Attitude Change


Attitude Change

Attitude Change

Attitudes are general evaluations of objects, ideas, and people one encounters throughout one’s life (e.g., “capital punishment is bad”). Attitudes are important because they can guide thought, behavior, and feelings. Attitude change occurs anytime an attitude is modified. Thus, change occurs when a person goes from being positive to negative, from slightly positive to very positive, or from having no attitude to having one. Because of the functional value of attitudes, the processes that change them have been a major focus throughout the history of social psychology.

What is Attitude Change?

An attitude is a predisposition to respond cognitively, emotionally, or behaviorally to a particular object, person, or situation in a particular way.

Attitudes have three main components: cognitive, affective, and behavioral. The cognitive component concerns one's beliefs; the affective component involves feelings and evaluations; and the behavioral component consists of ways of acting toward the attitude object. The cognitive aspects of attitude are generally measured by surveys, interviews, and other reporting methods, while the affective components are more easily accessed by monitoring physiological signs such as heart rate. Behavior, on the other hand, may be assessed by direct observation.

Behavior does not always conform to a person's feelings and beliefs. Behavior which reflects a given attitude may be suppressed because of a competing attitude, or in deference to the views of others who disagree with it. A classic theory that addresses inconsistencies in behavior and attitudes is Fastener’s theory of cognitive dissonance, which is based on the principle that people prefer their cognition, or beliefs, to be consistent with each other and with their own behavior. Inconsistency, or dissonance, among their own ideas makes people uneasy enough to alter these ideas so that they will agree with each other. For example, smokers forced to deal with the opposing thoughts "I smoke" and "smoking is dangerous" are likely to alter one of them by deciding to quit smoking, discount the evidence of its dangers, or adopt the view that smoking will not harm them personally. Test subjects in hundreds of experiments have reduced cognitive dissonance by changing their attitudes. An alternative explanation of attitude change is provided by Daryl Bem's self-perception theory, which asserts that people adjust their attitudes to match their own previous behavior.

Attitudes are formed in different ways. Children acquire many of their attitudes by modeling their parents' attitudes. Classical Conditioning using pleasurable stimuli is another method of attitude formation and one widely used by advertisers who pair a product with catchy music, soothing colors, or attractive people. Operant Conditioning, which utilizes rewards, is a mode of attitude formation often employed by parents and teachers. Attitudes are also formed through direct experience. It is known, in fact, that the more exposure one has toward a given object, whether it is a song, clothing style, beverage, or politician, the more positive one's attitude is likely to be.

One of the most common types of communication, persuasion, is a discourse aimed at changing people's attitudes. Its success depends on several factors. The first of these is the source, or communicator, of a message. To be effective, a communicator must have credibility based on his or her perceived knowledge of the topic, and also be considered trustworthy. The greater the perceived similarity between communicator and audience, the greater the communicator's effectiveness. This is the principle behind politicians' perennial attempts to portray themselves in a folksy, "down home" manner to their constituency. This practice has come to include distinguishing and distancing themselves from "Washington insiders" who are perceived by the majority of the electorate as being different from them.

In analyzing the effectiveness of the persuasive message itself, the method by which the message is presented is at least as important as its content. Factors influencing the persuasiveness of a message include whether it presents one or both sides of an argument; whether it states an implicit or explicit conclusion; whether or not it provokes fear; and whether it presents its strongest arguments first or last. If the same communicator were to present an identical message to two different groups, the number of people whose attitudes were changed would still vary because audience variables such as age, sex, and intelligence also affect attitude change. Many studies have found women to be more susceptible to persuasion than men, but contrasting theories have been advanced to account for this phenomenon. Some have attributed it to the superior verbal skills of females which may increase their ability to understand and process verbal arguments. Others argue that it is culturally determined by the greater pressure women feel to conform to others' opinions and expectations.

The effect of intelligence on attitude change is inconclusive. On one hand, it has been hypothesized that the greater one's intelligence, the more willing one is to consider differing points of view. On the other hand, people with superior intelligence may be less easily persuaded because they are more likely to detect weaknesses in another person's argument. There is, however, evidence of a direct link between self-esteem and attitude change. People with low self-esteem are often not attentive enough to absorb persuasive messages, while those with high self-esteem are too sure of their own opinions to be easily persuaded to change them. The most easily persuaded individuals tend to be those with moderate levels of self-esteem, who are likely to pay a reasonable amount of attention to what those around them say and remain open enough to let it change their minds.

The medium of persuasion also influences attitude change ("the medium is the message"). Face-to-face communication is usually more effective than mass communication, for example, although the effectiveness of any one component of communication always involves the interaction of all of them. The effects of persuasion may take different forms. Sometimes they are evident right away; at other times they may be delayed (the so called "sleeper effect"). In addition, people may often change their attitudes only to revert over time to their original opinions, especially if their environment supports the initial opinion.

