. We know balance when we see it. The system we inhibit tends to become balanced one way or the other. When there’s an imbalance in the environment, stress to change is produced.

When all 3 sides are positive,All three sides of the P-O-X triangle are negative,
When 2 sides are negative and one side is positive.Two sides are positive, and one side is negative.
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 relationship, in the triangle. The theory is simple and used extensively.

2.The concept of cognitive dissonance :

Proposed by Leon Festinger (1957), Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony (or dissonance). This theory starts from the idea that we seek consistency in our beliefs and attitudes in any situation where two cognitions are inconsistent. 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.

Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors. This produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance, etc.

This theory states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational and sometimes maladaptive behaviour. According to Festinger, we hold much cognition about the world and ourselves; when they clash, a discrepancy is evoked, resulting in a state of tension known as cognitive dissonance. As the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it and achieve consonance. The concept of cognitive dissonance emphasizes the cognitive component

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 steps. The target is the person whose attitude is to be changed. The source is the person through whose influence the change is to take place.

  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).

Factors that influence attitude change:

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 determine 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, for instance, through letters and pamphlets, or even through mass media. These days transmission through visual media such as television and the internet is 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.

Attitude behaviour relationship:

Psychologists have found that there should be consistency between attitudes and behavior 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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