The information-processing model of persuasion, developed by psychologist William McGuire, focuses on a chronological sequence of steps that are necessary for successful persuasion to take place. In order to change listeners' attitudes, one must first capture their attention, and the listeners must comprehend the message. They must then yield to the argument, and retain it until there is an opportunity for action—the final step in attitude change.


Balance theory describes the structure of people’s opinions about other individuals and objects as well as the perceived relation between them. The central notion of balance theory is that certain structures between individuals and objects are balanced, whereas other structures are imbalanced, and that balanced structures are generally preferred over imbalanced structures. Specifically, balance theory claims that unbalanced structures are associated with an uncomfortable feeling of negative effect, and that this negative feeling leads people to strive for balanced structures and to avoid imbalanced structures. An example for a balanced structure is when your best friend also likes your favorite rock band; an example for an imbalanced structure is when your best friend dislikes your favorite rock band. According to balance theory, the first case makes you feel good, whereas the second case creates an uncomfortable tension.

Theoretical Assumptions

The original formulation of balance theory was designed to describe the pattern of relations between three individuals. Such relation patterns between three objects or individuals are often referred to as “triadic” relations. From a general perspective, a triadic relation between three individuals includes (a) the relation between a first person A and a second person O, (b) the relation between the second person O and a third person X, and (c) the relation between the first person A and the third person X (also described as A-O-X triad). In addition, it is assumed that the specific relations between two individuals can be positive (i.e., the two individuals like each other) or negative (i.e., the two individuals dislike each other). According to balance theory, a triad is balanced when it includes either no or an even number of negative relations. In contrast, a triad is imbalanced when it includes an odd number of negative relations. For example, the resulting triad of relations between Peter, John, and Paul would be balanced if (a) Peter likes John, John likes Paul, and Peter likes Paul; (b) Peter likes John, John dislikes Paul, and Peter dislikes Paul; (c) Peter dislikes John, John likes Paul, and Peter dislikes Paul; or (d) Peter dislikes John, John dislikes Paul, and Peter likes Paul. However, the resulting triad would be imbalanced if (a) Peter dislikes John, John likes Paul, and Peter likes Paul; (b) Peter likes John, John dislikes Paul, and Peter likes Paul; (c) Peter likes John, John likes Paul, and Peter dislikes Paul; or (d) Peter dislikes John, John dislikes Paul, and Peter dislikes Paul.

Even though balance theory was originally developed to explain patterns of interpersonal relations, it has also been applied to study attitudes and opinions about objects. For example, a triad including Sarah, Alice, and country music would be balanced if Sarah likes Alice, Alice likes country music, and Sarah also likes country music. However, the resulting triad would be imbalanced if Sarah likes Alice, Alice likes country music, but Sarah dislikes country music.

Over and above these assumptions for personal sentiments, balance theory assumes that a positive relation can also result from the perception that two objects or individuals somehow belong together. Conversely, a negative relation can result from the perception that two objects or individuals do not belong together. Such kinds of relations are typically called “unit relations.” Positive unit relations can result from any kind of closeness, similarity, or proximity, such as membership in the same soccer team, similar hair style, or same ethnic background. In contrast, negative unit relations can result from distance, dissimilarity, or distinctness, such as membership in different soccer teams, different hair style, or different ethnic background.


The distinction between balanced and imbalanced triads has been shown to have important implications for a variety of different domains. First, research has shown that the uncomfortable feeling associated with imbalanced patterns influences the formation of new attitudes. Specifically, it has been demonstrated that newly formed attitudes usually complete triadic relations in a manner such that the resulting triad is balanced rather than imbalanced. For example, if Sarah learns that a yet unknown individual is liked by her friend Alice, Sarah will form a positive attitude toward this individual. However, if Sarah learns that the same individual is disliked by her friend Alice, Sarah will form a negative attitude toward this individual.

Second, research has demonstrated a general superiority in memory for balanced as compared to imbalanced information. For instance, people show higher accuracy in recalling balanced patterns such as “Peter likes John, John dislikes Paul, and Peter dislikes Paul.” However, people show lower accuracy in recalling imbalanced patterns such as “Peter likes John, John dislikes Paul, and Peter likes Paul.” This difference in memory performance is even more pronounced when the triad includes the perceiver (e.g., “I like John, John dislikes Paul, and I dislike Paul”).

Third, balance principles have been shown to have important implications for people’s identity and the way people feel about themselves. Research in this area has shown that mental associations between the self and a particular group, evaluations of this group, and personal evaluations of oneself typically show patterns that can be described as balanced rather than imbalanced. For instance, if a Black person has a strong mental association between the self and the category Black, and in addition shows a positive evaluation of the category Black, this person will also exhibit a positive self-evaluation (that is “I’m Black, Black is good, therefore I’m good”). However, if a Black person has a strong mental association between the self and the category Black, but shows a negative evaluation of the category Black, this person will likely exhibit a negative self-evaluation (that is, “I’m Black, Black is bad, therefore I’m bad”). According to balance theory, this transfer of evaluations is due to the inherent “unit” between the self and the category Black.

Thanks for reading. 







Post a Comment